• Daniel Ethan Finneran

A Call to Take Things Both Seriously and Literally

March 2018


Heed not what he says. Pay attention, rather, to what he does. In so many words, that’s been the prescription for our ailing citizenry.


As it pertains to our comprehension and—if we could be so lucky—our ratiocination of President Trump, it’s the latter and not the former that really counts. For weeks and months and now years, ever since Trump infiltrated, enlivened, and forever changed the decadent politics of Washington, we’ve been told to take this president seriously but not literally. We’ve been urged to judge rather his actions than his words. But how seriously are we to take this newfangled measure by which we weigh a president?


I’ve always thought it to be a low and, frankly, childlike standard—one to which we would hold no other politician nor head of state. Would we not take General George Washington both seriously and literally in his as well as in our day? I could fathom no other way in which we might receive this characteristically stoic, laconic man. Even lesser presidents, the likes of a Hoover, a Pierce, or a Johnson—Baines or Andrew—would’ve deserved in their time our undivided, earnest attention. From them, through whom some of America’s most volatile and regrettable years did pass, we surely would’ve absorbed every message with a grave feeling of seriousness. Even President Bush the younger, however charmingly inarticulate he was at times, wasn’t a man to be taken figuratively; for all of his bonhomie and genial appeal, he demanded of most Americans their respect.


Not so with President Trump. To him, his administration has affixed this convenient disclaimer, this odd new casuistry required of a thoughtless neophyte: take him seriously but not literally. I say it’s convenient because it allows the administration proactively to dodge or punt away much of what the president says—publicly or behind closed doors. His press secretaries needn’t even hear the day’s most recent imprudent soundbite or the latest uninformed hit that dripped from his tongue. It could’ve been a harmless faux pas, a gigantic gaffe, or an astonishing display of ignorance, but their “seriously-literally” dichotomy is always easily within reach and they grab for it nearly every time.


The trouble is that the president can’t have it both ways. If we abstain from taking him literally, we cease to take him seriously. The two are inextricably bound. That said, so too does the reverse hold true, and so too does the corollary: if we understand him in one regard, we necessarily understand him in both. And I should think, as a clearly and, often, indulgently self-respecting man who’s endlessly and ravenously in search of legitimation, he wouldn’t want us to regard him in any other way. So, he must be taken both seriously and literally.


It’s only after acknowledging this that the ideas President Trump peddled around last week become particularly frightening. On two separate occasions within the span of one week, he suggested, as if it were readily feasible, the idea of abandoning due process in order to confiscate guns. In a desultory response to Vice President Mike Pence, who suggested before a bipartisan committee that the federal government consider adopting a “firearms restraining order”, akin to that used to promising effect in California, Trump responded that we might instead “take the guns first” and “go through due process second”. Even a few Democratic eyebrows raised at the thought of such a brazen, unconstitutional step.


He’s talking here not just about the unlawful arrogation of property—irrespective of just how lethal said property may be—but of the complete repudiation of a legal pillar upon which this country’s judicial system stands and has stood since Magna Carta’s day. To abandon due process, even if done so narrowly and within the confines of a select few extraordinary cases, would be to invite back to American soil the bygone vestiges of an omnipotent, unanswerable, and, ultimately, oppressive despotic mode of government—the very type from which we extracted ourselves nearly a quarter of a millennium ago. It would be to create a slippery slope, upon which countless other innocent citizens might soon find themselves ensnared, bereft of guns and then of rights. Due process, in such an unimaginable case, would become the exception rather than the rule.


Luckily, beside him sat a few conservatives, who in small ways and in fleeting moments, live up to the name. Keenly acquainted with the very basics of our history and the rudiments of our law, they jumped in to chasten Trump’s unprecedented proposal. And by unprecedented, I don’t mean merely a novelty, as far as anti-gun positions go, coming from the political right; I mean to say it is wholly unprecedented among the entire gamut of the political spectrum in American politics. Even President Obama couldn’t have been so bold as to mull over aloud on television the potential boon of implementing (by fiat, no less) a gun confiscation program that would ignore due process of the law. He might’ve sooner been impeached. But, in Trump’s toying with this very idea, hardly anyone outside of the gathered committee batted an eye. They mustn’t have been taking the president literally, a fatal lapse that could yet prove to be. Maybe they think he’s being facetious, frivolous, audacious, silly or some combination of the above. Yet should the president be given his way, we Americans might awaken tomorrow with one less unalienable right.


After that, during a White House summit intended to address the blight of the Rust Belt—known otherwise as the opioid crisis, or, less poetically, that pharmaceutical scourge ravaging much of middle America—Trump insouciantly suggested executing drug dealers for their crimes. In a comment that might’ve just as easily slipped through the lips of the great sanguinary Greek lawmaker Draco (who, in his time, regarded no crime—no matter its pettiness—of being undeserving of death) or Rodrigo Duterte (who, in ours, simply ignores all other alternatives), Trump reminded those in attendance that other countries (specifically, the Philippines) are employing “the ultimate penalty” in their treatment of convicted or suspected drug dealers to much success.


Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the first-time that Trump has fawned over Duterte and the bloody way in which he goes about his business in the far east: Trump is said to relish the “warm rapport” he shares with this barbarous Filipino puritan. It should be noted, however, that many of Duterte’s alleged drug dealers are just that. The delineation between alleged and actual, suspected and real, has, for all intents and purposes, disappeared in the mind of Duterte and from the Filipino legal code. So far as Duterte is concerned, incriminating evidence is, how shall we say, superfluous. Like whipped cream atop a Sunday or salt around a margarita’s rim, it’s satisfying but nonessential. In the span of three years, he’s overseen the deaths of more than seven thousand citizens. Comparing his quest to deracinate, once and for all, every last drug-addict and peddler from Manila to Makati, Duterte went so far as to speak admiringly of another head of state and mass-slaughterer from a bygone day. He reflected on the unsurpassed feat of Adolf Hitler for having exterminated six million Jews. Our new fascist of the Philippines pledged, as did the Fuhrer not so many years ago, to rid his country of the millions who are plaguing the streets, spoiling the pride, and impeding the forward progress of a once auspicious land.


The questions necessarily arise: is this really the model and the man upon which and upon whom President Trump would like to re-structure our criminal justice system? Is Duterte’s sanguinary, capricious, illiberal approach the best of all those that are possible when dealing with our narcotics blight? Is gratuitous execution the proper response to this intractable, systemic problem that includes, just beneath its ugly surface, many facets and many layers, from the over-prescription of the drugs by harried healthcare providers, to the eager advertisements by pharmaceutical companies, to the insidious importation of synthetic forms by Chinese capitalists capitalizing on the failures of our decrepit system? I don’t think that it is.


While he’ll never floor me with his intellect, I can hope to be soothed by the thought of him becoming more circumspect. But never will I, and neither should you, fail to take our president both seriously and literally. If, however, we do, and we agree to take him not at his word but at only his deed, we could be the first witnesses of a paradigm shift—one taking us from what was a harmless, specious patriotism to a subtle despotism. Just imagine, if you will, a scenario that would see those ideas with which Trump played (specifically, the confiscation of guns, the suspension of due process, and the murder of thousands by decree) come to fruition. They’d be combined, legitimized, and actualized and, without our noticing it, this great American experiment would come to its untimely end. By taking from the people their guns, the government’s use of force would be monopolized to the full; by rescinding from those same people their legal protections, they would be demoralized beyond repair; and by murdering them at a whim, without a chance for justice or a second-chance, they would be terrorized everyday. I want for my country none of these things, so I must take my president literally.

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