During the 2016 presidential campaign, journalist and author Salena Zito observed that when it came to Donald Trump, “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” Zito deserves credit for coining a memorable phrase that certainly sounded plausible back when we were all trying to fathom how Trump won. By 2020, however, it was clear that Trump’s fans were, in fact, taking him literally. The Capitol insurgency that occurred after months of Trump claiming that 1) the election had been rigged and 2) we were losing our country was proof enough.
I’ve been thinking about Zito’s formulation a lot lately, in part because Trump is back in the news. He repeated false claims that the election was stolen, while also portraying insurrectionists as harmless fuzzballs to Laura Ingraham on Fox News. Dominion Voting Systems also just filed a $1.6 billion defamation suit against Fox News for advancing the canard that the election was stolen.
But it’s mainly been on my mind because of an assertion made by pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell’s own lawyers in her $1.3 billion Dominion defamation suit. They claimed that “no reasonable person” would believe the conspiracy theories spun by Powell. This puts to lie the whole “seriously/ literally” shell game that has been going on for the last five years. When people enter into the political arena, invent crazy conspiracy theories, and stoke violence and sedition, millions of Americans do take them seriously.