Take Trump “seriously but not literally.” That’s a piece of wisdom coined by reporter Salena Zito, and it’s used by Trump’s defenders to brush off whatever bout of rhetorical diarrhea has plagued his Twitter account lately. There’s truth to it: It’s not worth paying attention to every conspiracy theory and wild musing Trump fires off in the wee hours after watching Fox & Friends. Yet the media continue to turn the volume up to eleven over such tweets.
This week’s episode of Trump Tweets centered on Trump’s accusation that President Obama had wiretapped him at Trump Tower. The media, naturally, quickly decried Trump’s statements: There’s no evidence that Obama approved a wiretap aimed at Trump personally, even though there have been a bevy of media reports suggesting that the Obama Department of Justice sought FISA warrants in order to tap some of Trump’s associates. The media suggested that Trump’s accusations had caused catastrophic harm to faith in our governmental institutions — indeed to the functioning of the republic itself. Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC lamented, “This is not funny. This is really bad. . . . We are at a low point in American history, and I don’t know how anybody can defend this president, even if it’s their job.”
The premise underlying such logic is simple: What the president says matters.
But here’s an admittedly unconventional theory: What if it shouldn’t?
In the early days of the republic, no one much cared what the president had to say on a day-by-day basis. Sure, Americans knew about President Washington’s Farewell Address. They heard about inaugural speeches. But nobody much cared about the day-to-day verbiage uttered by the occupant of the White House. In the 1850s, Americans could read about the Lincoln–Douglas debates, but only a few thousand could attend them. And presidents were constitutional officers, not avatars of the popular will.