Unlike Pete Thiel’s rather dumb but oft-cited “seriously but not literally” formula, Dara Lind’s contemporaneous explanation of why that argument is so bad and self-serving holds up extremely well:
Thiel is using this “seriously, not literally” rhetoric to do something totally different, and a lot more willfully naive. He wants to replace the Donald Trump who actually exists — a figure who’s inspired the faith of millions and who now has a shot at winning the White House — with an imaginary Donald Trump who’s interested in breaking only the political norms that Peter Thiel thinks should be broken.
Thiel isn’t taking Trump “seriously”; he’s engaging in wishful thinking.
Trump distinguished himself from the rest of the Republican field because, unlike the Scott Walkers of the world, he didn’t feel the need to express himself within the conventional boundaries of policy. He made promises to fix the problems that people actually cared most about: a perceived invasion of immigrants who don’t share American values, and the protection of “traditional” (white) America from demographic and cultural change.
Instead of arguing for a “sensible immigration policy,” he called for a wall on the border and a ban on Muslims. Instead of expressing “benevolent sexism” (viewing women as fragile, domestic things in need of male veneration and protection), he plowed right into hostile sexism and open objectification, making it clear that women were useful only insofar as they were attractive and available to him.
Who is Peter Thiel to say that the policies that won Donald Trump the presidential nomination are somehow “code” for other things Thiel likes more, but that his trade policy is to be taken at its word? Who is he to know when Trump’s character is an accurate reflection of what he’d do as a president (“outsider”) and when it isn’t (sexist and perhaps a serial perpetrator of sexual assault)?
To take Trump seriously, you have to be willing to acknowledge why the people who support him take him seriously. You don’t get to elevate him to the presidency of the United States and erase the movement that would have carried him there. You don’t get to replace his actual constituency with your preferred constituency of one.
The idea that Trump isn’t to be taken literally might sound cynical. It’s anything but. In the hands of Peter Thiel, as a way to pretend that Trumpism in all its ugliness simply doesn’t exist, it’s monstrously naive.
As Weigel says, the impression that Trump didn’t really mean what he was saying was very valuable in keeping marginal Republican voters in the fold.
And, needless to say, Trump isn’t the only major Republican pol to benefit from this kind of thing — cf. also “Paul Ryan secretly favors the sensible [sic] fiscal reforms I favor, not the ones he has consistently and explicitly supported.” It’s hard to blame ordinary voters who won’t believe that Paul Ryan actually favors the policies he has always supported given how many paid media professionals refuse to believe the Republican Party is what it says it is. Trump might finally shatter this illusion, but not before doing incalculable damage.