Does It Matter If Trump Was Joking?

The first point of pushback, including from Jonah, Kevin Williamson, and other thoughtful commentators on the Right, is that it doesn’t matter whether Trump was joking, because it’s damaging when the president says this sort of thing whether he’s joking or not, in part because some of his devotees will take him seriously. In one sense, I agree with this, and said so in my original post: Trump throwing this sort of language around is corrosive and bad for our public discourse even when it’s not meant to be serious. (One may note that a lot of bad consequences followed Obama “joking” about siccing the IRS on his political adversaries).

But, I still think it is important to highlight the fact that he was visibly not serious and playing the line for laughs. The line from a lot of liberal/progressive commentators is that this flap shows that Trump is literally Hitler: a tyrant and a bloody-minded authoritarian who wants to prosecute Members of Congress for failing to applaud him. That’s an argument that has consequences for how you approach Trump; if you believe it, it’s a valid argument for taking up arms against the federal government and shooting Republican Congressmen for ”collaborating” with him. Trump’s comments are, we should all agree, indefensible, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care why. It’s important to know whether or not such a serious charge is true, because it affects whether you treat Trump as a buffoon who is weakening the prestige and authority of the presidency or an incipient dictator who is strengthening it in dangerous ways.