How To Get A Head On A Pike Without Really Trying

Do we take this seriously? Literally? How about plausibly deniable and dangerous?

So here's the most alarming bit of news in US politics to come out overnight: 


First, let's throw in some caveats.

We don't know who the "confidant of the president" is or whether they were paraphrasing or quoting directly, nor whom they would have been paraphrasing or quoting. It could be that this colorful turn of phrase is just another way of saying the GOP were "given their marching orders" or told "it's my way or the highway" or "vote correctly or your ass is grass". If word leaked out a Trump confidant was saying that GOP Senators had been told "vote for Trump or your ass will be on a silver platter" I don't think there'd be anyone thinking the White House was contemplating cannibalism as a punishment for disobedience.

Here's what I think the most likely scenario is: the White House put pressure on Republican Senators to vote the right way and were told that if they didn't, they would face the wrath of Trump during an election year. Someone close to the action then characterized this using a colorful turn of phrase.

That's what I think is the most likely scenario. That doesn't mean it happened. It's within the realm of possibility, given who we're dealing with, that the exact phrase was actually used in conversation with Republican Senators.

Here's why it still matters: the sentence "the White House put pressure on Republican Senators to vote the right way and were told that if they didn't, they would face the wrath of Trump during an election year" is horrifyingly wrong regardless of what specific words were used to communicate the threat. And whoever originated the "head on a pike" wording and whatever they meant by it... I mean, those words have now been said and that bell can't be unrung.

Back during the last campaign, a journalist named Salena Zito famously suggested the media's mistake was taking Trump literally but not seriously while his fan base takes him seriously but not literally. In her view, the press was fighting with ghosts and punching fog when they acted like the policies he laid out or the numbers he cited were supposed to mean anything. The point was that he cared about the issues that connected to people, not that he was going to do anything so ridiculously overblown as try to ban travel from Muslim countries or build a wall on the border.

Zito later wound up in some hot water when people pointed out how many of her blue collar red state swing voters were actually Republican party officials and how many of her chance conversations with voters at gas stations had an air of Jacob Wohl sharing overheard gossip at his famous hipster coffee shop, the one where all the Latte Liberals admit in hushed tones that they like this Donald Trump fellow.

And of course history has not borne out her advice. Sure, you shouldn't believe that Trump means everything he says. His promises are worthless and his word means nothing to him. He'll do what he wants to do.

But he's not shy about telling us what he wants to do, and he doesn't like being told that he can't or shouldn't. If he says he’s going to do something short-sighted, self-serving, and/or destructive, we’ve got to be ready for him to do it, seriously and literally.

"Heads on pikes" is something I've actually had on what I guess you'd call my own internal bingo card for a while now. Given the wannabe tough guy mobster businessman crowd he exemplifies and the cultural saturation of Game of Thrones, it's felt inevitable that sooner or later it would be bandied around.

The thing I've been watching for is not when it's bandied around by insiders or would-be insiders to describe political machinations, but when or if Donald himself starts slinging it around in his speeches. It's a progression from his rhetoric where the media and the opposition party and anyone who isn't with him is an enemy of the people, it's a continuation of his themes of war and "they're coming for you".

The phrase entering the national discourse even in this sideways sort of way brings us closer to that escalation. The idea is out there. He's going to see how it grabs his followers... I think they'll be in love with it, honestly. He's going to see how it "triggers" and "owns" his enemies. He's going to hear how the rhetoric is inappropriate and unpresidential and he really shouldn't say things like that.

So I will not be surprised if we hear it more.

Will he mean it figuratively or literally? 

Figuratively if that gets the job done, literally if necessary. He'll say he was joking, he's a kidder, he jokes if called out for it, and then add half a second later, "But it's kind of a good idea, right?" If any violence follows, the ones who did it will say that obviously it had all been a big joke but his enemies were so deranged they tried to treat it as a real threat and in doing so backed Trump into a corner. 

We shouldn't consider the things Trump says to be literal or serious, but plausibly deniable and dangerous.

Thank you for reading.

Share