Donald Trump has been inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States. At no time in our history has such a scoundrel held the highest office in the land. He is also now the most powerful person in the world — the head of state of a gargantuan national economy, and the commander in chief of the most advanced and deadly war machine that the world has ever seen. Trump’s temperament, his lack of knowledge, his displays of ego, and every other negative trait he showcased before, during, and after his campaign should fill people with fear for the future of the country, and perhaps the world. Unlike the freakout that consumed the right wing for the entirety of Barack Obama’s presidency, fear and concern about the Trump administration is not based on imaginary conspiracies or identity politics.
But this article isn’t about the big stuff. This isn’t about healthcare or Trump’s easy dismissal of NATO. This isn’t about cozying up to the Russian kleptocracy or assembling possibly the most unqualified, and most radical, cabinet in American history.
Rather, this article is about a little thing that lays bare how the administration will handle information during its time in the White House.
Last Friday, shortly after Trump was inaugurated, aerial photographs of the event began circulating, and it is clear to anyone with a pair of eyes that the crowd was much smaller than that which attended Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. News sites couldn’t help placing the two images side by side. Sometimes the tone was gleeful, with a touch of schadenfreude, but mostly it was presented as just a comparison of the two events.
The images imply, correctly, that Trump does not have the equivalent support of the people that Obama had. It also implies that Trump’s inauguration was not an ascendant moment for this country — one of those rare times when the reality of the United States lives up to our ideals. Indeed, Trump’s inauguration had the feeling of a defeat. For most Americans, there was nothing to celebrate on January 20th, so the crowds stayed away.
The Trump administration reacted to the news reports pointing out the smaller crowds. That was expected. Anything that appears to be a slight towards the greatness of Donald Trump merits a response, usually in the form of a string of deceitful tweets. But with the power of the presidency behind him, Trump conducted things a bit differently this time.
On Saturday, White House Press Secretary/Director of Communications Sean Spicer called the White House correspondents into the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room for the first time, and lied, repeatedly and demonstrably. These were not misstatements or a casual obscuring of the truth. There was no grey area in which Spicer could hide. Everything he said on that rostrum about the inauguration crowd was false, and there was no way Spicer could not have known that. He lied. And he lectured the press while he was doing it. In the very first briefing for this new administration Spicer was sent out before the press to lie about the facts and berate them for reporting those facts.
The video of the short briefing is amazing, and worth watching. Spicer stood in front of the microphones and his demeanor was confrontational almost immediately. First, he talked about the mistaken report that the bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office. It had not, and the administration was right to be annoyed at that false report, even though it had been retracted quickly. But citing that story was just a setup to a tirade about the size of the crowds on the National Mall.
Everything Spicer said, from blaming how the photographs were framed, to the coverings on the grass of the mall affecting the crowd’s appearance in photographs, to security measures that supposedly dampened crowd size, to numbers of riders on the DC Metro, to the ability of visual estimates to be made of crowd size, was false, and deliberately so, making those statements lies.
There are two possibilities regarding this press briefing. Both are awful, but one we are already familiar with.
The first possibility is that our new president has thin skin. We already know this to be true. The man cannot handle any statement or any fact that impugns his own sense of greatness. His ego is as fragile as it is gigantic, and it has only gotten worse since it was validated by winning the presidency. After all, here was a man who was dismissed as a clown until it became possible he could win. People, including me, have said vile things about him. How much of what has been said was true is beside the point. His character has been under attack since the 1970s, and despite of all this, he is now the president.
If he wasn’t going to let anything go by before he was president, he certainly won’t do it now, no matter how inconsequential it is to the big picture. Crowd size? Who cares? No one, really. There are plenty of other ways, which don’t require estimating crowd size, to weaken Trump’s mandate. The fact he lost the popular vote by 2.8 million votes will be hanging around his neck for this entire term, and wasting time haranguing the press over crowd size at the inauguration will not change that. It is very disturbing that our president doesn’t have the ability to pick his fights, and this was a small fight. All it has done is make him look bad.
Possibility number two is far more insidious, but it dovetails nicely with Trump’s natural inclinations.
Other than propping up Trump’s fragile ego, the briefing by Spicer, and appearances on the Sunday shows by Trump’s Counselor, Kellyanne Conway, show the Trump administration is going to use the tactics of disinformation to hold onto power. It’s a tactic used by the powers that be in Russia.
On Sunday, during an appearance on Meet the Press, Conway declared that Spicer had given ‘alternative facts’ in his short briefing. Conservatives, and the Republican Party, have embraced framing as a means to win voters. It’s something they’ve been doing since before Reagan. That’s why they never refer to ‘global warming,’ but instead to ‘climate change.’ It’s why they are ‘pro-life’ and not ‘anti-abortion.’ Framing works quite well when it comes to staking out a political position, but when it comes to facts, frames can only be dressed up so much. Therefore, the very definition of the word ‘fact’ has to change. Instead of a fact being something that is objectively true, facts become debatable. And if facts are something that can be debated, then the Trump administration has the upper hand, because it currently has power.
The reason why the lie over crowd size is so important is because it marks a strategy where the administration will attack every fact that is in conflict with its narrative, no matter how trivial. In so doing, it will run the press, and the citizenry, ragged trying to keep up with the administration’s lies and the truth. By eroding the value of facts the administration owns the debate, and can use that advantage to increase its power, and possibly win a second term. The administration is sowing doubt where there should be none, and that doubt can do nothing but help them. Facts are already of dubious value when it comes to winning votes, but excising them from an actual administration has the effect of perpetuating power.
In Russia, this assault on facts has been one of the many tools President Putin and this people have used to stay in power. The Russian people have a reputation for believing everything is a conspiracy, therefore it is impossible to know the truth. This isn’t something innately Russian, but the consequence of a century of disinformation, from the early days of the Soviet Union to today. In one simple press briefing — something that looked idiotic and amateurish on the surface — we see a weapon Trump has borrowed from his friends in Moscow, and will use to effect on us.