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It is true, and trivial, that the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump drew a smaller crowd than Barack Obama's. There are any number of reasons that it might have worked out this way and it simply doesn't matter. A quarter million people (the most common reported estimate based on the evidence at hand, which Trump says is unfair) is still a lot of people! And the inauguration crowd size is indicative of nothing more than the size of the crowd for the inauguration — it's not a meaningful measure of Trump's popularity one way or the other, and it doesn't change the fact that he won the electoral college fair and square or that he lost the popular vote.
Our Peevish Leader, however, has led a public temper tantrum over the matter over the weekend, demanding that reality bend to his ego. He made laughably outlandish claims about the size of his crowd, without evidence, yesterday in his speech at the CIA (he also denied saying things that he had indisputably said). It's a sad hangup, and he sounded like a despot trying to prop up his cult of personality with obvious lies. Be that as it may.
More bizarre was, as Leslie noted yesterday, that Trump sent out Press Secretary Sean Spicer to his first press availability, if you can call it that, with prepared remarks that were almost exclusively made up of bald-faced lies about this irrelevant size anxiety. "That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period," Spicer lied. Spicer angrily lectured the assembled media like an over-caffeinated vice-principle, saying, "let's go through the facts" and then making a series of statements that were clearly untrue given easily verifiable photographic evidence, D.C. Metro data, and so on. It was brazen and grotesque, at least by American standards: a very angry apparatchik sputtering that 2 + 2 equals 5. In an almost unthinkable show of weakness, Spicer then high-tailed it out of there without taking a single question.
Spicer was presumably doing Trump's bidding (the prepared statement sure sounded like Trump was behind it). As far as I'm aware, no one has tried to lay out any sort of reasoned argument that Spicer was telling the truth. You can't, at least assuming that the truth exists in any meaningful sense, because the assertions he was making were obviously just completely made up.
It's not exactly breaking news that politicians don't always tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Political communications teams exaggerate, spin, obfuscate, and hide. Politicians make promises they can't keep or keep secrets that they shouldn't or twist the evidence to fit their argument or mislead with rhetorical sleights of hand. You can easily come up with prominent examples from past presidents of both parties. And there will always be shades of gray and controversies of interpretation. But I think it's worth pointing out that Spicer's performance was something altogether different. He made clear-cut claims about known, objective, empirical facts that do not comport with reality. He made stone-cold-lie assertions in direct contradiction to publicly available, easily verifiable evidence. This was the Press Secretary — in a taxpayer-funded job in a taxpayer-funded forum meant to communicate with the country — not just directly lying to the American people, but engaging in nakedly up-is-down propaganda. This was Baghdad Bob. This wasn't an attack on the media, as some said. This was an attack on free-thinking citizens and on the notion that truth is anything other than whatever Trump says it is.
Today, Trump's senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, doubled down with an attack on the very idea of objective reality. Sounding a bit like an undergrad hopped up on half-baked postmodern theory, Conway didn't bother to defend Spicer's false assertions on the merits, she simply said that they were "alternative facts." Well. There you have it.
I get that among at least a subset of his base, disdain for the media is so high that Trump can't lose at this game. But this is no way to govern a democracy. This particular obsession of Trump's over crowd size is dumb, a waste of his precious time, and beneath us all. The preposterous handling of it, however, suggests that the Trump administration will make the same demands that Americans surrender to their "alternative facts" on matters of actual import — health care, ethics, the economy, war. They will show the same contemptuous indifference to the truth, the same propagandist's zeal for muddying the record. They will lie and lie and lie. They will try to undermine anyone that holds them to account. They will try to delegitimize any institution that tells truths they don't want to hear. They will insult our intelligence. They will not aim to convince us but to grind us into submission. Based not on reason but on the notion that their power is more enduring than the truth.
This is a familiar tactic of totalitarian regimes, of course, and in fact, Spicer’s rant sounded like a despot scolding a state-controlled press in a totalitarian regime. But this is not a totalitarian regime. We have a free press. So reporters can report the facts that Spicer doesn't want to accept. We can see lies as lies. We can name and shame them. We can tell the truth. We can be vigilant.