The Trump administration must be at war, because—fittingly enough—truth was its first casualty, when Trump and his aides lied about the size of the inaugural audience.
Lying is nothing new regarding Trump, and this particular reaction was fully predictable; after all, there had been a movement for weeks to deny Trump a large audience, given his obsession with relative size and his agitation when anything else is even suggested. People knew it would cheese him off, and they knew he would react this way.
And sure enough, the Trump inauguration was poorly attended and not as viewed as many inaugurations past. The inaugural “parade” had few if any attendees at all; stands were empty, and the route was almost deserted. The inauguration ceremony itself was crowded only at the front; the massive throngs from Obama’s first inauguration dwarfed Trump’s, famously shown in comparison images. The New York Times even showed that the 2017 Women’s March just days earlier beat the inauguration in crowd size.
Trump only did halfway decently in terms of his Neilsen ratings, which he made much of on Twitter—but a quick reference to the Neilsen site shows that Trump’s inauguration rated only 5th in recent history, behind Reagan, Obama, Carter, and Nixon, in that order. Trump had to resort to comparing his numbers favorably to the numbers of Obama’s second inauguration, events for which recent presidents enjoyed only half of the numbers of their first inaugural.
So, Trump blustered about his numbers. So what? The man is obsessed with comparative size, nothing new there. So what’s the fuss?
The problem comes up when you factor in the official administration response to the issue, and—more importantly—to the tone set by the administration’s first press conference.
When Sean Spicer, Trump’s brand-new press secretary, held his very first conference on the first full day of the Trump presidency, he greeted the press corps with a pack of lies.
That also may be nothing new, but there is a big distinction: the Trump administration’s lies were blatant. And by “blatant,” I don’t mean the normally blatant lies where you know they’re lying but they could present the thinnest-veiled attempt to make it seem like there is some small kernel of truth involved somewhere.
No, by “blatant” I mean that Spicer made claims that were easily proven as wholly contrary to obvious fact. So obviously false that the media, which almost never calls what politicians say “false,” began pointing out the lie immediately; the New York Times, for example, published the shockingly blunt headline, With False Claims, Trump Attacks Media on Turnout and Intelligence Rift.
Spicer claimed that “420,000 people used the D.C. Metro public transit” on the day of the inauguration, relative to 317,000 for Obama in 2013. That was verifiably false; D.C. Metro had reported that ridership in 2013 had been 317,000 by 11:00 am—and that the figures for Trump’s day by the same time was only 193,000. Full-day figures for Trump were only 571,000, compared to 1.1 million for Obama in 2009 and 782,000 in 2013.
Spicer made many other provably false claims, but you get the idea. The lies were so transparent that even Fox News called them out on the lie. Fox is normally the perpetrator of exactly that kind of lie; when they call you a liar, you know you’ve been schooled.
This comes after several weeks of Trump sparring with the media, calling any outlets he doesn’t like “fake news,” and—after an abortive attempt to move the press corps out of the White House—even hinting that future press conferences will deny entry to some news organizations or reporters.
The situation was not made any better when Kellyanne Conway, when challenged with Spicer’s fake numbers, retorted, “You’re saying it’s a falsehood and Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
And there’s the headline: “Alternative Facts.” It pretty much crystallizes not just the Trump administration’s approach to the truth, but the approach by much if not most of conservative politics over the past several decades.
Newt Gingrich made this clear when being interviewed on CNN during the GOP convention. When he claimed that the crime rate was up, CNN reporter Alisyn Camerota pointed out that his statement was wrong:
CAMEROTA: But violent crime across the country is down.
GINGRICH: The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer.
CAMEROTA: But it is. We are safer and it is down.
GINGRICH: No, that’s just your view.
CAMEROTA: It’s a fact. These are the national FBI facts.
GINGRICH: But what I said is also a fact. … The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are.
CAMEROTA: But what you’re saying is, but hold on Mr. Speaker because you’re saying liberals use these numbers, they use this sort of magic math. These are the FBI statistics. They’re not a liberal organization. They’re a crime-fighting organization.
GINGRICH: No, but what I said is equally true. People feel more threatened.
CAMEROTA: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.
GINGRICH: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians.
See? Alternative Facts. Some people were startled by this at the time, but this is actually very much unsurprising to anyone who has been paying attention to something called “The Narrative.”
The Narrative is a neoconservative strategy to lead public opinion where they want. It is, in short, the string of lies told by conservatives to create a sense of reality that serves conservative interests. It’s nothing new; it even predates Ronald Reagan’s infamously mythical Welfare Queen. It’s what both Bush administrations used to create a false sense that Iraq was just months away from creating nuclear weapons, and what was used to make so many believe that we actually did find WMD in Iraq, or that Saddam Hussein was in bed with al Qaeda. It’s what conservatives used to make so many of their number believe that Obama is a Muslim, a communist, and Kenyan-born. It made 47% of Republicans believe that Obamacare “death panels” actually existed, and made 49% of them believe that ACORN stole the 2012 election for Obama despite the fact that ACORN no longer even existed. And, thanks to the strongly negative reaction to Sanders’ treatment in the Democratic primaries, it even spilled over into liberal territory regarding The Narrative’s long history of smears against Hillary Clinton.
The Narrative is incredibly effective. Even if it does not convince everyone, it convinces a very large number of people—mostly conservatives, but a lot of independents, and even some liberals—and makes a huge difference in the political realities reflected in how government works.
The new shift in The Narrative is not that we’re somehow just beginning to hear blatant lies—but that’s been going on for years. Reagan’s Welfare Queen was an out-and-out lie. However, Reagan’s lies were not so easily proven to be lies. Reagan never named the woman he spoke about, leaving just enough deniability to cover him with the press. Bush 43 never specifically stated that Saddam Hussein was involved in 9/11—he made the implication crystal clear, but never in a way that anyone could point to and claim that Bush had made a definitive statement.
The press has always been extremely cautious in its wording regarding this. Even with the outright lies Trump has been spewing, you will note that the word “lie” is not used, not by the mainstream press. The reason is that the word “lie” implies that Trump knows it’s a lie—and we can’t be 100% sure that he doesn’t in fact believe it. So they stick to the word “false.”
What’s new, really, is that the Trump administration is lying in a way that can easily be shown up. They produce numbers which are easily checked, and then call them “alternative facts.”
What has not been determined yet is whether this in fact makes a difference. After all, it was perfectly clear that Obama was not born in Kenya—but still, millions of people believe otherwise.
In addition, with so much distrust generated by conservatives over the accuracy of the media, it would not be surprising at all if the bare-faced nature of the Trump administration’s lies made no difference at all.
In the NBC interview, Conway not only called Spicer’s words “alternative facts,” but initially swatted away the accusation of falsehood by making a big deal about the fact that one reporter tweeted that Trump had MLK’s bust removed from the West Wing. It was not a lie—the bust had been moved and was hidden from view by people standing in front of it, and the reporter soon retracted the tweet—but Conway used that one claim to create a false equivalency, apparently somehow an excuse which relieved the Trump administration press secretary from any responsibility for reporting the truth.
And while that argument was as paper-thin as it was childish, it nevertheless likely resonated with Trump’s audience, and may have actually worked to a great degree.
Time will tell as to how Trump’s new approach to The Narrative works.