The Trump era started out more creepily than I could have imagined.
From the dystopian inaugural address to that Sean Spicer catastrophe to the Kellyanne Conway “alternate facts” fiasco to the President’s Nero-esque performance at the CIA to Donald Trump’s own lies about the size of his… inaugural crowds and weather, it was a lot scarier than I thought it would be.
What did I expect? I didn’t expect much. But I didn’t expect this. These were not, to use a commonly employed euphemism of mainstream journalism, the “missteps” of a green new administration. These were deliberate acts that fell into two categories.
Category one includes acts of premeditation. For Spicer to go before reporters and say—and he didn’t just say it; he veritably spat it—that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” when it was just plainly obvious that it wasn’t, was pretty amazing. And then for Conway to follow it up on Meet the Press with that statement about the administration being in possession of “alternate facts” was doubly so.
It’s worth dwelling on this for a minute, because it describes the mindset at work here, and we need to get to know it and understand it. What, Kellyanne, could these “alternate facts” be? Did the Martians take pictures that none of the rest of us have seen and that in fact show that there were 300,000 more people there than our backward earth photo-technology was able to reveal? On Monday, Spicer said he really meant to refer to people watching the inauguration in all forms—on television, on video streams, and so on. But the dispute on Saturday was obviously understood to be about the attendance figures. Trump was just humiliated to be so badly outshone by Barack Obama—and especially by the anti-Trump march the next day, which drew a crowd at least twice as large.
Everybody fibs sometimes. But a lie like this is something different. It’s a whole ’nother dimension.
Then, second, there are the non-premeditated falsehoods. These mostly come from Trump himself. It stopped raining immediately when I started speaking, he said. No—it started raining when he started speaking; it was visible to any viewer that some on the podium started donning ponchos (it was a light rain that didn’t last long, but it was still rain). There was a huge rainstorm after, he said. No, there wasn’t. Again, the whole world could see this. And it’s not 20 blocks to the Washington Monument, and it obviously wasn’t packed all the way back to that point.
What is this mindset, exactly, that thinks it can get away with telling people, “No, what you just saw with your own two eyes never happened?” The George Bush crew famously mocked the “reality-based community” and insisted that “we create our own reality.” This goes much further. I’m not exactly sure what to call it yet, but let’s put it this way. On a scale running from “Iraq has WMD’s” to “Kim Jong Il shot a 39 on his first-ever round of golf, including four holes-in-one,” Trump’s inaugural lies were closer in spirit to the latter.
But a more important lie was delivered to us on Sunday, again by Conway. Not a lie, exactly; but an admission that a previous position, a position Trump and his apologists repeated 10,000 times, had in fact been a lie the whole time. Trump, she said, is now “not going to release his tax returns.” That whole audit business was a lie. Or not. She went back to the earlier lie, the one about the supposed audits that got Trump through the campaign, a day later.
The Trump team thinks it can bury the tax-returns issue, with comments like Conway’s that the people elected Trump and thereby told us they don’t care. But they do. Polls find that three-quarters of Americans say he should release them. The lawsuit filed Monday by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington is an attempt to make Trump disclose them and reveal the extent to which he’s in hock to Russia and China.
Related to this is ProPublica’s revelation that, contra Trump’s pledge at that press conference earlier in January that he had relinquished all management duties in the Trump Organization and that everything would be in trust by the time he became president, that hasn’t happened. Mind you, the steps announced at that press conference were inadequate to begin with, according to George Bush’s chief ethics lawyer, but even they hadn’t been taken by Inauguration Day.
[UPDATE: It was reported late in the day Monday that Trump did begin to remove himself from his business, filing papers in Florida to hand the hotel business over to son Eric.]
On the policy front, the groundwork was laid for dismantling the Affordable Care Act. CIA pick Mike Pompeo, as The Daily Beast was first to report, left the door open at his confirmation hearing to future water-boarding. The White House also invited Bibi Netanyahu to come to Washington as soon as next month, and—even as Spicer hedged on the subject Monday—word was that the White House was going to announce as soon as this week that it will be moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The embassy move and the full-throated support Trump is going to show for settlement expansion could spark a Middle East crisis fast.
A certain normalcy was achieved Monday as Trump met with business leaders to talk manufacturing and as Spicer took actual questions instead of just snarling out a statement and turning on his heel. There will be normal days. There will be days that even people like me will acknowledge were good days. Even governments far more evil than Trump’s (and yes, there are many of them) sometimes accomplish things.
But the first two days of this administration weren’t a misstep or an accident. They were a designed counter-reality. But so too was the reality of the largest-ever global rebuke to a sitting U.S. president.
As the counter-reality builds, so will the rebuke.