The debate about President Trump’s relatively small inauguration crowd seems trivial. With the pathologically narcissistic Trump, it seems to be but a harbinger of how petty his presidency will be. Yet, this dust-up points to something far more troubling. It is an early indicator that Trump’s presidency will be marked by a fundamental practice of autocratic regimes: dismiss all negative facts, intimidate the press for reporting those facts, and insist that the public accede to an alternative universe of fake facts for assessing how they are being ruled. Trump’s approach to facts and the press is plainly autocratic. He constantly calls the press dishonest, disputes facts as reported and offers delusional “alternative facts” without apology or almost never with retraction. The consequences are profoundly anti-democratic and perhaps even politically destabilizing. It turns out crowd size matters (bigly).
At the end of his first full day as President, Trump dispatched his press secretary Sean Spicer to make a statement in the White House press room claiming that the press was being dishonest, even manipulating photos, in order to deny Trump’s claims that the day before on the Washington Mall there was what Spicer called “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.” Spicer was stating a bold-faced lie and most people not only knew it but then reported it as untrue (including, Fox News).
This topped off a day that demonstrated a pattern, established by Trump himself years ago as a con-man swindler, continued by his campaign about Barack Obama not being born in the U.S. and accelerated during his run for the White House. On the first full day of his presidency, Trump went to the CIA to tell the spy-agency employees seated there that the “dishonest press” had invented his having a feud with them. Trump conveniently never mentioned that he had accused the spy agency of using “Nazi” tactics when the press got hold of an unconfirmed report about Trump’s multiple ties to Russians: financial, political, cyber and sexual. Trump used the crowd size issue as another example of how dishonest the press was. He would not stop focusing on the issue of his popularity, going on to claim that most of the spy agency employees had voted for him (though he told them not to raise their hands). The whole point seemed to be about how he was more popular than the press let on. He did all this in front of the Wall that honors those agents who gave their lives to defend the country. It seemed to be tone-deaf to say the least. Trump claimed now to be united with the agency and wanted to let the assembled audience know it had his full support. (It remains to be seen if any investigations into Trump’s behavior will sustain that commitment to fully back the agency.) He told his first lies as President, on his very first full day in the office. It was an inauspicious beginning. Former CIA chief John Brennan said Trump should be ashamed of himself for going there and telling lies just to puff himself up. Trump was showing that nothing was more sacred than his self-image.
The next morning Presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway went on multiple national television news shows to defend Spicer by saying that he was not lying but merely using “alternative facts.” Her straight-faced performance was Orwellian. Up was now down and vice versa. She was “gaslighting” the public, telling them to believe her not their lying eyes. The speed and insistence of the multiple lines of defense being deployed by the Trump Administration was impressive. And evidently it was all in response to Trump’s sensitivity about the slightest indication he is not as popular as he needs to be to satisfy his craven desire for adulation.
It is as if the whole Trump Administration is organized to be expeditiously deployed as needed on a regular basis to defend the President’s lies about his greatness. In fact, the audacity of the pushback implied that a key operating principle of the Trump Administration is centrally focused on getting the public to dismiss generally agreed upon facts and enlist people to join Trump in believing in his alternative universe.
This disdain for the facts arguably goes beyond the personal peccadillos of the new president. There is precedent for this presidential disdain for facts. Back in 2002, with the campaign to build support for war with Iraq, an aide to then-President George W. Bush told Ron Suskind that the problem with reporters like him was that they lived “in what we call the reality-based community. [You] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality. That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Conway’s “alternative facts” is therefore a politically significant locution calling us to embrace this alternative reality that the president’s myth-makers create for us to believe in.
The rapid deployment of top spokespeople therefore points to something much larger than winning a trivial argument over crowd size. If the Trump Administration could be so quickly and forcefully mobilized to pushback about such a minor issue as this, what does this say about how they would approach factual disputes about more serious issues like the effects of tax cuts, deregulation, ending Obamacare, pulling out of the multi-lateral Paris Accords climate change agreement, or even going to war again?
Insisting on your own facts to get what you want is natural pose for a narcissistic demagogue like Trump. It comports nicely with his need to present an alternative reality that legitimates himself as the sole person who can stand up to the world on behalf of the people. Only his personal vision will do the job. From his Republican Party nomination speech in Cleveland back in July 2016 to his inaugural address in January 2017, Trump has proclaimed that only he knows what the people want, and he alone can give it to them. He will take on the Washington establishment on behalf of the people. While there is populism in that demagoguery, there is fascism as well.
This kind of populism where the strong man stands for the people is quintessentially fascistic. Hannah Pitkin wrote years ago about the concept of political representation, defining a particular type of fascistic representation: the leader defines the people rather than the other way around. Hanna Pitkin explains: “Representation is not a process of extracting consensus by molding the state in the image of the subjects; rather the state molds the individuals into a cohesive body. The leader creates the unity of will among his followers out of his own inner resources, and aligns them to himself” (1967, pp. 107-08). Trump is performs fascistic representation all the time. It’s what demagogues do. It is what makes them demagogues. It is how they de-democratize their populism.
To be sure, “the people” should be interrogated as constructed, not pre-given in some falsely literal sense. Yet, the demagogue who uses a fascist form of representation sees the opportunity to construct the people in self-serving ways that end up consolidating his power. He then legitimates his regime as serving the public when it really serves his ability to rule autocratically. Using a fascistic understanding of representation, Trump enacts his demagoguery on behalf of rolling out what is starting to look like an American-style autocratic regime built in his image as a businessman who knows how to rule on behalf of what is best for the economic elite, even as he invokes “the people” as the basis for legitimating that regime. He has lined up a rogue’s gallery of elite cabinet appointments to oversee the agencies they oppose. They are set to counter what most ordinary people have supported, whether it is regarding taxes, business regulation, healthcare, the protection of the environment, etc. In spite of his constant invocation of acting for “the people,” Trump’s government is designed to re-mold “the people” to his autocratic vision. His approach is basically no different than that of his hero Vladimir Putin, the autocrat who rules over Russia with an iron-fist.
Compared to Putin, Trump’s fist is not as iron (at least not yet). It makes his demagoguery not entirely fascistic. Not all autocrats use violence as much as Putin to intimidate the press and maintain power. We can hope Trump never goes down that path. But he has started taking the first small baby steps in that direction by dismissing basic facts, intimidating the press and insisting that we believe in his alternative reality. It is frightening to think how far Trump will in fact go.
For now, most people do not see the dust-up on crowd size as anything other than a sign that Trump has a feud with the press. Some recognize it is a sign just how narcissistic Trump is. Others are just plain gobsmacked that the President of the United States could devote so much attention to vengefully attacking anyone who puts forward the slightest signs that he is not being totally loved. No occasion is too formal or serious for this President to turn it into a chance to sing about just how popular he is and to wail about those who do not agree. Witness his speech at the CIA that was mostly about crowd size and voter support from the spy agency employees and others.
Yet, this initial skirmish over crowd size is fraught with ominous implications for democracy. It is a warning sign that Trump’s presidency could be a real threat to liberal democracy. Admittedly, the U.S. political system has historically been less than ideal, not fully inclusionary and even highly discriminatory, especially regarding issues of race. Yet, a Trump presidency focused on insisting that we all accede to his alternative reality will be profoundly anti-democratic. Crowd size matters in ways that go well beyond Trump’s sensitivities about his lack of popularity.