What We Talk About When We Talk About Crowd SizePhoto by Mario Tama/Getty Politics Features Donald Trump
I’m sick of the crowd argument. And I’m sick of the arguments about the crowd argument. Whenever an argument goes meta, it’s time to shut up, step off and get back to basics. This is why couples can fight for hours about who put the dishes away. It’s not about the dishes, Roger.
And yet. Here I am. Writing. Meta meta, right?
Nah, I’m trying to get back to the basics. Because you have to admit there’s something absolutely fascinating about this diaper fight, childish as it is. We know that at its heart this argument isn’t childish at all. It’s the first head-to-head fight between the press and Team Trump about Trump’s lies as President. The bell for round one.
On day one.
In Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom (which is okay in some parts, I guess), there’s a scene where a pretty despicable character, about to cheat on his wife, accidentally swallows his wedding ring. He gets too drunk to perform, though, and the next day has to rummage through his own waste to find the ring. That’s the task at hand here.
Here’s the rummaging-through-shit part
I don’t know if this should go without saying, but if you aren’t aware, this is an absolutely insane thing for an administration to keep lying about. To defend it—over and over and over—for days, with desperation, palpable anger, disdain, and petty resentment that persisted even through Sean Spicer’s “make-up” conference.
So let’s get the worst part out of the way: Trump’s inauguration had much smaller crowds than Obama’s in 2009. And crowds at Women’s March in D.C. the very next day dwarfed the inauguration. The pictures should say it all, but if you don’t trust the optics, there are lots of other metrics. For example, on Inauguration Day, D.C. Metro clocked lower ridership than on an average weekday. Ridership was nearly double that the next day for the Women’s March.
If you want to pick a bone with any of this, please read this first.
But what about screens? According to Sean Spicer, it was not the most viewed in history, “period.” First, you can’t quantify that claim. Tracking views only counts for times videos were started. Lots of problems there. But what about those digital views CNN officially clocked, Sean? The extra 17 million or so you cited as evidence at your peace-pipe conference, right? That when added to the Nielsen total that put Trump over Obama and even over Reagan, right?
Well. CNN counted 21 million digital views of Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Which, yes, tanks that claim.
Oh, man—I forgot. That CNN streaming number for Obama doesn’t even count iPads! Know why? There weren’t any. It was 2009. He had more streams, and on fewer devices.
What the fuck is wrong with you?
And what the fuck is wrong with me? Why am I going to such lengths here?
Before I go on, I’d like to admit that there is good reason for the right wing to not trust the mainstream media. The media has done some wrong things in the past eight years. They didn’t push back on the Obama administration’s concocted narrative about the Iran nuclear deal. They didn’t immediately slam Obama for the “you can keep your doctor” line. They didn’t cover some events, such as the IRS scandal (remember that?), as heavily as the right wing would have liked. We can argue about how important those stories are, how much weight they should have, but the fact is that it’s quite reasonable for the right wing to approach the media skeptically.
But the media has a code. When they get something wrong, they correct it. That’s not a lie. Or “fake news.”
The president has no clothes. But when the child calls him naked, it does not matter. This should startle you. At least the emperor was capable of honesty.
Make the crowd disappear
First, let’s remove the “crowd” from the crowd argument. That will reveal more.
This was a White House staking its entire credibility—on day one—on a batshit defense that an alternative source provided them with information they trusted unquestionably but for some reason wouldn’t share. They didn’t apologize later and adjust for their error when presented with a ton of competing and more reliable evidence. The didn’t bring forth the evidence they say they got from their source or try to make an argument for why it was a better estimate. They didn’t say why our own alternative facts to theirs were wrong, let alone prove it.
They lied. About bullshit. For days. And Spicer, for all the mending he did accomplish on Tuesday with his tone, actually just kept that alternative narrative running. He never formally apologized.
“Lie” is a charged word. It implies intent. There’s an outside chance the initial statement wasn’t a lie, but just cherry-picking a convenient report without verifying it because you’re scared you’re totally wrong or that crowd size is part of your priapic preoccupation with yourself that you think nobody notices. I get that, Mr. President. But to continue telling that story for days in the face of facts that you have seen? That’s a lie. If only lying to yourself.
It’s even more meaningful than that though. Let’s put the crowd back in.
It was insane that, outside of Inauguration Day, our president’s first message to the public was to rage about a conflicting report about how many people watched him talk in the rain about how shitty their country is. He even lied about the rain. And the President of the United States of America—who wears a toupee; just think about that again—chose to do this in front of a sacred memorial to dead government agents from an institution he very publicly likened just weeks earlier to Nazis.
On the first morning he woke up as president, he publicly insulted more than half the country he’s supposedly leading for exercising their constitutional rights. A better man would have joined them in the streets, in constitutional solidarity. That would have gone a long way to shutting people up.
Instead he fixated on a wound from something completely insignificant. This is the President of the United States of America.
This is a proxy argument for something bigly—yugely—important.
And the query of yuge import? The very underpinning of democracy: Talking normally with other human beings.
He demeans everyone in the country he leads each time he takes time out of his day to rage about some perceived slight against him, many dating back months or even years. Crowd size at his rallies; losing the popular vote because of millions of illegal ballots; the DNC possibly being hacked by a guy from New Jersey; climate change; not feuding with the CIA to the CIA’s face in front of a wall honoring their dead—many of whom had families who will never know what they were even doing—whom he only weeks earlier likened to Nazis.
A speech that he also used to slam a member of the media for reporting erroneously that Trump removed a bust of MLK from the White House. And this is a great point of contrast.
First, that’s a highly explosive accusation on the reporter’s part. And because of the gravity of it, I’d argue he was way too quick to spread the word without being totally sure. But that reporter, Zeke Miller of Time Magazine, didn’t actually publish the claim—he shared it with the press pool. When he learned of his mistake, he immediately corrected it and apologized. To the president. Sean Spicer accepted the apology, then lied and said Miller only apologized to his colleagues. In one tweet, that was indeed what Miller said. But in fact he’d also apologized directly to the president. The White House did not apologize for lying and then arguing like babies about it for days.
And that’s the difference between the two. Oh, also, the media isn’t crafting policy for the most powerful country in the world.
In that CIA speech, Trump also said, literally, that “God looked down and he said, ‘We’re not going to let it rain on your speech.’” That is provably not true. What’s more, the minister who spoke after him said the rain on Trump was a blessing from God. Trump said the fucking sun came out.
What we have here, my friends, is the stuff of a dictator. It’s in places like North Korea that the sun shines even when it’s raining.
What we have here, my friends, is a cult of personality forming around a man who has pathologically lied to himself about himself for so long and so frequently that his neuropathic channels are made of brain cement and act powerfully and reflexively to any perceived slight. This is a man who lives in an alternative world. That is to say, an imaginary world. That is to say, detached from reality.
Just go through his twitter feed.
Now, this man can be very funny and quite entertaining. He can actually be quite smart, and I do believe he is. But this psychological disorder constantly hijacks his intelligence. Our president seems to have an addiction to himself. A Trumpaholic, and cable news is his roulette wheel.
This becomes a real problem when, as we just saw, Donald Trump took a personal grievance and justified an executive order to set it right. He has for months now pushed a baseless claim—pathologically—that “between one and three million illegal votes” cost him the election. This is not just a four-pinocchio statement. It’s an example of Trump taking a personal injury, devising an imaginary story in which he isn’t injured, and using that fiction to justify a national policy that will affect millions of people and alter the democratic process. This, my friends, is fucked up.
McCullough vs. Clancy
When such a man is on a TV show, the problem doesn’t affect anyone beyond himself and those close to him. But when that man is constructing a national narrative based on his own imaginary world in which he is only a prisoner of his skull-sized kingdom, a narrative that the people around him begin to repeat to other people who, seeing that power equals credibility, believe without asking many questions, we are in deep trouble.
When you think about that for a few moments, you’ll understand why everyone has been talking about crowd size, whether they know why or not.
And now we’ve gotten through all the shit and arrived at the wedding ring: We’re not arguing about the truth. We’re arguing about the value of truth. No, we don’t even use the same systems for deducing the truth. We have entirely different stories. If the White House just agrees to disagree about true statements and move on, they are setting the stage for an ongoing story that is truly dangerous: The truth doesn’t matter.
You guys say one thing happened, we say another. Oh well! Let the people decide. (People: The press are the most dishonest people on earth.) It’s like one side of us is drawing conclusions about American history from David McCullough and the other from Tom Clancy.
The phenomenon of this polarization is actually probably as old as politics. But something has changed: The digits that carry your words to your twitter followers—that are carrying my words to you—they don’t give a shit about the truth. And in recent years, the polarization has literally gone viral: The internet allows us to move more information faster and farther and wider than we can even comprehend. Any kind of information. From anyone. With equal power.
This isn’t division now. It’s multiplication. We’re multiplying the divide.
Should this split keep multiplying (and it will, now that our thumbander-in-chief’s tweets could cross international law), it will undermine democracy.
As I wrote in a piece about fake news a couple months back, “post-truth” is incomplete. It gets us halfway there. We’re working from belief and information systems that are incapable of talking to each other. We are post-logic. If we can’t find some common place to start from, our dialogue is doomed and with it our voice and, soon enough, our democracy.
We already have a case in point. Trump just this week put a gag order on all executive agencies: They can’t share information with Congress, the press or the general public. If the administration can suppress that narrative, Trump’s narrative has no competition. It’s the only one going.
“It seems we’ve never been more divided,” said everyone in America. But the divide has always been there. Look at Obama. Look at W. Look at Clinton. Hell, look at the Civil War. Shit, look at the flag: Thirteen bars, fifty stars—it’s incoherent.
Fuck: Look at the name of the place: The United States. Plural. They even used to say “the United States are…” Not “the United States is…”
At some amazing moment, though, that changed.
But that moment seems to have been swift indeed. Because I know we’ve never been more divided in my lifetime. No Trump supporter has ever reached out kindly to me. I’ve reached out kindly. From the top down, same story. Am I crazy? To my liberal friends: Have you been approached by a Trump supporter, on his or her own initiative, to try to mend things? I’d love to hear that story. Truly. If you’re a Trumper and want to kick it, hit me up: @rlongennamer.
For the record, I don’t blame Trump. Well, not entirely. I believe he has a problem and I sort of feel bad for him. I blame everyone around him who knows better. They’re legitimizing a false narrative for the sake of power. And in this new reality there are new laws or, right now, no laws. They’re actively being written. And they’re gonna be so phenomenal, just unbelievably phenomenal laws. Laws like you’ve never seen before. Trust me.