In the first days of Donald Trump’s presidency, significant moments occurred that could prove to be paradigmatic for the DURATION of his presidency. The first involved a meeting between Trump’s presidential press secretary Sean Spicer and the Washington press corps.
Spicer had been sent out from the Oval Office to berate the press for allegedly under-reporting the turnout for Trump’s inauguration the previous day. In the course of Spicer’s press conference no questions were allowed. While several falsehoods were presented. Central among them was the assertion “that this was the largest inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.”
In support of this falsehood came several others, one of them being that the number of people using Washington’s metro the day of Trump’s inauguration outnumbered those using it on the day of Obama’s second inauguration in January of 2009.
Yet the actual statistics subsequently obtained by The Washington Post tell a story very different than the narrative arising from the Trump White House. And what these statistics revealed is that metro users on the day of Trump’s inauguration were actually less than half than on Obama’s inauguration day in 2009.
Quite similarly, an analysis by The New York Times comparing photographs from Trump’s inauguration to ones taken of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, showed that Mr. Trump’s crowd was significantly smaller, and less than the 1.5 million people he claimed. An expert hired by The Times found that Trump’s crowd on the National Mall was about a third of the size of Mr. Obama’s in 2009. In sum, the nation’s two journals of record offered a vivid repudiation of Spicer’s contention.
This was getting things off to a bad start in the Trump administration’s relationship to the press—if not to truth itself. A theme that got reiterated while Trump appeared at CIA headquarters, where he also berated the press as “the biggest liars there are” while also complaining about the press underestimating the turnout at his inauguration.
Both Trump and his press secretary took a beating for this in the ensuing news cycle. And in the attempt to counteract this, Trump’s presidential counselor and resident spin-doctor, Kellyanne Conway, was sent out to right the spin the next day.
But what she said only made things worse--yet in a way that seems emblematic for the presidency of Donald Trump. For in the attempt to defend Sean Spicer’s falsehoods, the way Conway rationalized this was, that Spicer had merely presented “alternative facts.”
“Alternative facts” seems a jive kind of oxymoron. By which I mean, there are either facts, or their alternative. While conflating the two seems a Trumpian spin, on—and away from—the truth itself. Whatever happened to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
And I ask this, because “alternative facts”— in fact—are what Trump consistently gave us during the run-up to his presidency. And now that he’s been elected—apparently--we shouldn’t expect anything else. This pokes holes in the hopeful balloon that Trump the president would be a more palatable version than Trump the candidate.
Surely Trump’s long-held contention that Obama was never even born in the U.S. was an “alternative fact.” As was his primary campaign slur upon Ted Cruz, that Cruz’s Cuban father had been involved in JFK’s assassination. Trump’s telling us that global warming is but “Chinese propaganda” was an “alternative fact.” When Trump believed he was likely to lose the election, what he presented as fact is that “the election is rigged.” But the hits--the slaps against the face of what’s real-- kept coming…
When the consensual view of the heads of America’s 17 security agencies proclaimed in unison that the Russians attempted to influence the election, and likely in favor of Trump, Trump attempted to brush away this fact, and for weeks gave us an alternative version. Many of Trump’s obsessively abrasive tweets contain alternative “facts.” After the greatest actress of our generation lambasted him at the Academy Awards, the alternative truth about Meryl Streep becomes “she’s over-rated.”
There is a problem--a potentially SERIOUS problem--when the alternate to “alternative facts” is truth, or reality itself. When it comes to the enactment of either domestic policies or international relations, there are horrors that could result from a presidential administration operating on the basis of alternative facts.
This kind of propaganda—if that’s all it really is-- has been the hallmark not only of demagogues, but of regimes that this nation has traditionally opposed. It has thus been quite jarring, and appalling really, to many-- to now find this so central and unrelenting in the narratives appearing from our own White House.
In my own profession (psychotherapist) the term we apply to someone operating on the basis of “facts” alternative to reality, is "delusional." Only with Trump, what is not yet fully conclusive is whether he actually believes in his alternative facts, or whether he merely believes the majority of us are gullible enough to not know the difference.
And I don’t know which is worse--or more DANGEROUS. In “alternative facts,” are we seeing the continuing and blatant disregard of truth—or Trump’s continuing attempt to "rebrand" it. Is he a huckster propagandist trying to appease the base that helped elect him--or is he truly delusional. Or worse still, could he be both?
In any case, given Trump’s loose handling of facts—you know, the real kind—NEVER HAS THE ROLE OF THE PRESS'S FACT-FINDING MISSION BEEN MORE CRUCIAL TO THE WELL-BING OF OUR NATION, AND THE WORLD. Yet this is precisely why Trump continues to see the press as his adversary. Though this has also been the case with nearly everyone—and nearly every institution --that has not supported his grandiosity.
And this brings us to what is more conclusive: that it is Trump’s grandiosity—the belief that he is leading “a tremendous movement, the greatest movement in history”—that led him to feel so aggrieved by the reportage of the numbers attending his inauguration. The real numbers didn’t jive with his inflated, yet fragile sense of self-importance. Neither does the fact-- the real kind--that recognizes he actually lost the popular vote.
Not surprisingly, this is why the next alternative fact Trump is putting forward (following the “alternative facts fiasco” itself) is that he only lost the popular vote due to “several million illegal voters.” And since any perception of loss represents “a narcissistic wound” to the fiction of his omnipotent, winning self, the assumed culprits accounting for this loss is what he wants his administration to investigate next…
Here Donald, our Don, our American Don Quixote is tilting his sword at yet another windmill. What will be the next? What will be the next version of alternative facts--or the horrific policies that are their outcome?
Who can say?
But what has been said is that “character is destiny.” And the brittle, devaluing fragility of a narcissistic character has been--and seems destined to be-- the chief feature of his presidency.