It’s been an extraordinary three days on the American political scene. I didn’t set out to write a “political” blog but it’s impossible to be a citizen of the USA right now and NOT have something to say about this current political transition. I’ve lived here for just over 30 years, and DT makes my sixth president, but I’ve never seen anything like this.
Numbers and Alternative Facts
First came The Inauguration on Friday. Much has been made of the fact that the crowds on the Mall in Washington were much smaller than those at Obama’s first inauguration in January 2009. This is the comparison photo that’s gone viral.
Actually, DT’s crowd was more comparable in size to some earlier Republican inaugurations, which just goes to show how much energy and excitement there was around Obama back in 2009. According to politifact.com, crowd estimates for Obama in 2009 stood at about 1.8 million; the crowd at George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001 was about 300,000; and Bill Clinton’s in 1993 drew a crowd of about 800,000. Which puts the 250,000 – 600,000 estimated for DT’s crowds at about par for the course for a not-wildly-popular incoming president.
So, the attendance figures weren’t that exceptional — but the new administration’s reaction to reporting on those numbers certainly was. In one of the most whiny and bad-tempered press conferences I’ve ever seen, the new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, on Saturday claimed the turnout was “the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period” — something demonstrably false — then went after the media for their ‘misleading’ reporting.
Meanwhile, DT was paying a visit to the CIA headquarters where he said in his speech that the whole “feud” between him and the intelligence community had been created by the media: “They sort of made it sound like I had a ‘feud’ with the intelligence community,” he said. “It is exactly the opposite, and they understand that, too.” [As reported in the New York Times.] Another wild assertion that is demonstrably untrue.
The next day, the various Sunday morning “talking heads” political shows on TV had a field day with all this. But the real eyeopener came on the show “Meet the Press” which is broadcast on the NBC network. DT’s Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway was being interviewed by Chuck Todd; he pushed her repeatedly on the issue of Spicer’s clearly-false statements on Saturday about the size of the inauguration crowds. Conway said that these were not falsehoods: “Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.”
Within hours, “alternative facts” was trending across all social media.
It’s not at all unusual for a new administration to have some hiccups with communication in its early days; no press secretary or spokesperson is seasoned and polished right off the bat. But, to start your new administration by openly attacking the media and accusing everyone else of lying is so staggeringly inept that it defies belief. Fortunately, the collective media do not seem to be taking this lying down — if the major news outlets had gone after DT’s bombastic lies more thoroughly when he was campaigning, we might not be in this mess now.
Now let’s rewind for a moment to the inaugural speech itself. It always intrigues me how much pomp-and-circumstance surrounds the start of each new administration here. The contrast with a parliamentary system where governments come and go all the time is striking. (Only the French come close, with their hybrid political system that emphasizes the role of the president, and a love of ceremony and pomp to go with it.)
One of the highlights of the whole thing is the new president’s speech. These are mostly pretty dreadful affairs, full of empty froth about moving forward, with a dose of humble thanks for the previous administration and for ‘all those who helped to get us here.’ God features in there somewhere (this being a country where no political leader can make a major speech without invoking God in some fashion). The whole thing is usually vaguely uplifting and patriotic and utterly forgettable.
Obama’s speech in January 2009 was built around the phrase “A New Birth of Freedom” from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Obama referred to ideals expressed by Lincoln about renewal, continuity and national unity, stressing the need for shared sacrifice and a new sense of responsibility to answer America’s challenges at home and abroad. It was pretty stirring stuff.
Once again, the contrast with DT couldn’t be more stark. Trump’s speech described an utterly dystopian vision of an America of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation” where “the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon.” He pointed to “the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” He also said that the education system is failing our children even though it is “flush with cash” — a description that had all the teachers I know howling in derision. And of course he made the declaration that promptly spawned a myriad of social media memes: “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”
There were the usual calls for unity (which rang hollow with a resounding clang after the tenor of much of his campaign) and claims that “our country will thrive and prosper again.” But, not only was the overall tone notably bleak, it sounded less like a new leader laying out his vision for the country and more like a campaign speech.
From the tone of this speech to the weekend’s complaints about media bias and the focus on “alternative facts” this is an administration that has yet to grasp the significance of governing or the burden of what it means to lead.
The Women’s March(es)
Which takes us to the final, extraordinary part of the weekend — Saturday’s marches. The numbers are still being tallied, but it appears that at least 3 million “women and allies” demonstrated in cities across the USA on Saturday, literally from Seattle to Miami and all points in between.
And not one report of violence breaking out; not one arrest. The group of women who organized the march here in Philadelphia were hoping for as many as 20,000 to show up. Saturday afternoon, the mayor’s office put the number at 50,000. I wasn’t able to go but many friends and neighbors went either to Philadelphia or down to Washington DC. They all reported a positive and joyful experience, inclusive and diverse and downright uplifting.
This is the logo that someone came up with for the Philadelphia march. For anyone who doesn’t recognize it, that’s the iconic Liberty Bell, housed here in Philly, with an added women’s symbol.
These two photos are from the Philadelphia march Facebook page.
And here’s one final shot of the front page of Sunday morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer. Many march organizers, including the extraordinary women who set up the one here in Philadelphia, are planning to keep the momentum going. I look forward to what comes next.