It’s never false to declare, “A lot is happening in the world.” But the last few days — since Donald J. Trump became the 45th president of the United States — have seen a phantasmagoria of major developments that shocked and awed people around the world. Since part of Trump’s strategy is to overwhelm the media with scandals, thereby establishing a false norm that makes nothing look scandalous, it’s worth pausing to reflect on how catastrophic Trump’s brief presidency has been so far.
Before the inauguration, Trump repeatedly boasted that his crowds would be exceptionally large. In his words, we should expect an “unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout.” Then came Jan. 20 — along with notably sparse crowds scattered across the Washington Mall. By the afternoon, images comparing Trump’s inauguration with Barack Obama’s in 2009 were circulating on social media.
Then on Saturday, Trump gave a speech at CIA headquarters in which he complained about the media coverage of the previous day’s crowd sizes. Trump said, in typical rambling fashion, “I’m like, wait a minute. I made a speech. I looked out, the field was, it looked like a million, million and a half people.” In fact, there were probably about 200,000 to 250,000 people in attendance, which is consistent with official Washington Metro figures indicating that 193,000 trips were taken by 11 a.m. That is “significantly fewer than the past two inaugurations and slightly fewer than President George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2005,” Vox reported.
Not satisfied with the media continuing to report verifiable facts, the new White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave an angry and combative lecture to the media from the press briefing room — without taking any questions. According to Spicer, “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration. Period.” But of course an elementary principle of epistemology is that merely saying something is true doesn’t actually make it true — a subtle point, I know.
Spicer then proceeded to make several more demonstrably false claims. For example, he asserted that this was “the first time in our nation’s history that floor coverings have been used to protect the grass on the Mall" and that these “had the effect of highlighting areas people were not standing whereas in years past the grass eliminated this visual.” Sure enough, they did highlight huge areas with no onlookers. But as CNN noted, “In fact, coverings were used for Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.”
Spicer then added, “This was also the first time that fencing and magnetometers went as far back on the Mall, preventing hundreds of thousands of people from being able to access the Mall as quickly as they had in inaugurations past.” Once again, this turned out to be false: As a Secret Service spokesperson told CNN, magnetometers were not used on the Mall for Trump’s inauguration.
According to Spicer, “We know that 420,000 people used the D.C, Metro public transit yesterday, which actually compares to 317,000 for President Obama's last inaugural.” What's amazing is that neither figure is accurate. The Metro announced that a total of 570,557 people used its services on Inauguration Day — ironically, a higher number than the one Spicer gave — while about 782,000 people used the system for Obama’s second inauguration in 2013.
Later in the press briefing, Spicer described Enrique Peña Nieto as the “prime minister” of Mexico, when in fact he is that nation's president. As the conservative Bill Kristol tweeted, “It is embarrassing, as an American, to watch this briefing by Sean Spicer from the podium at the White House. Not the RNC. The White House.”
But the Trump team wasn’t done with the trivial, petty, inconsequential, nonissue of crowd sizes just yet. Next up to the Orwellian podium was Kellyanne Conway, the former campaign manager turned special counselor. In a tense discussion with NBC’s Chuck Todd, Conway repeatedly dodged questions about why Spicer would commence his professional relationship with the press by spouting numerous flagrant lies. She then responded to Todd by claiming that “Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts.”
I can’t imagine a more memorable phrase to encapsulate the profound lack of intellectual integrity among Trump and his cronies. They prefer alternative facts.
While this mind-boggling distraction was unfolding, the Trump administration was busy making alarming changes to the White House website. Shortly after Trump took the presidential oath, all references to climate change — the greatest challenge to human civilization so far in history — disappeared from the site. According to the new “America First Energy Plan”:
For too long, we’ve been held back by burdensome regulations on our energy industry. President Trump is committed to eliminating harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule. Lifting these restrictions will greatly help American workers, increasing wages by more than $30 billion over the next 7 years. . . .
The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans. We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.
A “shale oil and gas revolution.” This is horrifying. As has been widely reported, 2016 was the warmest year on record — beating 2015, which beat 2014. Of the hottest 17 years on record, 16 of them have occurred since 2000 — with the solitary exception being 1998. One of the most significant consequences of climate change is the ongoing Holocene extinction, only the sixth mass extinction event in the 3.8 billion-year history of life on Earth. As CNN reported a day before the inauguration, a new scientific study has confirmed that 60 percent of all primate species are currently at risk of extinction. More generally, the 2016 Living Planet Report finds that from 1970 to 2012, the global population of wild vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and amphibians) declined 58 percent!
Pause for a moment to let this figure sink in. The climate is changing and the biosphere is wilting. Human activity is almost entirely to blame.
Trump’s energy plan claims that the revenue from American energy production will in part be funneled into schools. But there are reasons to worry about the health of our educational system under Trump — and not just because Trump’s Cabinet consists largely of anti-science, climate-denying, evolution-rejecting anti-intellectuals.
On Jan. 20, Betsy DeVos — Trump's nominee to head the Department of Education — tweeted that she was “Honored to witness the historical Inauguration and swearing-in ceremony for the 45th President of the United States.” There are multiple grammatical problems with this tweet. For example, “historical” should be “historic,” “Inauguration” should not be capitalized in this usage and “for” only works with “swearing-in ceremony” and not with “inauguration.” The tweet should have read: “Honored to witness the historic inauguration of, and swearing-in ceremony for, the 45th president of the United States.” (Which is admittedly a little awkward but at least not incorrect in several ways.)
Being apprised of the error by Twitter users, DeVos then tweeted out a “corrected” version that still contained some of the same grammatical screwups. At least she got the spelling of “honored” right, unlike Trump, who tweeted a day after the inauguration: “I am honered to serve you, the great American People, as your 45th President of the United States!” Trump then deleted this tweet, which may have violated the Presidential Records Act.
Finally, let’s turn to a topic of substance: the inaugural address. Two days prior to the big day, Trump tweeted a picture of himself with the caption: “Writing my inaugural address at the Winter White House, Mar-a-Lago, three weeks ago.” Although Trump doesn’t read, at least we know that he can write.
But it turned out that he did neither. According to The Wall Street Journal, “much of the speech was actually written by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon.” The latter headed the extremist website Breitbart, which Bannon once described as “the platform for the alt-right.” The alt-right is a monochromatic demographic of white nationalists, anti-Semites, neo-Nazis, neo-reactionaries and other hate groups motivated by “racist moral rot” (to quote the conservative National Review). So the 45th president's inaugural address was reportedly composed, at least in part, by a guy linked to perhaps the most abominable strain of American culture today.
I have no doubt that a whole host of new and outrageous mendacities will have hit front pages by the time this article is published. The point is this: Aside from his initiating a nuclear conflict with Russia or strangling a kitten on live TV, Trump’s first few days in office could hardly have gone worse. Only three years, 11 months and 28 days to go.