Last weekend, beginning on Friday, provided ample opportunity for Trump watching. For many, however, Trump’s demagoguery, insufferable self-absorption and indifference to the truth made it a painful experience.
The inaugural address was a demagogic tour de force, exaggerating in almost a single breath both the magnitude of the country’s problems and the new President’s capacity to solve them:
Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities, rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge; and the crime and the gangs and the drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.
This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
Just as paranoids can have real enemies, demagogues may identify real problems—but then fail to describe them or their solutions in realistic terms.
— There are indeed mothers and children trapped in poverty in inner cities, but poverty is not confined to the inner cities and the poverty rate has declined since 2012 with recovery from the recession. And what might be Trump’s solution for the plight of those mothers and children?
— There are indeed empty factories, but their cause is far more automation than Trump’s favorite bugaboo, bad trade agreements. And if he raises tariffs and embarks on trade wars with Mexico and China, it will hurt everyone.
— Our education system does have problems though hardly depriving students of “all knowledge.” But what is Trump’s answer? Although school choice in the form of charter schools and vouchers can help, those approaches are very far from a panacea. At the same time, Trump has rejected Common Core, a serious and constructive step to raise school standards.
— Although the overall crime rate is less than it was twenty years ago, crime, gangs and drugs are serious problems in some areas, but what Trump might do about them is unclear. The only hint appears to lie in his repeated demands for giving unqualified support to law enforcement. Insofar as those demands suggest turning a blind eye to demonstrated abuses by police it is not a promising recipe for improving troubled neighborhoods.
Finally, as Trump continues to trumpet his promise to “Make America Great Again,” it might be instructive if an enterprising journalist were to ask him just exactly when he thought America was great. And in just what respects was it greater than at the present?
Trump’s astonishing narcissism was displayed in its most embarrassing form in his performance at the CIA on Saturday. There he stood for fourteen minutes before a wall honoring fallen CIA heroes and spent most of it complaining about his treatment by the media. His remarks at the CIA set off a series of heated exchanges with the media over the far from weighty subject of attendance at his inauguration. Trump appeared stung not only by photographic comparisons with attendance at Obama’s 2009 inauguration but by the hundreds of thousands who flocked to Washington for the Women’s March on Washington and companion marches around the world. Later that day he doubled down on the vexing matter of inaugural attendance by dispatching his Press Secretary Sean Spicer to deliver a rant on the subject at a suddenly called press conference at which he took no questions.
At the CIA, Trump had made the false claims that his disrespect for the intelligence community had somehow been invention the media, and that the media had misstated the attendance at his inauguration. At the afternoon “press conference” the hapless Spicer attempted to support the latter claim with several demonstrably incorrect assertions. Confronted with questions about Spicer’s performance by Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway asserted that Spicer had presented “alternative facts,” prompting Todd to observe that “Four of the five facts [Spicer] he uttered were just not true. Look, alternative facts are not facts. They’re falsehoods.” Nevertheless, the unreality show continued the following day with Congressional leaders as Trump renewed to his spurious claim that millions had voted illegally in the election.
Altogether, the devotion of the President and his staff to alternative facts suggests that they are determined to turn the White House into a modern version of Alice’s Rabbit Hole:
But here, alas, it is rather more serious particularly as it relates to Trump’s claim of massive voter fraud. Dan Balz, writing in the Washington Post, summed it up aptly:
There is no benign explanation for President Trump’s false assertion that millions of people voted illegally in the last election. It is either a deliberate attempt to undermine faith in the democratic process, an exhortation to those who favor new restrictions on access to the ballot box or the worrisome trait of someone with immense power willing to make wild statements without any credible evidence.
By repeating as president what he had said as a candidate, for whatever purpose, Trump is now striking at the foundation of a democratic society. This is yet another example of Trump being willing to cast doubt on information, individuals or institutions that he believes threaten his legitimacy, challenge his authority or question his actions, from attacks on “phony polls” or the “dishonest media” to assertions now of vast voter fraud.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted that there would be a “massive investigation” of voter fraud. It was not immediately clear whether the investigation would extend to searching for evidence of of voting by extraterrestrials.