“This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period—both in person and around the globe.”
Sean Spicer, the newly installed White House press secretary, was speaking to members of the American media for the first time after Donald Trump, the reality-TV star, became Donald Trump, the world leader. At issue was one of the many basic truths that, in those earliest days of the 45th presidency, had managed to become a matter of controversy: the number of people who had watched the new president speak—about crime, about carnage, about himself—at his inauguration.
The facts were not on Spicer’s side. There are myriad methods for determining the size of a crowd, in person and beyond, among them public-transportation ridership data, Nielsen statistics, satellite imagery, terrestrial photography, and common sense; put a photo of President Barack Obama’s inauguration next to a photo of Trump’s, and the truth of the matter is plain. Spicer, however, opted for a more faith-based approach. Seething and scowling and performing his indignation, condemning members of the media for their “deliberately false reporting,” the new messenger in chief seemed to be willing a more politically convenient truth into existence. The largest audience to ever witness an inauguration—period: The whole thing had the air of incantation. Its foolishness might have been funny, had the attempt at weaponized magic not also suggested one of the darkest elements of the Trump presidency: its radiating conviction that truth itself can be remade in the shape of its leader.
Here are some of the other falsehoods that have been presented as fact by Trump and his administration, following Spicer’s original spin: There are terrorist attacks, in the U.S. and Europe, that are not being reported by the media. There has been rioting in California over sanctuary cities. The Democrats want to give cars to undocumented immigrants. “Alternative facts,” “the Bowling Green massacre,” “MEXICO IS PAYING FOR THE WALL”—there have been, per one not-even-that-recent estimate, 7,645 false assertions so far. (7,645!) What’s striking about the untruths, though, isn’t merely their volume; it’s also their ineptitude. The lies are lazy. The week that saw Spicer bragging about his boss’s allegedly world-historic inaugural audience—a government photographer edited photos of the crowd, it was later reported, to make it seem larger than it had been—was the same one that found Trump and his aides claiming that he had written his own inaugural address (he had not) and offering as evidence a staged photo of the president sitting at a desk at Mar-a-Lago, clutching a legal pad and wielding a Sharpie.
The absurdity is part of the point. Trump’s guiding ethos, in life and in politics, is the stuff of nouveau Nietzsche: struggle and strength and winning—so much winning; oppressive amounts of winning—above all. The president lies because, as any autocrat will tell you, lying is its own will to power. He lies because truth, it turns out, is another norm that can be easily broken, and because a collective fealty to reality, the crucial foundation of any democracy, is for the most part a matter of uneasy covenant. He lies because no one stops him. He lies because it’s his habit. He lies because he can.
Hannah Arendt, assessing the roots of totalitarianism, warned of the sweeping menace of cynicism, of how easily otherwise rational people could lose their bearings and become convinced, in the tumult, that everything was possible and nothing was true. That threat revives every time Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Sean Spicer’s successor, takes to the briefing-room lectern (far less frequently than the press secretaries of previous administrations) and claims that reality itself has a liberal bias; every time a caps-lock lie is sent from an overworked iPhone into the acrid air; every time Donald Trump insists that your own eyes are deceiving you, buh-LIEVE me. The foundations get weaker. The stone becomes sand. And the inaugural absurdities Spicer spewed on behalf of a new presidency start to seem, against all odds, prescient: Here is the leader, tragedy and farce at the same time, bending the weary world to his will.