If you haven’t heard, since last Friday’s inauguration ceremony there has been quite a bit of heated discussion surrounding the number of attendees. Unfortunately, this became as much a partisan spat as much other news involving President Trump over the last year. Everyone jumped into their political-party bunker and began lobbing facts and fictions at the other side, so long as they supported their position and would advance their political viewpoint.
With a bit of time to allow the battlefield smoke to dissipate and to actually look at the facts, there a are few notable points I’d like to reflect on.
First, it is undeniably true that the audience on the National Mall in Washington last Friday was fewer in number than for President Obama’s inauguration in 2009. See CNN’s report here. The pictures and travel statistics tell a definitive story. Admittedly, the National Park Service no longer provides estimates for inauguration crowds, but as they say, “A picture’s worth a thousand words.”
Consequently, Sean Spicer was at best misleading to say that the Mr. Trump’s inaugural audience was the “largest audience to witness an inauguration, period.” Interestingly, his comment didn’t end with ‘period,’ even he added a qualification that saved him from being flat out wrong. He added, “Both in person and around the globe.” Now, I’m generously interpreting this qualification to mean that Mr. Spicer was counting total viewership in person, on television, online, etc. rather than only in person in Washington. However, this qualification could be understood otherwise (e.g. understanding ‘in person’ and ‘around the globe’ as separate categories, which on their own were each the largest ever), which would put Mr. Spicer’s comment in the flat out wrong category.
** Yesterday, Monday the 23rd, during Mr. Spicer’s first press briefing he confirmed that his comment was concerning total viewership.
Second, President Trump’s off the cuff suggestion that there were 1 million to 1.5 million people gathered on the National Mall Friday was nothing more than rhetorical fodder. His statement, which he made during a speech to the CIA on Saturday, should – if it were made by anyone else – be taken with a grain of salt. But since this not only fits within a larger pattern of his loose, braggadocious, and hyperbolic relationship with the truth, but also since he is now the President of the United States and speaks with an inherent authority and persuasion because of his office, his statement is rightly scrutinized. Not only is there no way that he could have accurately seen crowds all the way to the Washington Monument from his vantage point, but has he ever seen 1 million people before, so as to give a credible estimate? Though I find it unlikely that he has; even if he has, accurately estimating with the naked eye that number of people is quite infeasible, if not, impossible.
Third, and most importantly, that the crowd in Washington on Friday was smaller than in 2009 should not come as a shock or in any way delegitimize President Trump. The reason is plain and simple: President Obama’s first inauguration was an outlier. It was an event of incredible historical significance – the inauguration of the first black President of the United States. As an extraordinary event with extraordinary crowds, it is no knock against President Trump that he didn’t draw as big a crowd. This fact is barely even newsworthy – except that the public loves this kind of stuff and it drives ratings. The crowd size itself is notable; putting it in historical perspective is interesting; but making a big deal about it and drawing implications concerning what it says about President Obama vs. President Trump is not news. As Rob Long quipped, “Crowd size is the new hand size.”
Furthermore, that President Trump and his administration feel the need to present “alternative facts” (Kellyanne Conway’s words) to maintain their self-esteem and public image is, to quote the President, sad. The President’s thin skin doesn’t appear to be thickening, even after winning the election and taking office. Anything that counters his superlative-enriched self-understanding must be refuted, rebutted, and ridiculed. Remember that thing President Trump and his supporters used to call the ‘pivot’ – that time when he would become so presidential that we’d be bored with presidentiality? Yeah, it’s not coming.
But these points raise two deeper issues. First, words have power, and powerful people must use them carefully. Mr. President, Mr. Spicer, Mrs. Conway, all news and media outlets who reported and discussed this story, please be mindful of this and discipline your speech accordingly. Mr. President, speaking what’s on your mind got you elected, but you’ll have to do better now that you are in office. Not everything can be boiled down to sound bites and slogans, and one hundred forty characters simply won’t cut it. Additionally, hyperbole is a wonderful device when used proportionately, but when everything is the best, greatest, and biggest it kind of makes everything meaningless. Hyperbole overused is like the boy who cried wolf. How are we supposed to know when you’re serious and when you’re just making things up?
Second, truth seems to matter more than ever now. Between fake news and alternative facts people are remembering that there is such a thing called reality. Reality matters for making real decisions that affect real people and real nations. Reality matters for reporting real stories about real people and real nations. Perhaps one of the silver linings that God will providentially draw out of Mr. Trump’s presidency is an awakening to the inadequacies of postmodern relativism. If you can have your ‘truth’ and I can have my ‘truth’, then none of us has any justification to question what either the President is saying or the media is reporting. Who’s to say what ‘really’ happened?
The inauguration was a great event to watch. The peaceful transfer of power is a hallmark of our republic, and we do well to honor it. Sadly, the controversy over the crowd size overshadowed many of the positive takeaways from last Friday. But it did expose some important things to consider in our highly-politicized culture.