One big takeaway from Saturday’s giant protests against Donald Trump was not the marches themselves — as impressive as they were — but the new administration’s unhinged reaction to them. The fact that Trump at first lashed out at the protests was not too surprising, considering the petulant way he conducted himself during the presidential campaign. Far more alarming is the way the new administration sought to construct an alternate reality about the size of his own inauguration the day previously.
The marches, which attracted millions of women and men in Boston, Washington, and cities across the nation, were intended to protest Trump’s inauguration and the xenophobia and sexism he stoked during the campaign. The gatherings were undoubtedly historic: according to some accounts, the rally of more than 100,000 on Boston Common was among the largest protests in recent memory. The crowd — including a remarkable number of children with their parents — was peaceful and purposeful. For hours, the hillside around the Soldiers and Sailors monument became a sea of pink hats, the protest’s signature headgear. The event was a credit to the organizers, the participants, and the city.
Faced with critical protests, most politicians ignore them — or at least, take them in stride as an inevitable part of a vibrant democracy. Indeed, several of the local politicians who marched in Boston on Saturday, including Attorney General Maura Healey and Mayor Marty Walsh, have themselves been the target of demonstrations. But when gun-rights groups protested Healey, or anti-Olympics activists protested Walsh, they managed to keep their composure.
The Trump administration’s response, in contrast, was a juvenile outburst. On Sunday, the president lashed out at celebrities who attended, before issuing a more conciliatory tweet later. His chief of staff, Reince Priebus, criticized the media for comparing the turnout to the inauguration the day before. A spokesman said the crowd was bigger Friday than at President Obama’s inauguration, a claim that was visibly and obviously false, and falsely claimed that Washington’s subway had carried more riders on Friday than on the day of Obama’s last swearing-in. The president’s spokesman also claimed that the media were covering up the true size of the crowds at the inauguration through misleading photos.
That response was straight from Trump’s campaign playbook, insisting that unflattering facts were all fictions peddled by a biased media. He got lots of mileage out of that strategy among a right-wing base deluged by decades of media-bashing rhetoric; it’s part of what allowed Trump to feel comfortable within their alternate universe of fake news. Climate change? Just the media lying. The numerous allegations by women who said they were assaulted by Trump? In the alt-right’s alt-reality, they were all just media fabrications.
Yet, by extending the alt-reality strategy to the reaction to crowd size, Trump and his team may have overextended it. Don’t believe the media? Well, you don’t have to: one of the great things about protests is that they happen in the flesh, and that anyone who walked by Boston Common on Saturday saw what was happening there with their own eyes.
To be clear, the comparative attendance numbers at rallies and inaugurations is not really an issue of vital importance. But the administration’s brazen dishonesty about the crowd sizes was illustrative. It also encapsulates the challenge his dishonest style poses to Trump’s fellow Republicans. Which of them will follow the administration into its lies about the crowds? What about Trump’s other obvious nonsense? When he attacks the safety of vaccines with absurd conspiracy theories, will they too? If he says black is white, will they?
It’s probably too much to hope for, but the administration’s reaction over the weekend ought to plant some seeds of doubt about all the other delusions on which his presidency rests. In that sense, the protests did an invaluable, and probably unanticipated, public service. They provoked a reaction that exposed Trump’s dishonesty in a way that’s much easier to appreciate than when he lies about more abstract issues. It may be impossible to see with your own eyes that vaccines are safe. No direct personal experience disproves the bunk Trump spouts about climate change. But it was impossible to miss the enormous outpouring of opposition to Trump on the first full day of his presidency — and impossible not to see how the administration’s reaction discredited itself more than anything else.