On his first full day as president, with any number of important priorities to tend to, Donald Trump declared war on the press over the size of his inauguration crowds. In his White House’s first official press conference, he sent his press secretary to declare that photographs of his inauguration were somehow manipulated to make a crowd of one million people appear less than half that.
Mr. Trump’s apparent obsession with crowd size has drawn nearly universal ridicule. The common argument is that Trump is a narcissist who cannot get around to the real work of his presidency because he can’t tolerate the idea that President Obama’s inauguration crowds were bigger than his. But to conclude that Trump’s response is only the product of a personality disorder or pathological aversion to truth-telling is to miss the political strategy he’s employed.
It seems bizarre that Trump would be so particularly focused on a detail as insignificant as crowd size. It appears even stranger that he would tell blatant and easily falsifiable lies about those details. We know that there were far fewer than a “million, million-and-a-half” people at his inauguration. We know that this was not, despite what Press Secretary Sean Spicer would have us believe, the most well attended presidential inauguration in United States history. And so does Donald Trump.
There are plenty of ways to spin what happened without denying it outright. I saw some creative attempts on social media: “Obama’s inauguration crowds were larger because his supporters didn’t have jobs and had nothing better to do than travel to D.C. on a weekday.” Surely Trump’s staff could have put forth a decent effort. Why, then, would he insist that we didn’t see what we saw and risk making a fool of himself in the process?
While authoritarian rulers around the world have manipulated their constituencies by directly controlling the news media, Mr. Trump cannot achieve direct control in a country with an established tradition of a free press. But if one cannot control the press, the next best thing is to undermine it entirely. Both strategies have the effect of eliminating the most important challenge to state propaganda.
In lying about the size of his inauguration crowd, Mr. Trump is not disputing secondhand reports. He is disputing readily available photographic evidence. He is daring his loyalists to choose whether they will believe him or their own eyes. He is betting that enough of his base will resolve that dissonance by choosing to believe him. If he can convince his supporters that the “dishonest media” is lying about what they themselves have seen, he knows he can lie with impunity about things they haven’t seen and that the press will be powerless to hold him accountable.
In spending the first day of his presidency peddling alternative facts, Donald Trump was not putting off the real work of his presidency. He was laying important groundwork. The people who think Trump made a fool of himself by lying about his crowds already consider him a fool. His strategy wasn’t aimed at them. He was firming up a base of true believers, a necessary step for any authoritarian propagandist. Dismissing him outright as a narcissist or a pathological liar means failing to realize that his strategy is working.
Elorm F. Avakame is a Doctor of Medicine/Master’s in Public Policy student at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government. He is also a Sheila C. Johnson Leadership Fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership.