On Friday, I spent roughly nine hours—from 6 am to 3 pm—on the streets of drizzling Washington, DC, inside and outside the Secret Service checkpoints at Donald Trump’s inauguration. I have been to every inauguration since 1997, gauging the size and enthusiasm of the crowds. It’s fun and a perk of living in DC.
I wasn’t planning to write about what I saw on Friday until I saw White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer say on Saturday, “This was the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.” Then, as his voice shook and his face became mottled, he shouted, “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.” The next day, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said that Spicer was merely stating “alternative facts.”
These are not “alternative facts.” These are lies. This is an attempt at “gaslighting”: manipulating someone by psychological means into questioning their sanity. It’s unconscionable behavior for an anonymous Internet troll, let alone the press secretary of the president of the United States.
It’s one thing for a campaign to say things that are demonstrably untrue. That’s been the reality for as long as we’ve had campaigns. But it is chilling when people who hold the levers of power will look straight at a bank of cameras and lie.
So here’s the straight truth from someone who walked every inch of the inaugural ground on Friday. This was the smallest inauguration I’ve ever seen. I was tweeting that and saying it on camera to Democracy Now! during the day on Friday before I heard those observations justified by both aerial shots and Metro rider statistics. I said it because I saw the empty stands that were supposed to be filled with throngs of Trump supporters. I said it because I saw how easy it was to ride public transportation and drive into downtown. I said it because of the surprisingly sparse smatterings of red baseball caps as well as my conversations with local souvenir salespeople who were overloaded with “Make America Great Again” merchandise that wasn’t moving. It was obvious. The people just weren’t there.
I can understand why Sean Spicer was ordered to lie (though I can’t explain why he didn’t have the courage to refuse). It’s not just because of Trump’s obsession with insisting that things in his life that are small—his hands, his net worth—are actually huge. The motivation for these reckless and easily provable lies are found in the second part of Spicer’s statement, “These attempts to lessen the enthusiasm of the inauguration are shameful and wrong.”