For a man who cares about nothing as much as his own glory, President Trump’s obsession with the size of his inaugural crowd isn’t surprising. After all, from where he stood on the steps of the Capitol on that drizzly Friday, it must have seemed unimaginably vast.
“I looked over that sea of people, and I said to myself: ‘Wow,’ ” Mr. Trump told ABC News on Wednesday, in his first major television interview since taking office.
The crowd on the National Mall, estimated at about 160,000, was surely far bigger than any he had faced before. But it wasn’t, of course, the biggest in history, as Mr. Trump, along with his press secretary, Sean Spicer, continues to falsely claim — not by a long shot.
Debating crowd sizes may seem inconsequential and petty, and it is. But Mr. Trump was the one who had been unable to let go of the issue during his first week in office: On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that on the morning after he was sworn in, the president himself pressured the director of the National Park Service to locate more photos of the crowd in hopes of disproving news media accounts of its size. With behavior like this, Mr. Trump has reminded the nation of an essential truth about his personality: He sees what he wants to see, and nothing else.
Most press accounts and much of the debate have understandably focused on the president’s false and often childishly fantastic “alternative facts.” But the greater hazard to his presidency, and the country, is the other dynamic in his hostile relationship with the truth: his refusal to take contrary facts in — to compare the ego-stroking view from the Capitol steps to the more revealing aerial photos.
Mr. Trump wanted his inauguration crowd to be the biggest ever, so in his mind it was, no matter what was plainly obvious to anyone with a pair of eyes.
Any information that challenges his worldview does not lead him to reconsider his beliefs; it “gets flushed down the sort of emotional and intellectual dispose-all that I think he carries around with him,” Timothy O’Brien, one of Mr. Trump’s biographers, told Politico recently.
We have had incurious presidents before, and they also displayed tremendous self-certainty. Yet even The Decider himself, George W. Bush, proved willing to rethink his views as contrary facts came to light — like the failure of Iraqis to garland American occupiers with flowers. Mr. Trump is not merely uninterested in facts; he repels them. In their place, he confects his own reality to feed his bottomless emotional and psychological needs. It is not America First, it is Donald Trump First, and always.
Consider his response to ABC’s David Muir, who challenged him to back up his repeated, and repeatedly debunked, claim that millions of people voted illegally — which he insists is the reason he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes. Rather than admitting he had no evidence, Mr. Trump said: “You know what’s important? Millions of people agree with me when I say that.” In other words, facts aren’t important; blind trust in a leader is.
This is the essence of Mr. Trump: selling himself or his plans by massaging and embellishing facts, or simply making them up and hoping everyone plays along. It is a strategy he developed, quite purposefully, during his days as a brash New York City real estate tycoon, and later relied on as a TV personality. He even has his own term for it: “truthful hyperbole,” which Mr. Trump described in his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” as “an innocent form of exaggeration — and a very effective form of promotion.”
The tactic worked back when he was cajoling banks into giving him giant loans for casinos that would later collapse in bankruptcy, or trying to convince people that his 58-story skyscraper was actually 68 stories, or claiming that his reality show, “The Apprentice,” was the “No. 1 show on television,” when it was in fact 67th. But it’s going to be far harder for him to sustain his illusions now that he leads the most powerful nation on earth and oversees a complex government staffed by millions of people, including some powerful ones who are unlikely to parrot his “facts” when they conflict with the truth. What happens when Mr. Trump, looking through his reality-distortion goggles, claims that America is winning the war against terrorism and his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, surveys the same landscape and disagrees? Which “facts” will the American people be told?
Already, there are signs that Mr. Trump’s closest aides are struggling to cling to some self-respect by edging away from the president’s fantasies. At Tuesday’s White House press briefing, Mr. Spicer defended Mr. Trump’s fraudulent claim that millions of people voted illegally. “He believes what he believes,” Mr. Spicer said. “What does that mean for democracy?” asked a reporter. “It means that I’ve answered your question,” Mr. Spicer replied.
Mr. Trump’s allergy to empirical facts leads naturally to his attacks on the media, whose job it is to report accurately and to hold politicians to account for the things they say and do — goals that are anathema to a huckster. On Thursday, one of Mr. Trump’s top advisers, Stephen Bannon, told The New York Times that the “elite media” is “the opposition party” and should “keep its mouth shut.” Congressional Republicans are getting on board, too: Last week, Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, the chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said it was “better to get your news directly from the president. In fact it might be the only way to get the unvarnished truth.”
This attitude is, of course, all too familiar to the citizens of authoritarian regimes around the world — from China to Russia to Turkey to Egypt — where leaders survive by intimidating or imprisoning journalists, writers and artists, or anyone who dares to challenge the “truth” and “information” generated by the regime. Mr. Trump can engage in intimidation through his Twitter and Facebook accounts alone, where he has a direct line to tens of millions of Americans.
A closed disinformation loop may not seem like a big deal when the dispute is over crowd size, but the stakes will soon be far higher. Mr. Trump’s foremost biographer, the investigative journalist Wayne Barrett, who died this month, said in December that “there’s no check on his power except reality.” The nation, and the world, are about to find out if that’s right.