I did my level best not to follow the details of Trump’s inauguration, but in general matters unfolded as one might have expected. Trump meets with the notably gracious Obamas and took his oath of office. Trump delivers a belligerent inauguration speech, completing his early-stage mission of insulting anyone even remotely associated with government in the last half-century. (Why did anyone expect anything else?) Trump signs some paperwork and hands out pens for fun. Trump signs an incoherent executive quasi-order to eradicate Obamacare. Trump visits an assemblage of intelligence professionals, and in an otherworldly amalgam of communications dysfunction and lingual revisionism, explains that he knows, that they know, that when you are called a totalitarian Cro-Magnon brown-shirt it’s obviously an expression of respect and admiration. Trump, during his speech to the dis-insulted, veers off course to talk about other things bugging him, like the inadequate crowd size at his inauguration. Trump has to have the biggest crowd ever, and feels that his mystified audience needs to hear all about it. Depressingly predictable, for the most part.
The crowd-size issue was one thing that did surprise and entertain. I saw the story Saturday morning, prominently featured on the Times’ web page. Allow me to summarize the content: Trump Crowds Were Much Smaller Than Previous Inauguration Crowds, Especially Obama’s. Sure, there was a little discussion about why this might have happened. It was a bad day of the week, Republicans were taking power in a Democratic city – things like that. Or, how about the fact that many Trump supporters don’t care for Washington and look forward to its immediate emasculation? No matter. The crowds were almost certainly smallish for an inauguration, as shown by photographs from the (non-partisan) National Park Service, and as estimated by a couple of professors in the UK.
Some leaders might see the smaller crowds as consistent with the populist philosophy of the new government; some might understandably be disappointed at a lower turnout. But it takes a Trump to miss the point entirely, and view this through the prism of a “Size Matters” infomercial. Trump and his surrogates were quickly on the attack, making ridiculous claims about “true” crowd size, “alternate” facts (sorry – there is no such thing), and accusing the press of yet another global conspiracy. The Times was equally ready with its responses to each Trumpian assertion, almost before Trump’s people made them.
Now that made me wonder. I could never prove it, would probably never want to prove it, and the Times could probably never admit it, but this might have been a bona fide set up, and if so it was a small stroke of genius. Back at the start of the Obama administration, Fox News figured out that Obama was very good for their business. Fox made Obama their target, but it was real work: Fox had to build their own narrative about how the Obama administration was bad for their viewers, and there was a lot of repetition. Trump is entirely different and much better, because he’ll actually write the stories for you. Did the Times figure this out? All you have to do is prime the pump, by writing a true story Trump will perceive as an insult to his manhood. And then wait until Trump, like an aged and semi-senile muskellunge, rises to the bait and misses. Lovely news items, brimming with ludicrous misstatements, will inevitably follow, like manna from Washington heaven.
It’s a tough time for newspapers, but Trump could be best thing to ever happen to the Times and its brethren. Occasionally, I do wonder if the full light of day penetrates the Manhattan bunker of the New York Times, but this “pump-priming” approach – if it indeed was an approach – seems entirely valid. The Trump administration will apparently insult and lie without compunction to achieve its ends. Inducing their over-reaction via another true story might be aggressive, but it might also the best way to obtain valuable information about administration dealings. In physics, this would just be a scattering experiment. Hit ’em hard, and see what flies out.
If a little entertainment also results, that’s great too. We could use the diversion, and ridicule may be the best weapon against the autocratically-inclined – their delicate egos are their Achille’s heels. The pumping-priming method, whether coincidental or deliberate, is so far working excellently. Who could make this stuff up? Lewis Black is right – you could (well, maybe he could) make a comedy routine simply by reading the newspaper to your audience.