Donald Trump's administration couldn't conduct its first appearance in the White House press briefing room without props. The president reportedly loves them. When new press secretary Sean Spicer arrived, two large stands displaying poster-sized images flanked him on either side of the podium. This seemed serious. It wasn't.
News media had been chattering for more than 24 hours about how the attendance on the National Mall and during the inauguration parade seemed to have been significantly lower than at President Obama's 2009 ceremony. So both stands displayed the same image: photographs of Friday's inauguration ceremony taken from the behind the podium, a vantage point from which the crowd did look large. At the height of Saturday's Women's March, this was the urgent matter for which Spicer had summoned reporters? For an administration whose more antagonistic fans regularly ridicule dissenters as emotionally delicate "snowflakes," this looked pretty snowflakey.
After Spicer arrived at the briefing, he berated the press in attendance and the media at large for being mean to the new president. Seconds after noting that the National Park Service didn't estimate the number of spectators, Spicer said that "this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period" — which was not provable — and emphasized the global audience over the comparatively scant in-person attendance on the National Mall, the one in the photos next to him. He also told some bald-faced lies, including one about the number of rides people took on Washington, D.C.'s Metro on Friday, and then got testy about a Time reporter's erroneous report about Martin Luther King Jr.'s bust being removed from the Oval Office. He finished his prepared lecture, then took no questions from the press.
Two days later, during his first official briefing, Spicer doubled down on his claims about the inauguration audience (but he did cop to the Metro lie) before being asked the most compelling question of the day: Why even make crowd size an issue? Again he gave voice to Trump's ego, without even having to read from a statement this time. "There is this constant theme to undercut the enormous support that he has," Spicer complained. "And I think that it's just unbelievably frustrating when you're continually told, 'It's not big enough, it's not good enough, you can't win.'" He said that and more, without irony or self-awareness, as if Trump's predecessor didn't suffer through seemingly endless racist questioning from his eventual successor about his birth certificate.
Both briefings were performances rife with bullying, lying, and gaslighting. It was like watching an actor perform Trump's Twitter feed, only with more complete sentences. As millions marched around the world in a rebuke to Spicer's new boss, Spicer showed that he'll be a daily mouthpiece for whatever penis-measuring contests Trump decides to engage in. The former reality star underscored this himself with an embarrassing speech in front of the CIA's memorial wall on Saturday, in which the size of the inauguration crowd was just one of many inappropriate topics he addressed. "I looked out, the field was — it looked like a million, million and a half people," Trump said, during a litany of stupefying remarks that failed to even acknowledge the fallen intelligence officers memorialized behind him.
Trump has shown an opposition to reality for a long time now, and he displayed authoritarian instincts well before his campaign began. But the defects of his personality have become almost instantaneously institutionalized within the White House. Whatever his mental and emotional hangups are, they're now our problem, too. His fragility makes us all weaker, and his petulant outbursts can now shift world events. Sadly, it's clear from the first few days of the Trump administration that the trustworthiness of his office is not the president's foremost priority. His feelings are.
Trump’s personal insecurities are not a mere annoyance, nor are they just entertainment or a diversion for the media hordes. A new report on Trump's bad weekend underscored just how much trouble we're in. We know from the president's social media that he has problems with impulse control, but an unnamed person "who frequently talks to Trump" told Politico that it's so bad that his aides "have to control information that may infuriate him," like a parent might do for an excitable child. They can't control it all, of course, and it’s inevitable that his pathology will shape national policy.
That isn't uncommon. Presidential character is often reflected in the accomplishments and priorities of the office. This is especially frightening in a president like Trump, who has dangerously antiquated ideas about manhood.
That's partly why, in a White House exclusively presided over by men (and the situation isn't much better at the state and local level), we see so much faulty public policy oriented around the supposed "protection" of women — perpetuating the anachronistic conviction that women are too frail and delicate to protect themselves. The recent spate of discriminatory bills restricting transgender people from using restrooms that don't correspond to the gender on their birth certificates was motivated, ostensibly, by a fear of increased sexual assault. This raises the question of why the government does such a piss-poor job of actually protecting women, including from sexual assault, and does the most it can in other arenas to make women's lives more difficult. But it's the thought that counts, right? It would seem that protecting women is the government's priority — until it isn't.
We're about to see this reach a new level of dysfunction with Trump in office. Now we have a president who is poised to do something even worse than pass and sign patriarchal laws meant to "protect" women and children, as if the two groups were analogous. He'll enact regressive policies rooted in the emotional sensitivity of the kind of white men he caters to — the guys who, like him, are convinced that today's more progressive America is out to get them.
Ignorant ideas about masculinity — ones that give license to catchphrases like "Trump That Bitch" and "Lock Her Up," all while pushing men's personal accountability further away — became, if not more acceptable, certainly more plentiful in the mainstream during the Trump campaign. The candidate and his surrogates regularly made remarks and suggested policies that were demeaning to women, and then they gaslighted the public whenever they were called out on it. Put that in the context of a White House administration led by an accused sexual abuser, and it is simply terrifying to imagine how the behavior we saw over the weekend from Trump and Spicer will metastasize into official actions. The new president and his spokesman hinted at the inner fragility of the largely white and male leadership. The biggest "snowflake" of them all now sits in the Oval Office. In the space of just a few days, the White House went from being oriented toward serving the American people to trying to protect the person now running it. We're all in serious trouble unless that changes.