It started at the inauguration, when the uniformed protectors of America’s front lawn took in the sweep of humanity at the National Mall. It seemed obvious that the crowd for President Donald Trump was not nearly as large as that for Barack Obama in 2009. Somebody in olive green retweeted the obvious, using comparative pictures.
This small act of historical clarification by the keepers of our sacred sites and shared spaces would have been no big deal, had not the response from the new president sounded like an edict from the Dear Leader. A gag order on public servants was issued, and the National Park Service tweet on crowd size vanished, replaced by a picture of a bison.
But then, flares of defiance! The response to the dawning realization that a crazy man had taken over the White House was truth. C.
Heroes in uniform? No, not by normal standards in normal times. Informing people is what park rangers do. Anyone who has ever listened to a narrative of what happened on the bloodiest single day in American history at Antietam National Battlefield, or heard an explanation for the geysers at Yellowstone, can appreciate the professional knowledge.
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But in the Trump era, snippets of useful information from dedicated public employees are more like the signals that a survivor’s beacon sends out after being buried by an avalanche. In this case, the beeps represent science, history, facts.
Trump is delusional in his obsession with his numbers, with his size. He has to be the biggest, the greatest, the best – all facts to the contrary. Everything he touches is phenomenal, and his opponents are garbage. But does a pathological liar really want to pick a fight with the caretakers of America’s Best Idea?
The Park Service, having just concluded its centennial year, has never been more popular. Visits to the scenic wonderlands, historic sites and graveyards of great consequence smashed records in 2015. Early indications are that when numbers are in for 2016, another record will have fallen. At the same time, while people don’t much like “government” in the abstract, anecdotal surveys show that people like the Park Service.
That’s one side. On the other is Trump, who moved into the White House with the lowest approval rating of a modern president-elect. And after just a few days in office, his numbers, too, broke a record: Gallup reported that he is the first president in their polling history to receive an initial job approval rating below 50 percent. This can change. And state-run television – that is, the people at Fox News – are doing everything they can to polish that lump of coal.
Trump supporters say there’s no story here; all incoming administrations try to get everybody on the same page before sending messages to the public. It’s routine.
But what is different with this administration, from that very first attempt to snuff a truth about the size of the crowd on the lovingly restored National Mall grass, is they’re trying to institutionalize lying. The fish is going to stink from the head down.
Don’t expect useful reports from the Environmental Protection Agency on, say, the safety of your municipal drinking water, if it reflects badly on the insecure man residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. With the Trump administration, the routine tweets of National Park Service employees about carbon buildup, or history, can look like sedition.
Here’s a suggestion: Go rogue, you lovable park rangers and biologists; tell the truth about science, you nerds in funny hats and badges. Let Trump’s thought police come after you at Golden Gate for tweeting that “2016 was the hottest year on record for the third year in a row.” Oh, the audacity of science!
These employees are protected by Civil Service laws, including many hatched by Teddy Roosevelt. Speaking of which, look what popped up from the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site in Buffalo, a quotation from T.R. on free speech: “a necessity in any country where the people are free.” Or has that just been snuffed as well?
So far, the taxpayer-funded lies coming out the White House are largely inconsequential – always with the crowd size, and the chimera about millions of illegal voters denying Trump the popular vote. He will try, yet no amount of huffing and puffing can change the fact that no president has entered office with a larger loss of the popular vote.
But what are we to do when the edict to lie or suppress is about a foreign threat? A reason to go to war? Or job numbers that don’t fit a rosy scenario? When that happens, look to the Park Service to clarify that those are tears, not raindrops, on the cheeks of the Statue of Liberty.