In the first few days of the Donald Trump presidency, we have seen alternative facts, falsehoods, unsubstantiated claims, untruths, lies — and that's just from the lips of the president and his staff. It is as though the White House is appropriating slight-of-hand and illusionists' tricks from Ringling Bros. as that circus goes out of business.
But, thankfully, we've also seen millions of people across this nation — and, indeed, across the globe — take to the streets to proclaim by their presence that sanity has not been obliterated. They know and are not afraid to point out that the emperor — make that the president — has no clothes.
One can respect the office and still withhold support for the officeholder. President Trump has shown in one public utterance after another that in the world he inhabits — an oligarchy of military men, the super-wealthy and coddlers of white supremacy — truth is selective, malleable and fleeting. And he leaves many people, myself included, feeling uneasy.
Even his most ardent supporters must be troubled by what he says, whether it's his continued unfounded insistence that he lost the popular vote because millions of ballots were cast illegally or his fixation on the size of the inauguration audience. He saw 1.5 million people on the National Mall. His press secretary dutifully pronounced it "the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe." That "alternative fact," a term coined by his own senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, would be true if it were not for actual aerial photographs showing the crowd, actual television ratings and what anyone with reasonable vision could see with their own eyes.
Then, after weeks of bashing intelligence agencies and sowing doubt about their credibility, President Trump had the audacity to hope that no one would remember. Standing before CIA employees, an audience that knows something about bending truth, he said: "I have a running war with the media. They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth and they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community. ... It is exactly the opposite." That "alternative fact," too, would be true if it were not for his own words showing otherwise.
President Trump has come into office making bold pledges to disrupt, dismantle and discard. Right out of the starting gate, he is targeting programs and practices held most dear to poor people, women, people of color, the disabled, the LGBT community and immigrants. He has given cover to right-wing nuts and the hating class. So rather than go crazy with worry, marchers hit the streets to make a show of support among themselves as much as a show of resistance to Trumpism. They seek reassurance that they are not alone, that they are not overly paranoid.
Can we take him at his word when he insists that he will be president of all Americans and vows with his hand on two Bibles to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States"? After all, in addition to his words, his cabinet and his senior staff include people who are hostile to broad civil rights and, in some instances, to the missions of they agencies they have been tapped to run.
Some of his top aides suggest that we should not take him literally. So are supposed to adopt a posture of blind faith? The answer from the streets over the weekend was a resounding no. Women, and quite a few men, declared that "our rights are not up for grabs," as some placards announced.
Just as the president has made an art of bold opening gambits on the way to sealing his deals, he should recognize the marches as a counter move deserving of some respect. Instead, his initial reaction, conveyed in a tweet, was derision: "Watched protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn't these people vote?"
Clearly, marching is not enough. It is a start. This nascent movement has heavy lifting to do to get through to the president, to Congress and to that other half of America that is wondering why we are being so disrespectful. The first great hurdle, however, may be in binding into a coherent and sustainable alliance people with legions of fears and grievances — sometimes against each other. The process will not always be pretty or polite, but, to borrow a chant from Saturday, "This is what democracy looks like."
What they — we — are demanding is respect for rights promised, denied, fought for and won over the last century. And we who believe in freedom cannot rest.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: email@example.com.