Protesters converge at the White House fence. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Art and architecture critic

The first big lie of the Trump administration had to do with crowds and public space. The day after his Jan. 20, 2017 inauguration, Trump’s official spokesman cited incorrect numbers to back up the president’s claim that “like a million, million and a half people” had showed up to watch his swearing in, despite obvious photographic evidence that the audience for Trump’s event was dwarfed by the estimated 1.8 million who gathered to watch the opening event of the Obama administration. That lie was probably a test, to see how far the president’s press secretary would go to support a false narrative, and ascertain the willingness of the American people to believe claims directly refuted by obvious visual evidence.

It may also have been the opening gambit of a larger assault on the power of people to exercise their First Amendment rights, especially “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Proposed rule changes by the National Park Service released by the Trump administration in August would limit access to the Mall by protest groups, and severely curtail access to the sidewalk in front of the White House. The Park Service, which received over 71,000 responses before a public comment period closed Monday, says some of these changes, including closing most of the White House sidewalk, are driven by security fears, while others, including new fees charged to groups that gather on the Mall, are a matter of basic budget concerns.

“It’s been 10 years since they were updated,” says Brent Everitt, a spokesman for the National Park Service. Some rules reflect concerns raised by the Occupy DC movement in 2012, and others reflect evolving issues that predate the Trump administration. “There is a lot that has happened in recent years.”

There is a case to be made that groups that regularly use the Mall for event space should help defray some of the cost of those events. But the rule change governing the White House frontage is arbitrary, unnecessary and deeply troubling. It is hard to see it as anything other than a continuation of what the Trump administration began on its first day in office: an assault on the power of protest.

Limiting access to public space has a long and sordid history in Washington, and it predates the Trump administration’s efforts to close access to the White House sidewalk. The west terrace of the Capitol was closed after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and never reopened, and the front doors of the Supreme Court were closed for entry in 2010 (the public now enters the building like moles, through lower-level side entrances). Both closures did genuine violence to the architectural and urban symbolism of the city. The west terrace of the Capitol is the best place to unfold the logic of Pierre L’Enfant’s design of Washington, including the balance of powers encoded in the placement of the Capitol and the White House, and the enforced dignity and ceremony of communication between them dictated by the distance of their separation. The logic of Cass Gilbert’s 1935 Supreme Court building is undone by closing the front doors, which connect the grandeur of the building’s pediment (symbolizing the authority, unity and finality of justice) to the relative intimacy of the building’s Great Hall which leads directly and quickly to the courtroom itself (symbolizing the accessibility of justice for all).

Those closures happened under both Republic and Democratic administrations, so the damage done by security paranoia is a bipartisan crime. But the Trump administration’s attempt to restrict access to the White House sidewalk is different and greatly more distressing. There doesn’t seem to be any security logic to it, given that the White House will soon be ringed by a new, more secure fence, and already enjoys multiple levels of security protection. And the decision must be seen within the context of President Trump’s anti-democratic rhetoric, particularly his repeated use of the word “mob” to describe protesters and those expressing dissent, and his own actions dating back to the initial Trump deceptions about the inauguration.

Democratic governments change according to elections; autocratic ones usually change in only one way, with crowds gathered in the streets. It was an angry crowd gathered in Palace Square, in Bucharest, that unnerved the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaucescu, and led to the 1989 downfall of one of last communist tyrannies. It was crowds in Tahrir Square, in Cairo, that led to the 2011 end of the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Crowds are the last, ineluctable fact that cannot be changed, a fact that exists beyond the power of “alternative facts,” a fact that forces a regime to confront one of two possibilities: engage in civil war or leave power.

The debate over security, in this country, turns on a central premise: We must trust the government when security is invoked to justify the loss of civil liberties. The history of the United States should make us wary of that trust, and the particular history of the Trump administration makes any kind of trust ridiculous.

There are reasonable ways to regulate public space, including a simple, accessible system of permits for the Mall, which the courts have upheld. But the Trump administration isn’t necessarily concerned about public space issues, including the guarantee of equal public access for different groups, and the maintenance of public space that is regularly used by large crowds. Rather, the president is crafting a narrative about crowds that dates back to the original lie of his administration. They are not to be trusted. The first lie was about how to read a crowd, and the lesson was simple: Believe me, not your eyes. Last month, the Guardian reported that despite a 2017 inspector general’s report claiming otherwise, the president called the National Park Service after the inauguration, requested new photos, and the Park Service complied by editing photos to make the crowds look bigger.

The president’s use of “mob” rhetoric, repeatedly, adds to the narrative, building up suspicion of people exercising their First Amendment rights. The mob is the putative criminal in this drama, and the proposed National Park Service regulations limiting access to public space give the government a handy excuse for suppressing its critics. At a moment of great national tension, the Park Service is helping a volatile president escalate the possibility for genuine violence, for actual blood in the streets. Does it seem extreme to imagine that someday the U.S. military will face down a peaceful crowd, and make a fateful decision to either obey the president or fire on American citizens? But the military has fired on citizens before, in 1970, at Kent State.

Much of what happens in Washington doesn’t need to happen in Washington. Our debates transpire in virtual spaces, on the air waves, in front of television green screens connected by satellites. The country, it seems, can be governed from a golf club. Much of what happens in Washington could now happen anywhere in the world, through Hi-Tech communications. But the city remains essential because it is a gathering place, because people come here to see the physical manifestation of their government, and often to speak their mind to the power it embodies.

The power of protest is not a distraction from government, but vital to its essential function, containing its power, chastening it, humbling its administrators. Since the Oklahoma City bombing more than 20 years ago, the American people have surrendered public space in Washington, and elsewhere, based on a basic promise: Trust us, we know what’s best for you. Through the agency of the Park Service, a new administration, which lacks basic credibility and freely indulges in anti-democratic rhetoric, is saying the same thing: Trust us. But there is no trust left to give.