The founding lie of Donald Trump’s presidency is that he has a loyal, passionate and above all vast base of support. The lie was ludicrous on Day 1 of his presidency, and it’s ludicrous now, but a dangerous thing has happened with that lie: The public has come to believe it.
To recap: The crowd for Trump’s Jan. 20, 2017, inauguration — somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 — was about a third of the size of the record-breaking 1.8 million that showed up for President Obama’s inauguration in 2008.
The very next day, Trump’s ascent to the White House was greeted with perhaps the largest single-day protest in U.S. history, when more than 3 million people took to the streets carrying signs that denounced the president in unminced words.
By every measure, Trump was not just deeply unpopular from the get-go; he was widely despised. But instead of recognizing he’d have to work to win the trust of American voters, Trump lied.
According to his then-communications director, Sean Spicer, Trump’s crowd was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” Even Spicer later regretted the whopper.
That was good for a laugh at the start. But because some people, against predictions and decency, had voted for Trump, the media seemed determined to style his supporters as a formidable movement. All the while, Trump has amplified the lie of his popularity, regularly referring to himself as “your favorite of all time president.”
Trump haters now imagine these passionate supporters as cultists, racists and enemies of liberalism. Others believe they’re principled Republicans holding their noses, or legitimately aggrieved white working-class men. In either case, Trump’s supporters are terrifying, oceanic, a force to be reckoned with.
On Wednesday, Trump held yet another pep rally for his supporters, this time in Greenville, N.C. At someone’s instigation, the audience started to echo a racist Trump tweet, chanting, “Send her back!” in a roar.
That served to advertise the crowd’s aggression and racism, and keep the Trumpites on brand: They’re frenzied bigots — deranged, monstrous, capable of anything. Further Wizard of Oz sleight-of-hand: #IStandWithPresTrump and #sendherback appeared to trend on Twitter; suddenly every zone appeared to be flooded with belligerent Trumpites, even if many of them were bots.
Back in the arena at East Carolina University, the bellowing helped the modest-sized rally make up in volatility what it lacked in numbers. Trump lied again. He said there were no empty seats. There were empty seats. Trump’s aide Brad Parscale took on the Spicer role, crowing on Twitter that 20,000 people were in the venue. Accurate counts put attendance at about 8,000. (For comparison, an average of 18,000 people attend every single men’s basketball game at the University of North Carolina.)
The numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s a mistake to assume the rally crowds are made up exclusively of Trump supporters. As we know from exit interviews with people at past rallies, some in attendance slip in merely to observe or even to hate-watch.
Tyler Linfesty, the self-identified democratic socialist who attended a Trump rally out of curiosity in Billings, Mont., last September, was escorted out of the VIP section by Secret Service when he expressed disgust at the president’s pronouncements. Two friends of Linfesty were escorted out too, seemingly also for showing insufficient enthusiasm. Not a great VIP showing for a sitting president in one of his most supportive districts.
And then there is the possibility that some in Trump’s rally audiences are ringers, paid to show up and chant. As the Hollywood Reporter noted in 2015, Trump offered extras $50 to cheer for his presidential announcement. The campaign issued a non-denial denial. Ads for crowd fillers have since been spotted in other cities but their provenance and veracity have been impossible to confirm.
To Alan W. Silberberg, a cybersecurity consultant who did advance work for events for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Trump’s rallies don’t pass the smell test. Forty-five minutes into the Greenville event, as the Twitterverse pointed out, blocks of seats were empty, and Silberberg noted that drapery and campaign bunting were used to hide other empty seats.
If a sitting president is truly popular in the district where a rally is staged, Silberberg said, filling mid-sized venues of 8,000 seats should be a snap. In the 1990s, he told me, his team distributed tickets to regional campaign rallies through local Democratic Party offices. Clinton-Gore rallies were “full-to-the-fire-marshal-limit everywhere.” News reports show that Clinton and Gore regularly appeared before 15,000 to 20,000 people.
Trump’s support is clearly not all phony. Polls show Republicans approve of the job he’s doing in high numbers, which raises the question of how big that polling pool really is. Trump’s critics, in any event, do their cause a grave disservice by following his lead and exaggerating his support, which gets people buzzing and may generate a bandwagon effect: real support following simulated support.
Or something even more sinister could happen. Anti-Trumpers might become cowed and discouraged enough to stay away from the polls because they are convinced the specter of a massive GOP base can’t be beat.
Don’t listen to Trump’s lies, skip the alarmism, and turn down the “send her back” volume. Above all, remind yourself that Trump’s Gallup approval rating has fluctuated between terrible (36.8%) and bad (42.7%). He isn’t our all-time favorite. Period.