Trump comes face to face with one of his greatest fears

A supporter sits alone in the top sections of seating as Vice President Pence speaks before President Trump arrives for a "Make America Great Again!" rally in Tulsa.
A supporter sits alone in the top sections of seating as Vice President Pence speaks before President Trump arrives for a “Make America Great Again!” rally in Tulsa. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post/TWP)
July 10, 2020 at 10:45 a.m. EDT
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The founding falsehood that set the tone for the most mendacious presidency in U.S. history — the original Big Lie — was all about crowd size. In January 2017, President Trump and his spokesperson inflated his inaugural audience with a series of grotesque falsehoods. Trump even attacked the media for telling the truth about his paltry inaugural turnout.

So it’s fitting that as Trump’s first term — and perhaps his presidency — winds down, he is confronting the very same fear that produced that original series of foundational lies: The fear that the crowds just aren’t showing up the way they’re supposed to.

Two new reports — one from NBC News, and one from the Associated Press — shed light on an internal debate now underway among Trump advisers about how to manage both this new reality and Trump’s own emotional struggle with it.

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The picture that emerges is one in which they are working to balance Trump’s insatiable need to feed off adoring crowds against the reality that people might be disinclined to brave the plague conditions that he did so much to unleash on the country. The imperatives of satiating Trump’s megalomania are bumping up against the consequences of his depravity and incompetence.

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After half-empty Tulsa rally, Trump boasts his Fox News ratings
President Trump on June 23 claimed that people watched his Tulsa campaign rally from home on June 20, creating the “highest ratings in the history of Fox News.” (The Washington Post)

Trump is set to hold a rally in New Hampshire — originally scheduled for this weekend, it has now been postponed — and as NBC reports, his advisers are desperate to avoid a repeat of the lackluster turnout at his Oklahoma gathering. As one puts it: “We can’t have a repeat of Tulsa.”

What’s changed is that Trump now realizes why the Tulsa fiasco happened: A White House official tells NBC that Trump “sees now” that supporters may not turn out at rallies due to coronavirus fears.

It’s galling that Trump only sees this now, since experts loudly warned against rallies, and one of his paramount goals was to create the illusion of normalcy, so everyone would get back to work and the economy would roar back to greatness on Trump’s reelection schedule.

So the New Hampshire rally will be held outdoors, and masks will be strongly encouraged, though not mandated. Meanwhile, Trump continues urging a recklessly rapid reopening while refusing to set a mask-wearing example himself.

Yet Trump’s advisers also know that future rallies create the risk of more lackluster appearances. But they’re going to brave that risk, and the Associated Press reports on why:

Despite the risks, the Trump campaign believes it needs to return to the road, both to animate the president, who draws energy from his crowds, and to inject life into a campaign that is facing a strong challenge from Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

The problem is that at a time when coronavirus cases are spiking to record levels in many states and nationally, Trump nonetheless wants and needs big crowds.

Trump himself unwittingly laid bare the dynamic in an interview with Sean Hannity on Thursday night.

“We’re doing very well in the polls,” Trump declared, when in fact his approval numbers are 15 points underwater and he’s trailing Biden nationally by 10 points. Both metrics have gotten worse over the last few weeks, but Trump insisted: “We’re rapidly rising.”

“There’s great spirit,” Trump continued. “Spirit like nobody’s ever seen before, actually. And there’s no spirit for Joe.”

As the constant lying about polls demonstrates, for Trump the impression that he’s losing — that his energy and candidacy are flagging, that the crowds aren’t showing up — is itself deadly. What must be relentlessly manufactured is the illusion that he remains enormously popular and that Trump’s America is energized and primed and ready to win again.

Trump has obsessed over his crowd sizes throughout his presidency. Indeed, the ability to create imagery like this is why he held rallies in off-years like 2019 in the first place:

This obsession goes back many years. In his biography of Trump, journalist Timothy O’Brien recounts an exchange between Trump and producer Lorne Michaels, in which Trump acknowledges his NBC project might not attract a big audience forever:

“You know, Lorne, it won’t always be this way,” Donald mused. “Someday NBC will call me and say, ‘Donald, the ratings are no good and we are going to have to cancel.’”
“No, Donald, there is only one difference,” Michaels replied. “They won’t even call.”

That exchange remained with Trump for years, O’Brien reports.

“Trump’s biggest existential fear is that the spotlight will be turned off, the seats will be empty, and his phone will stop ringing,” O’Brien told me. “If the ratings drop, he drops.”

“There isn’t any part of his life that hasn’t been touched by this,” O’Brien continued. “His obsession with newspaper and TV coverage in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s; how many people show up at his rallies; how he’s performing in the polls. It’s always there.”

Trump has never had majority support

An enduring fact about the Trump presidency is that he has never once had a majority of this country behind him. He lost the popular vote in 2016 and his approval has never cracked 50 percent.

Trump sometimes deals with this by declaring himself enormously popular — among carefully tailored groups. He says he won a majority of women; he won only a majority of white women. He constantly claims unspecified polls show he has 96 percent approval — among Republicans.

At other times he simply invents a “SILENT MAJORITY” that remains behind him. At still others, he uses absurdly tortured imagery to portray that silent majority:

Now Trump is facing the prospect of losing even his ability to create and experience the illusion that an enormous portion of the country remains enthusiastically behind him. And it’s all because he can’t conjure up the power to seduce people into believing the lethal virus he has done so little to curb doesn’t really exist.

It must be a special kind of hell for him.

Watch Opinions videos:

Opinion | Trump vs. the coronavirus

Even as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases passes 3 million, President Trump has repeatedly played down covid-19’s toll on the country. (Video: Joy Sharon Yi, Danielle Kunitz/Photo: Jonathan Newton / Washington Post/The Washington Post)

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