A key motivating instinct for President Trump is to demonstrate that he’s winning.
That’s been tricky since Jan. 20. In part, that’s because the outward indicators of governance don’t always lend themselves to showy demonstrations of success. Appointing a capable new steward of the Department of Veterans Affairs may pay some political dividends over the long run, but it’s not going to get people clapping at you.
But in part, Trump’s having trouble convincing people (including Trump) that he’s winning because he is not winning. His inauguration was well attended but was dwarfed by the attendance in 2009 and anti-Trump protests the following day. His executive order on immigration was nearly a complete disaster. His pick to run the Department of Education squeaked by and his pick for Labor backed out. Worse still, his approval ratings started below any other recent president and have kept moving down.
To make up for it, Trump has had to cobble together signs of support from wherever he can. When he went to visit the CIA shortly after his inauguration, he apparently brought his own cheering section, according to reports from CBS News. (It wasn’t the first time he’s done this; at his campaign launch actors were paid to attend and cheer.) While there, he inflated the size of his inaugural crowd from a few hundred thousand to as many as 1.5 million. Last weekend, on his way from Mar-a-Lago back to Washington, he tweeted about the “big crowds of enthusiastic supporters” that were lining the road, but which the media wouldn’t mention. (At least some of those crowds were not supporters.)
It was different during the campaign. From about mid-July 2015 to the spring of last year, Trump had a go-to metric showing he was winning: poll numbers. Trump surged to the lead in the Republican primary and never looked back, cobbling together enough delegates to win his party’s nomination. It wasn’t a pretty victory (or even a majority) but he won and the polls were the proof that it would happen. Once he secured the nomination, he stopped talking about the polls — because the polls stopped showing that he was likely to win. Instead, he turned to another metric to show how much support he had: crowd size.
“Big crowd,” he tweeted about a stop in San Jose last June. “Amazing crowd” in Dallas in July. “Incredible crowd” in Pennsylvania in August. He would talk about how big his crowds were and how small Hillary Clinton’s were, and he would talk about his “movement” that the polls were missing. That was true to the extent that the polls in three swing states missed that he’d eke out a victory of 78,000 votes which would give him an electoral college win. But it wasn’t true broadly: Clinton won the popular vote by millions.
The crowds were a physical manifestation of something Trump felt in his heart: He was liked, and the polls were wrong. Trump’s campaign consisted of leaving Trump Tower, flying places, having crowds cheer for him and then flying home to Trump Tower — a pattern that left little time for negative feedback (except on the cable news programs Trump watched religiously). Clearly, Trump missed that.
You can see Trump’s desire for that sort of positive reinforcement in his awkward response to a question about anti-Semitic incidents during a news conference on Wednesday.
“What do you say to those among the Jewish community in the states and in Israel and maybe around the world who believe and feel that your administration is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones?” he was asked.
This is how it began: “Well, I just want to say that we are, you know, very honored by the victory that we had — 316 electoral college votes. We were not supposed to crack 220. You know that, right? There was no way to 221, but then they said there’s no way to 270. And there’s tremendous enthusiasm out there.”
Trump sees any question about his win and its ramifications as a question about how good he is, and so the response he offers is a response about how he’s good, not bad, as manifested by the approval of voters who handed him the presidency. Outside of that lens, replying to a question about anti-Semitism with a comment about the electoral college makes no sense. Within that lens, though, it’s completely understandable.
Again, there aren’t many opportunities in the White House for him to get the sort of support he craves. So he’s manufacturing one. This weekend, he’ll hold a campaign-style rally in Florida — perhaps inspired by his own perception of what he saw when leaving Mar-a-Lago. It’s highly unusual to hold a campaign event four years before your next election, but it’s not unusual for a president to attend a rally. Usually, though, those rallies are predicated on some sort of policy proposal — a rally in support of Obamacare, for example. This is simply a rally in support of President Trump’s self-confidence.
He’ll get to rerun all of his favorite things from the campaign trail. He can rail against the media. He can guarantee wall-to-wall television coverage. He can talk about how well he’s doing and feel confident that the response will be agreement and not corrections or, worse, silence.
One of the most poignant depictions of the early days of Trump’s presidency came in a New York Times story earlier this month. President Trump, bored and mopey in the White House, far from his wife and young son, watching television in his bathrobe or calling old friends in the middle of the night. It’s a far cry from the days when he would march into towns a soon-to-be-conquering hero, surrounded by rapturous applause.
Time, it seems, to make being Trump great again.