I returned to one of my favorite themes at New York this week in the context of the ongoing MAGA delegitimization of elections:
Donald Trump’s obsession with inflated estimates of the crowd sizes at his various live events has been a long-running joke in American politics. This was exhibited most famously in his bitter argument with the National Park Service over the number of people who attended his inauguration five years ago. But as Elaine Godfrey notes at The Atlantic, the phenomenon persists even today, and it’s central to MAGA claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump:
“Before the 2020 election, Trump and his fans would often ask reporters how Joe Biden could possibly win when he didn’t have rallies as big as Trump’s. Now that Biden is president, Trump-rally goers say things like Trump couldn’t really have lost. Look at all of these people! In Arizona this weekend, 51-year-old Tammy Shutts put it this way to me: ‘100 percent, 1,000 percent, 1 million percent Biden didn’t win’ her state, she said, gesturing to the hordes of people around her. ‘I’ve been in Arizona for almost 21 years. There is no way—no way—we went blue.’”
As Godfrey acutely observes, big crowds aren’t “just a bragging point” for Trump and his supporters. It’s “proof they are part of the American majority.” This both reflects and reinforces the core belief in MAGA land that more objective measurements of Trump’s popularity, like polls and election results, are unreliable and likely “rigged.” The proof? Look at those crowds!
Th preference for subjective instead of objective standards for political strength was not, of course, invented by Trump or his followers. It’s pretty common among political groups who don’t want to accept evidence that they are outnumbered or outgunned. During the home stretch of the very competitive 2012 presidential campaign, with polls showing Barack Obama building a solid lead over Mitt Romney, there was a profusion of Republican wishful thinking based not only on comparative crowd size but on the number of Romney yard signs evident along the highways and byways of the country. This obsession with the display of popularity reached epic levels during Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, which greatly valued huge flags and signs, boat parades, owning the libs with obnoxious motorcades through Democratic areas, and, of course, Trump’s rallies. The Biden campaign could not remotely match all this frenetic activity, in part, to be clear, because it considered it unsafe to voters, campaign operatives, and volunteers alike in the middle of a pandemic. But to an extent that leaves coastal elites baffled, the conviction has spread that Biden’s base of support was a statistical Potemkin village because it was far less visible.
Political operatives and pundits should examine themselves in the mirror before making too much fun of this hammerheaded, snail’s-eye view of political popularity. Some of its also stems from the incessantly discussed and near-universally accepted emphasis in recent political discourse on enthusiasm as a tangible election-winning asset. It does matter, to be sure, particularly in midterm and off-year contests, in which lukewarm voters often do not participate. But a candidate does not get extra votes for having supporters who are teeming with joy or fury, and enthusiasm beyond the point needed to get voters to the polls only helps if it is communicable. As a substitute for objective data about electoral outcomes, enthusiasm and its visible signs can be actively misleading.
But if your favorite president and partisan media have told you day in and day out for years that polls are fake news and elections are rigged, then direct experience of the strength of the political cause you share with so many others (in many places, with virtually all of your friends and neighbors) is all you’ve got. Add in a polarized atmosphere in which the other “team” is deemed actively evil and its supporters are dismissed as dupes or fellow-travelers in sin, and you get January 6, 2021. On that day, another crowd — “the biggest crowd I’ve ever,” according to Trump — formed to overwhelm Congress with its conviction that Biden’s victory was a lie because the Democrat didn’t command those monster crowds.
The sense that the MAGA movement feels like a majority and thus must be one is naturally growing stronger at a time when Democratic enthusiasm is low and Trump is plotting a triumphant restoration to power, whatever it takes. As Yeats famously said of post–World War I Europe just over a century ago, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Unfortunately, some of the worst believe their passionate intensity entitles them to rule.