With today’s national and global Women’s Marches, the numbers game has just intensified greatly. Don’t kid yourself. Despite organizers’ claims that they’re not anti-Trump events, they’re all about discrediting Donald Trump’s presidency even as it’s just beginning – a continuation of the campaign that began right after the insurgent Republicans’ victory with (accurate) observations that he seemed to have lost the popular vote.
If you have any doubts, you need to get on Twitter. There, President Trump’s opponents, including in the supposedly impartial mainstream media, have spent the last 24 hours gleefully and ceaselessly reporting that the crowds that gathered for yesterday’s inaugural events were considerably smaller than those for previous such presidential occasions. And the boasting has continued today, with (also accurate) observations that the women’s marchers – including in Washington, D.C. – are also more numerous than the inaugural gatherings.
Don’t get me wrong. In a democracy, playing the numbers game is really important, legitimate, and actually necessary. In fact, these newest claims bring back memories of my own participation in the second Vietnam War “moratorium” demonstration in the nation’s capital in November, 1969. Interestingly, as the roughly 500,000 protesters filled the Mall, many of us wondered if our presence would make any difference to then President Nixon, who seemed more than able and willing to ignore us. It turns out he was paying plenty of attention.
I strongly suspect that President Trump has been paying attention, too. He certainly should. There’s clearly a lot of manufactured hysteria at work in these marches (which, as is typical with such efforts, tend to attract mongers of many imagined grievances), along with superficial virtue-signaling. But it’s also clear that many participants are genuinely troubled, scared, outraged, or some combination of these emotions. That’s their right, and Mr. Trump unfortunately bears the blame for at least some.
Nevertheless, numbers exist in a context, and here’s some to consider before concluding that any of these developments mean that Mr. Trump is anything less than a legitimate president, or that he’s even losing the battle for public opinion.
First, the numbers game that counts most is the election. And under the U.S. Constitution, the election numbers that count decisively are those of the Electoral College. That’s the contest President Trump won, and it’s the contest around on which all the candidates for the White House based their strategies. Had the popular vote been the determinant, all these campaigns would naturally have evolved much differently – with possibly big implications for the popular vote.
Second, there may be much less to the turnout numbers of the last 24 hours as well. After all, without doubting the strength of anti-Trump feelings, the president’s opponents can draw on the impressive institutional strengths that have been built up over decades by major interlocking progressive and identity organizations – including labor unions. They’ve had more than two months to organize these marches and protests not only at the national but at the state and local levels as well.
So it’s not at all surprising that they were able to mobilize – and transport – large numbers of participants. What’s much more surprising is how poorly they performed when they had a chance to prevent Trump from reaching the White House in the first place. And don’t forget – their presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, was thought to have a major edge with the population groups that supposedly represented America’s demographic future.
As Mr. Trump repeatedly states, he’s heading a movement, too. But it should be obvious that this movement is embryonic, and that its organizational reach is limited at best. Think of how few truly Trump-ian candidates ran in House and Senate races. Think of how poorly they were funded. In fact, a major test of the staying power of Trump-ism will be its ability to recruit, train, and finance quality office-seekers throughout the country.
It’s also important to remember that relatively few Trump voters have long histories, or any history, of political activism. As indicated above, they’ve had few if any organizations to join, and their very support for such an unconventional candidate with such a strong anti-establishment message surely makes clear their deep disdain for the nation’s public life.
Of course, they turned out for Trump campaign rallies and other events in numbers that were stunning largely because of the campaign’s lack of organization and infrastructure. But now that their champion is in power, nothing would be more logical than for them to return to their lives and jobs in the simple expectation that it’s now up to Mr. Trump to deliver. As a result, for so many to have journeyed to Washington, D.C. – which, chances are, involved taking more than a short, Amtrak northeast corridor train ride – augurs well for the new president.
The only reasonable conclusion? Donald Trump continues to generate strong feelings among backers and opponents alike, and since both groups number in the tens of millions, he’s now – as widely noted – the leader of a deeply divided country. Can he bridge this divide substantially? Significantly? At all? And can he expand his base to include whatever fence-sitters are left? The answers will go far toward determining his administration’s success.
As for his opponents, the big question they face is one similar to one posed endlessly to the Trump campaign: Your backers will attend rallies. But will they vote?