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The Truth About Donald Trump’s Crowd-Size Obsession

The president’s rallies are grand spectacles, evidence of his political potency and oxygen for his ego. Can he sustain his reelection campaign without them? 

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Hollywood Reporter broke one of the earliest scandals in Donald Trump’s political career when it reported in 2015 that his campaign spent $12,000 to employ a talent agency, Extra Mile Casting, to hire background actors, paid $50 each, to attend Trump’s presidential campaign launch on June 16, 2015, at Trump Tower. “We are looking to cast people for the event to wear T-shirts and carry signs and help cheer him in support of his announcement,” read the casting call.

The Federal Election Commission required Trump’s campaign to disclose the payments to Extra Mile Casting in response to a campaign finance complaint. Initially, Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, denied the report, telling The Hollywood Reporter “Mr. Trump draws record crowds at almost every venue at which he is a featured speaker. The crowds are large, often record-setting and enthusiastic, often with standing ovations.” In hindsight, Lewandowski seems to be describing the common spectacle of Trump’s presidential campaign and his presidency—the MAGA rally—but at the time, he was fronting. Trump entered the presidential contest with a strong polling advantage over his Republican rivals but otherwise shaky fundamentals. Despite his baseline celebrity, Trump’s own rallies were “fake news,” attended by dispassionate freelancers.

It’s tough to pinpoint when exactly Trump transformed his rallies from a lowbrow, low-budget sideshow into a serious upheaval. By the time he addressed his supporters in the late-night hours after his second-place finish in the 2016 Iowa caucuses, his crowds seemed all too real. The earliest “Lock her up!” chants against Hillary Clinton broke out at a March 7, 2016, rally in Concord, North Carolina, which also marks the moment when the news media started to brand Trump’s stump speeches as “MAGA rallies,” master classes in nationalist branding and contemptuous sloganeering. “I’m starting to agree with you,” Trump told his crowd in Colorado Springs as they chanted “Lock her up!” the night after Clinton antagonized Trump in her nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention. Once Trump upset Clinton in the general election, he left his critics to contend with the vulgar vitality in his rallies, which would continue, as massive and braggartly spectacles, through his otherwise barren inauguration. Even after his election, Trump continued to campaign for the presidency, and his supporters continued to chant “Lock her up!” and so Trump reimagined the presidency as his never-ending insurgency. His rallies have become only more intimidating—more “real”—as his broader unpopularity persists.

On Saturday, Trump relaunched his 2020 presidential campaign with several thousand supporters at a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was Trump’s first public rejuvenation after several disastrous months. Trump’s opponent, Joe Biden, hasn’t hosted a rally since March. Having vanquished Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, Biden has all but withdrawn from the news cycle, and his supporters only ever seem to appear in polls. Meanwhile, Trump has mismanaged the federal coronavirus response as well as the nationwide protests against police brutality. A couple of months ago, Trump’s supporters resurfaced at scattered protests in several states against coronavirus lockdowns, which Democratic governors ordered in Minnesota, Michigan, Virginia, and elsewhere. But the left-wing civil rights marches in 50 states made those right-wing rallies on random statehouse lawns look pathetically, vanishingly small.

When Trump, at odds with his own public health advisors, encouraged the lockdown protests two months ago, he seemed to be grasping for an excuse to resume his rallies; note how unambiguously pro-Trump those protests were. The earliest news reports about Trump’s rally in Tulsa underscored the disclaimer on the event’s registration page, which waived the campaign’s liability for any COVID-19 transmission at the event. “Almost One Million people request tickets for the Saturday Night Rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma!” Trump tweeted the weekend beforehand. One million, he said! As always with Trump in discussions about his “silent majority,” it was a halfway credible claim. Trump’s critics might imagine him exaggerating such figures—his ticket requests, his TV ratings, and his overall popularity—to intimidate his opponents, while, of course, flattering himself. But Trump’s critics might also imagine this otherwise unpopular president marshaling one million fanatics to bolster his comeback rally in the heartland. The enthusiasm for Trump is limited in nationwide polls but it appears limitless in his public rallies—until now. On Saturday, Trump addressed a surprisingly sparse crowd. It shouldn’t even be so surprising: The coronavirus pandemic obviously discourages many supporters from attending an indoor rally. If only Trump hadn’t gone so far out of his way to overstate his ability to draw such massive crowds. Reportedly, the “one million” ticket requests included countless registrations from subversive K-pop fans and TikTok users, posing as Trump’s supporters, who never intended to materialize in Tulsa. A MAGA rally hasn’t seemed so immaterial since June 16, 2015.

Trump hasn’t announced his next rally. The recent surge in U.S. coronavirus cases may well dissuade Trump and Biden from packing any more arenas before the nomination conventions in August. Of course, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have downplayed the surge in states such as Oklahoma and Florida, which echoes Trump’s skepticism about the spring lockdowns. Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia: These are battleground states where Biden leads Trump, and where Trump sure could use some good, old-fashioned MAGA revivals. Win or lose, Trump could lead these rallies through 2024; win or lose, he’ll have nothing better to do.