Almost from the moment White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer came out Saturday to argue with reporters about the attendance at President Trump’s inauguration, people were trying to figure out what he was doing.
Beginning with the obvious fact that he was acting in loco Trump, some assumed he was avenging his boss’s hurt feelings.
Others seem inclined to see it solely as a play on the media—giving him room to rework the management of the press pool, or trolling the mainstream media by getting them to undermine what’s left of their own credibility. Lord knows they immediately went to DefCon 1 on a story that could have been responsibly handled by calmly comparing White House assertions with expert crowd estimates.
While the game with the press is certainly part of what was going on here, something else was was happening—something more directly related to Trump’s brand of populism. As usual, it pays to think about how this sounds, in context, to the people who voted for him last November.
Looking at realistic estimates, Trump’s crowd was comparable to George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration, in other words, as routine as inaugurations get. Neither was as large as Obama’s in 2009; the first African-American to be sworn in was guaranteed to draw huge crowds from the predominantly black capital city.
In short, they don’t tell us much we don’t already know.
However, by minimizing Trump’s crowd, emphasizing how small it was compared to the historic Obama inaugural, and simultaneously swooning over the “Women’s March,” in effect an inauguration-that-wasn’t for Hillary Clinton, the press is telling Trump’s voters that they don’t matter.
Ponder that. These Americans have spent years—decades, even—being told they don’t matter. They’ve spent the last six years electing Republicans to offices in every branch at every level of government, only to be told that the presidency is what really matters, and the coastal elites have an emerging majority Electoral College lock on that.
Then, even though they’re told they can’t win, and that it won’t matter, they show up when it’s supposed to count. They elect a president. They show up in person, and set live streaming records to see him take office. The president they elect says that he’s going to work to return power to them.
And then, that day and the next, the same people who’ve been telling them that they don’t count tell them that it’s all meaningless. An elite that cannot manage to win or keep a majority in Congress, in state governorships, in state legislatures, or even in county governments are still their betters and they still win.
So there was Sean Spicer, talking right to them through the assembled press corps.
By insisting that viewership—Spicer also separately mentioned people viewing remotely—was larger, Spicer was saying to them, in effect, “Yes, you do matter. The press is still trying to say that you don’t. President Trump is barely sworn in, and they’re already trying to get people to forget about you. But we know you matter.” It was the Trump version of Nixon’s appeal to the great, Silent Majority.
While a useful political strategy, it is also not without risk. In times of actual crisis, such as armed conflict, people will need to know that the president is playing it straight. And ultimately, everyone knows that Trump will be judged by results, not by rhetoric.
Still, when people ask why Sean Spicer called the press together on a Saturday to pick a fight over crowd size, the answer seems simple: he was reminding Trump’s supporters that they didn’t get to the White House by paying attention to people who tell them they don’t count.