President Elect Donald Trump arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on Jan.20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. 
Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Why the paltry crowd for Trump’s inaugural matters

Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president in Donald Trump’s White House, talked to ABC’ News’ George Stephanopoulos yesterday and was quick to dismiss the underwhelming crowd that showed up for the new president’s inauguration late last week.

“The crowd size is actually not a very animating topic to me,” Conway said, adding that inaugural crowd sizes are not how presidents are judged.

It might be a more compelling point if her boss didn’t disagree so strenuously.

Throughout his rise to power, Trump has made crowd sizes a key element of his political identity. At his pre-inaugural press conference, the new president, referring to himself in third person, declared, “Nobody has ever had crowds like Trump has had. You know that.” Just two days before taking the oath of office, Trump told an audience, “[T]hey’ve just announced we’re going to have record crowds” coming to the inauguration.

It’s still not clear who “they” are, but their imaginary “announcement” was obviously mistaken. Trump said he intended to “set the all-time record” for attendance at a presidential inaugural, but it became plainly obvious on Friday that he failed spectacularly. Politico noted:
For someone preoccupied with the size of his audiences, President Donald Trump appeared to draw an anemic one on Friday.

In the run-up to the inauguration, Trump had promised an “unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout,” but early evidence suggests the festivities in Washington fell far short of that mark.
By most estimates, roughly 250,000 people attended Trump’s inauguration, compared to 1.8 million who showed up for President Obama’s first inaugural. The side-by-side pictures and videos drive home the point in striking visuals: the crowd for Friday’s event was rather pathetic.

I’d be far more sympathetic to arguments that this is little more than a trivial curiosity if Trump and the new White House team weren’t going out of their way to make the opposite argument.

At the CIA on Saturday, for example, the new president was eager to boast about the 1.5 million people who attended his inauguration, a figure that was only off by 1.25 million. Soon after, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer hosted a short and awkward briefing, in which he insisted Trump’s inauguration had an audience larger than any previous president.

This is, of course, completely bonkers. On the first full day of the new administration, the president and his chief spokesperson effectively told Americans not to believe their lying eyes.

My point is not that inaugural crowd sizes are somehow of critical significance. Rather, my point is that Trump and his team made them important, and continue to stress obsessively over their importance, which is self-defeating in ways that raise legitimate questions about their judgment. The New York Times added this morning:
Mr. Trump grew increasingly angry on Inauguration Day after reading a series of Twitter messages pointing out that the size of his inaugural crowd did not rival that of Mr. Obama’s in 2009. But he spent his Friday night in a whirlwind of celebration and affirmation. When he awoke on Saturday morning, after his first night in the Executive Mansion, the glow was gone, several people close to him said, and the new president was filled anew with a sense of injury.
There’s a certain type of temperament that makes for a good president. This isn’t it.

As for the details, in her ABC interview, Conway added, “I want to talk about things that are quantifiable, not a bunch of metro riders and crowd sizes.” But in English, “quantifiable” refers to things that can be counted. In this case, we can count subway riders, television audiences, and the number of blocks on the National Mall that were covered with people.

And by every quantifiable metric, this test of Trump’s support was a flop. The fact that the president and his press secretary want us to believe them and not the evidence is a reminder that the White House’s word is, at best, unreliable.