Donald Trump's Eternal Campaign

The new president’s first actions in office suggest his style from the trail isn’t going away soon.

Patrick Semansky / AP

Inaugurations are America’s modern equivalents of Roman triumphs. Flanked by military and police vehicles, clad in the pomp of tradition, presidents of the United States take their solemn oaths and parade between the classical facades and colonnades lining Pennsylvania Avenue. Crowds of thousands—sometimes millions—of citizens look on. It is meant to be a celebration of the nation in all her stately, martial honor, and of the vir triumphalis who has claimed the status of its moral leader and commander-in-chief. But inauguration is also a transition, not only between presidents, but from the combat of the campaign to the peacetime of governance.

For President Donald Trump, however, that transition has not yet taken place. On Inauguration Day, Trump did not take off the laurel wreath and transform into a governor, but rather extended his fiery campaign. The earliest hours of his presidency suggest that, dogged by unprecedented public disapproval, confronting questions of legitimacy, relying on a base fueled by partisan conflict, and facing extensive grassroots opposition, Trump’s campaign will be indefinite.

The essential instability of Trump’s transition to the presidency was evident on the ground on Friday. Although the red “Make America Great Again” caps and shirts were ubiquitous among supporters and official souvenir vendors, Trump’s main campaign foil was still a presence among the less-official street memorabilia vendors. The “Lock Her Up” and “Hillary for Prison” buttons that became common in summer of last year were still hot-ticket items among attendees, and Clinton’s own visage still graced shirts and sweaters. “Deplorable Lives Matter” shirts—referencing the controversial remarks made by Clinton on the trail—showed up to the party as well.

The contentiousness of Trump’s campaign rallies rubbed off on the character of some of the day’s celebration. As my colleague Nora Kelly observed, many inauguration attendees were simply there to join in celebration or participate in an important civic ceremony, and many Trump supporters among that crowd merely shrugged at the presence of protesters who mixed in with the crowds and often obstructed movement. But there was an edge to the zeal, and the few minor disturbances I saw that morning came when Trump supporters were determined to break through protester lines.  Before the inauguration activities on Friday, at the Judiciary Square checkpoint, I witnessed a group of Trump supporters face off against protesters who’d linked arms to prevent them from entering. Groups like Bikers for Trump made a show of their readiness to defend Trump supporters from violence by protesters, which in my 12 hours of reporting across the city never came. Refrains of “We won!” rang out in the mixed crowd watching the swearing-in outside of the Gordon Biersch restaurant in Gallery Place, but those refrains carried as much defensiveness as they did jubilation.

Trump’s own inaugural address echoed that defensiveness, and was the clearest sign that his famed rally-centered style would not dissipate simply because he had now actually attained the office. He continued his campaign staple of painting a picture of a dystopia of “American carnage” in “inner cities,” only this time with the brush of authority wielded by the office. He continued to harness resentment. He continued his attacks against the inner-circle of D.C. politics, even as its members sat directly behind him. “For too long, a small group in our nation's capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” Trump told the crowd, without a hint of irony.

Still, given their importance in welding together a coherent coalition and in binding a working-class to a candidate who is fundamentally unlike them, it’s no surprise that the more boisterous elements of Trump rallies remained in full effect throughout inauguration. Trump needs a foil, and the major success of his campaign derived from its ability to divert attention away from a thin policy platform and towards a parade of caricatured images of threats and rivals, with Clinton chief among them. His promises to “never ignore” the elements of his base that feel left behind in a globalizing—and diversifying—landscape always land. People voted for Trump the pugilist, and his image has never deviated—despite the pivots journalists kept expecting him to eventually make.

But in his appeals to the American security apparatus, his “America First” prescription of patriotism as panacea, and his insistence that the “bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America,” the clearest view of the next few years emerged. In the purest sense of the word, Trump has always presented an authoritarian message, and has always campaigned as a person who would restore domestic and global submission to American authority. In order to do so while in office, he has to be a perpetual convener of rallies and must always minimize even the appearance of opposition. His interest in military parades fits the bill, and provides a roadmap. For his promises to work, the legitimacy of consensus is paramount.

And so it was on the very first full day of his presidency. Millions of protesters took to the streets across the country on Saturday for dozens of Women’s Marches, and in Washington, D.C. their crowds likely dwarfed the official crowds of Inauguration Day. Trump took a clear exception to this appearance of opposition.

The Trump administration dedicated not one but two official sets of remarks to chastising reporting on the crowds. In the afternoon, while addressing the CIA, Trump bashed the press for misrepresenting the size of his crowds, claiming that by the judgment of his own eyes alone they approached 1.5 million people. Later that day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer attacked journalists for showing side-by-side photos of Trump’s crowds with Obama’s, claiming that photos were “intentionally framed” to make Trump’s look smaller. He also claimed that Trump’s inauguration was the first to use floor coverings that altered the appearance of the crowds in overhead shots, and also that Inauguration Day D.C. transit ridership numbers surpassed President Obama’s 2009 numbers. Both claims were false.

To be sure, there are many more important things for journalists to cover than false claims about the size of crowds on a weekend in D.C. Right now, a slate of cabinet nominees faces serious questions about ethics, and Trump has already used executive power to begin the dismantlement of Obamacare. But the venom from the White House underscores one thing: that the appearance of enthusiastic consensus and the minimization of opposition are critical components to a Trump presidency. Crowd size matters deeply to a campaigner who has explicitly billed himself as a restorer of total allegiance, perhaps more so than nascent policy victories. And the appearance of vocal opposition intimates the one thing that such a campaigner cannot abide: the whisper of illegitimacy.

Any presidential agenda could be derailed by even a hint of illegitimacy. This is a fact that Trump exploited in both his dabbling in birtherism and in threats to jail Clinton. But Trump’s appeal as a one-man fixer of Americanness requires enhanced legitimacy even above and beyond that of traditional holders of the office. He has to be more American to more Americans, and maintain a credibility above reproach. In the wake of a popular-vote loss to Clinton, a crescendo of claims of Russian interference and collusion with his campaign, plummeting approval ratings, and a faction of government officials increasingly comfortable with questioning his scruples, the maintenance of even the appearance of that enhanced credibility will take monumental effort, one that could subsume the official duties of the office.

The one thing that Trump learned well on the trail is that constant fire-and-brimstone rally-based campaigning—low on facts and policy but high on pyrotechnics and vilification—is a pretty good way to maintain that credibility, even in the face of facts. Not consensus, but the appearance of consensus is the foundation of the legitimacy he needs to maintain power. And that means four years of campaigning, and probably fuzzing a few more numbers along the way. The circus will continue.