It was on day one of his presidency that Donald Trump told his first spectacular lie. Basking in the glow of his inaugural ceremony, he humbly speculated that the event was attended by “a million, million and a half people.” When the sheer ridiculousness of this assertion was called out by the media, President Trump’s new Press Secretary Sean Spicer doubled down: “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period!” — as if the word “period” had the power to transform the facts, and make it so.
It has been several weeks since that first lie was told, and many bigger ones, most of which concern matters far less silly, have been told since. Commentators have rightly described the president’s attachment to “truths” of his own manufacture as a serious threat to our democracy, but I have yet to hear anyone discuss Donald Trump’s obsession with crowd size as a necessary ramification of his political thought. This is, in fact, a lie that speaks not only to the president’s willingness to abuse his power, but to the diseased way he thinks about power.
President Trump has repeatedly claimed that his crowd size was bigger than Obama’s. He is equally adamant about having won a bigger share of the popular vote by many millions of votes, even though he lost by nearly 3 million. Most Americans, to include anyone endowed with even a modicum of sensitivity towards their fellow citizens, would think it enough to have won the office. But our president has a driving need to be thought bigger and better, even when he clearly is not.
As a scholar of ancient Rome, I have a peculiar perspective on the strange urgency with which Donald Trump pursues the perception of his greatness. What most disturbs me about this obsession are the unspoken power assumptions that are built into it; assumptions that speak to the diminution of the people’s role in Donald Trump’s America: from that of democracy’s pilots (deliberating, engaging and doing) to that of celebrity-infatuated gawkers (watching and adoring). In Rome, the emperor’s “right to rule” (his imperium) was not just helped along by his being perceived as incomparably great, it was synonymous with it: take away the perception, and the emperor’s imperium disappears. The people’s job, under Rome’s emperors, was to swell the crowds, and adore. They were needed for the cause of mystification.
In modern Western democracies, we tend to define a leader’s suitability for office in terms of things that are harder to fake and mystify, such as emotional maturity, highly developed interpersonal and political skills, years of experience, thoughtfulness, compassion, and so on. Not so in Imperial Rome. There it was all about one man’s being set off from everyone else as preternaturally gifted, as if sent down from the heavens, and deigning to dwell among and “bless” his adoring inferiors. Roman emperors were, both by definition and by name, persons more “august” (Caesar Augustus), more “pious” (Antoninus Pius), the “greatest of the august great” (Magnus Maximus Augustus). And so on. Entire industries of ritualized razzle-dazzle and mass spectacles of adoration were developed to create and maintain the illusion of the emperor’s maiestas (literally his “greater-ness”). Crowd size, in ancient Rome, was a very big deal.
To most Americans it is no big deal who had the bigger inauguration crowd. But to people who think like fascists, any perceived greater-ness in someone who is not the great one himself is legible as a threat to power, and treated as an attack against the incomparable one’s right to rule. The perception of lesser-ness, in a fascist ruler, is never an option. Conceived of in this way, “greatness” can easily be turned into a political weapon, as it was in Rome, where it became many-an emperor’s go-to tool for persecuting his enemies. Under provisions of the so-called lex maiestatis (“law of greater-ness”), the greatness of the emperor’s person was inseparable from the greatness of Rome. To belittle, doubt, or refuse to display enthusiasm for the one was tantamount to a crime against the other. To be more popular than the emperor was an act of treason.
That is why crowd size matters still: it matters precisely because it should not. Not in a functioning democracy. To obsess over crowd size, the way Donald Trump has, treating it as a matter of utmost political urgency, is much more, and much worse, than a sign of his being self-centered and wracked by multiple deep-seated insecurities. It is a sign of his perverse commitment to the idea that his own presidential greatness is synonymous with all that “makes America great.” It is a sign of his contempt for American democracy.