Both our new president and some of his most vociferous opponents have spent his first weekend in office flaunting the number of people they were able to draw into the streets. Trump has insisted that the size of his inaugural crowd not be understated, and the organizers of the various anti-Trump women’s marches around the country (and the world) have sought to make a point by showing off the crowds they could attract.
This likely will not be the last time that Trump and his sharpest liberal detractors turn out to be mirror images of each other. And in this case, their common instincts about how to approach the broader public point to a problem they share: Both wish to understand themselves as intensely popular, but both are in fact distinguished by a marked lack of popularity.
Trump enters office as the least popular new president since the invention of polling. Yet he insists, and maybe he believes, that he has ridden into Washington on the back of a mass movement the likes of which America has never seen. The activist Left enters this era having managed to lose a national election to Donald Trump. Yet it behaves as though it takes itself to be the obviously rightful voice of both reason and the masses. Both seem persuaded that they would be even more popular if only they were more like what they already are.
They would both be wiser to consider how to broaden their appeal, rather than doubling down on what has limited that appeal and searching for ways to flaunt its reach. Yet both have acted in these opening days of the Trump era in ways likely to intensify the allegiance of those who are already committed and to diminish the chances of drawing more supporters.
The imperative to mind the limits of your own popularity and to try to be less off-putting and more broadly inviting and winsome ought to come naturally to anyone engaged in the public life of a democracy. Yet the instinct to make such broad appeals seems now to be in short supply. This shortage looks to be rooted at least in part in the fragmented character of our national life. And it contributes an awful lot to the tenor of our times–with the emphasis on awful.