You never know exactly what you’re going to get at a Trump rally—a creative variation on the “Lock her up” chant? A brand-new conspiracy theory? But you can always rely on the former president to brag about the size of the crowd. He will remark happily upon the gridlocked traffic getting into the event. He will exclaim that he cannot even pinpoint exactly where the crowd ends. And periodically, he will demand that videographers pivot their cameras around to capture the full extent of his devoted following.
For Donald Trump and his supporters, crowd size is more than just a bragging point. It’s proof that they are part of the American majority. “A person that comes here and has crowds that go further than the eye can see … and has cars that stretch out for 25 miles, that’s not somebody that lost an election,” Trump told the crowd at his rally in Florence, Arizona, on Saturday.
Before the 2020 election, Trump and his fans would often ask reporters how Joe Biden could possibly win when he didn’t have rallies as big as Trump’s. Now that Biden is president, Trump-rally goers say things like Trump couldn’t really have lost. Look at all of these people! In Arizona this weekend, 51-year-old Tammy Shutts put it this way to me: “100 percent, 1,000 percent, 1 million percent Biden didn’t win” her state, she said, gesturing to the hordes of people around her. “I’ve been in Arizona for almost 21 years. There is no way—no way—we went blue.”
Many American liberals live in political bubbles. Some people in overwhelmingly blue parts of the country, for example, were shocked to find that Trump got so many votes in 2016. (“I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for [Richard] Nixon,” the film critic Pauline Kael famously said of the former president, acknowledging her own political bubble just weeks after Nixon smashed George McGovern in 1972.) Some of those same blue-area Democrats were just as confident that Senator Elizabeth Warren would be the party nominee. But Republicans also live in bubbles.
Human beings aren’t particularly comfortable hearing information that challenges our closely held beliefs, and the urge to reject evidence that goes against our political opinions is especially strong. Reading only certain websites or watching particular TV channels shields Americans from facts and opinions they don’t like, and geographic sorting protects partisans from unpleasant interactions with people who hold different beliefs. Political segregation in America has increased dramatically in the past decade. “For about one in five Republicans, and two in five Democrats, less than a quarter of their neighbors belong to the opposite political party,” according to a recent study published in Nature. In other words, Trump voters might find it hard to believe that Biden won the election because their neighbors and friends mostly voted for Trump too.
Trump’s rallies amplify these phenomena, Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard who co-wrote the Nature study, told me. “You have the president saying things, your neighbors who you [perceive as] saying the same things, and then these Trump rallies seem to be almost a social event,” he said. “Now you have an element of your social life, not just what you’re seeing on TV, that is caught up in believing these lies.” When you’re literally surrounded by believers, it’s hard to remember that doubters exist. Inside Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, for example, it can seem like the whole world is made up of Hawkeyes fans. Fortunately, that’s not true. (Go ’Clones.)
Trump’s obsession with the size of his audiences was evident from the first day of his administration, when he claimed that his inauguration crowd stretched “all the way back to the Washington Monument.” (It did not.) His rallies usually are staggering in scale; at the Florence event this past weekend, the crowd was bigger than any I’d seen before, filling up an outdoor music venue. It took an hour to drive out of the parking lot. But for Trump, boasting about his throngs of supporters is about more than just telegraphing his wild popularity to his opponents. Trump’s boasting reaffirms his voters’ beliefs, and shuts out doubt. It keeps his supporters inside their bubble.