Despite all the tense, even openly hostile moments to come out of Donald Trump’s first press conference as president-elect, some of the most surprising moments came not from the podium, but from the back of the room.
From Vice President-elect Mike Pence’s glowing introduction through Trump’s harsh dismissal of the reporters before him, one of the most prominent features of this press conference — meant to be a source of clarity for reporters on his many conflicts of interest — was applause.
When asked if he would release his tax returns, Trump replied that he didn’t think people cared — “I won, I became president, I don’t think they care at all” — to claps.
When Trump sarcastically asked if anyone in the room “really believe[d]” that Hillary Clinton would be “tougher on Putin” than he would, scattered voices cried out, “No!”
When Trump dismissed a CNN reporter as “fake news,” he did so to approving cheers.
It had been over seven months since Trump had a press conference, but lest we forget, applause breaks are not a staple of press conferences. Their purpose is to let reporters ask questions and learn information from those in power, not to cheerlead from the sidelines.
But Trump, as has been well-documented, is no ordinary politician; until recently, he wasn’t a politician at all. He learned how to make headlines, interact with the press, and disseminate his message through his celebrity, which rewards extreme stunts by focusing on the perpetrator.
And with the validation that comes with being the constant center of attention, Donald Trump learned how to love being there.
So it’s hardly surprising that — as Politico reported after the conference — these applause breaks came courtesy of “paid staffers” whom Trump planted specifically for the purpose of making sure those applause breaks were observed. From the second Trump announced his candidacy after descending to a podium on one of his own branded escalators, to the bombastic campaign rallies he held across the country, Trump has most thrived when he feeds off the thrill of a live audience — instant gratification, in its purest form.
Candidate Trump fed off applause. President Trump won’t be any different.
“Donald Trump loves an audience.”
This conclusion — one I wrote in September, after Trump’s second debate with Hillary Clinton — is one of the few that has remained consistent throughout the 2016 presidential campaign and beyond.
He did, after all, curate his rise through making the Miss Universe pageant and Apprentice reality show franchise all about his outsized personality and the Trump brand. As he rose up through the ranks of more traditional Republican nominees, he cut them down one by one using the most powerful weapon in his arsenal: the ability to make every single interaction he has about him.
But the man not only knows how to grab the spotlight, he relishes it. Trump proved as much in his campaign rallies, which fed on a steady diet of throwing catchphrases and huge promises at his voracious crowd in exchange for deafening approval.
It’s why, when the second debate forbid audience reaction of any kind, Trump flailed to find his footing in the uncomfortable silence. As I wrote at the time:
Trump speaks in catchy slogans. He deflects hard questions to tell stories that make him look good, no matter how relevant. He baits opponents into taking the low road, then takes the opportunity to slam them into the dirt. He makes winking references to behind-the-scenes preparations, to give people at home the feeling that he’s being realer than anyone else onscreen.
... For a showman like Trump, an audience that can’t applaud is a nightmare scenario. His campaign relies on giant statements, pointed jokes, and conspiratorial winking. None of these things work without some kind of response.
Looking back on this piece now after hearing the in-house cheerleading section during the press conference, it’s pretty clear that the same tactics and vocal approval upon which Trump’s campaign relied will also hold true for Trump’s presidency.
Trump’s made it abundantly clear since day one that an audience cheering him is one of his priorities. Even after he won, his team threw together a “victory tour” in which he could thank those who voted for him in person.
In fact, one of those “thank you” rallies included a moment that is just about the best encapsulation of how Donald Trump both uses and depends on his audience that I’ve ever seen.
Trump loves the crowd that loves him
At a December rally in Des Moines, Iowa, Trump reflected on how the phrase “drain the swamp” became such an ubiquitous part of his campaign:
Funny how that term caught on, isn’t it? I tell everyone, I hated it. Somebody said ‘drain the swamp’ and I said, ‘Oh, that is so hokey. That is so terrible.'
…I said, all right, I’ll try it. So like a month ago I said ‘drain the swamp’ and the place went crazy. And I said ‘Whoa, what’s this?’ Then I said it again. And then I start saying it like I meant it, right? And then I started to love it, and the place loved it. Drain the swamp. It’s true. It’s true. Drain the swamp.
By his own admission, Trump only learned to like “drain the swamp” after “the place went crazy.” And so he “started to love it” — and then he believed it to be “true.” This phrase that he apparently hated became a beloved classic once he got that immediate wave of positive feedback. He and the audience fed off each other, convincing the other that they had it right.
This is the dynamic we can expect President Trump to uphold: an instant feedback loop, powered by encouraging validation. Nothing makes that more clear than Trump staging a press conference with an emphasis on the “stage,” putting on a show to guaranteed approval.