As the media see it, President Trump’s Tulsa rally was the biggest political debacle in recorded history.
Journalists are casting the president as defeated, deflated and depressed, his aides practically in mourning, his campaign in a nosedive.
There are many things that went wrong, and not just involving crowd size. But anyone who thinks it will have a lasting impact, or that we’ll still be talking about this in two or three days, must have amnesia when it comes to new Trump controversies crowding out old ones in the blink of a news cycle.
It’s not true, as the Trump camp says, that the media are largely to blame for the low turnout in Oklahoma. But the weeklong coverage building up to Saturday night’s event amounted to an unbelievably negative barrage.
And the increasingly dire warnings about the risk of coronavirus reflected a stunningly blatant double standard. Media warnings about Covid-19 all but vanished when the racial protests swept across America, drawing much praise as tens of thousands of protesters packed the streets shoulder to shoulder. But the Oklahoma rally was denounced as a super-spreader event. I had grave reservations about both, but there was no equivalence whatsoever.
Did the coverage scare some people off from the Bank of Oklahoma Center? Probably. It’s actually kind of striking that more than 6,000 people showed up in the middle of a pandemic. The problem is that the Trump campaign fueled expectations of a sellout crowd at the 19,000-seat arena, plus a second speech to an overflow crowd outside that never materialized.
So the sea of empty blue seats became a metaphor for the failure of the first Trump rally in months.
Campaign manager Brad Parscale blamed “a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of Covid and protesters.” I’m sure the coverage was a factor, but with some Oklahoma health officials warning of the risk, many Trump supporters just decided to stay home.
And according to journalists who were there, the campaign’s contention that protesters were deterred rally-goers by blocking entrances just wasn’t true.
Then there is the Tik Tok factor: Many teens saying they pranked the campaign by reserving (and then cancelling) hundreds of thousands of tickets, enabling the campaign to say there were a million requests. Parscale dismissed the notion of “leftist and online trolls doing a victory lap,” saying it was a non-factor.
By the way, he also said “it makes us wonder why we bother credentialing media for events when they don’t do their full jobs as professionals.” I don’t expect any chance, since the whole point of rallies is to generate media attention.
The Tulsa coverage has been dramatic. Trump “was stunned” looking out at the arena, the New York Times says, “and he yelled at aides backstage while looking at the endless rows of empty blue seats in the upper bowl of the stadium…
“When he landed back at the White House and walked off Marine One, his tie hung untied around his neck. He waved to reporters, with a defeated expression on his face, holding a crumpled red campaign hat in one hand.”
But more important than the turnout was what the president had to say during his more than 90 minutes in the arena. And it was a rather rambling assortment of greatest hits, entertaining but lacking any central theme or, in political jargon, a “reset” of his campaign.
How does doing 15 minutes mocking criticism of his halting descent down a West Point ramp, or shaky sip of a glass of water, help him get reelected?
The president seems not to have settled on a line of attack against Joe Biden, and nothing lately has stuck against a candidate largely confined to his home. It’s harder for Trump to paint Biden as soft on China after John Bolton’s book depicted him pressing Xi Jinping for reelection help in the form of wheat purchases.
Trump did hit some culture war notes, particularly on the crusade against Confederate symbols, saying: “The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments, tear down our statues and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control.”
The Washington Post says Trump used a “litany of racially offensive stereotypes,” including “Kung Flu,” and his criticism of Ilhan Omar for “telling us how to run our country.” The congresswoman, who fled Somalia when she was 12, is an American citizen.
The Post says “it’s unclear if such racially inflammatory messaging will continue to resonate with white suburban voters, especially women, amid a national conversation about structural racism.”
Whether that overstates the case of not, Trump said nothing about the killing of George Floyd, the protests or national unity.
The Trump campaign may have blown its Tulsa moment, but the turnout is merely a fleeting embarrassment, gleefully seized upon by pundits who are convinced the president is losing. The larger question is how he runs against Biden, how the former veep builds a case for himself, and what the campaign looks like when it emerges from the dark shadow of the pandemic.