Opinion

Trump's shaky start in Tulsa

The news from the president's first campaign rally in months had nothing to do with crowd sizes

For the thousands of people in the audience it was the Elvis '68 Comeback Special. For the members of the press it was Fyre Festival. For the rest of us watching from home, it was a standard Donald Trump campaign rally.

The president's appearance in Tulsa on Saturday, which did not quite fill the 19,000-seat indoor arena booked for it, is already being treated as a referendum on his re-election chances with voters in a state that he won by 36 percent four years ago. This is true even of the journalists who are happy to accept the idea that the event was not full because thousands of tickets had been assigned to young people who deliberately requested them with no plans of showing up. Whether his unpopularity, Tik-Tok shenanigans, some totally mysterious third case (e.g., people not wanting to attend a crowded indoor event at which few if any persons in the audience were likely to be wearing masks) is responsible for the lower-than-expected turnout is an open question. It is also a very boring one. Nothing confirms me in my long-held view that this president and the journalists who moan about him for a living deserve one another more than both sides' willingness to squabble about crowd figures.

But what actually happened? Trump complained about "fake-news CNN" and called for the reopening of schools in the fall. He hypothesized about a female victim of home invasion "whose husband is away as a traveling salesman or whatever he may do." He observed that the coronavirus has "more names than any disease in history" and that "many people call it a virus, which it is." (He claimed that he was aware of at least 19 such names, including "Kung Flu.") He told the audience that they were "lucky" he was president and spoke amid raucous applause for "brand-new gorgeous helicopters" and the multitude of televisions on Air Force One. He suggested making flag burning illegal, under penalty of a year's imprisonment. He frequently used language that would have given the broadcast a rating of TV-14 if it had appeared as a scripted program. He mused about how his supporters are "the elite," not journalists, who are not elite because among other reasons he has "better hair" and "better carpets" than them. He denounced the Swedish and Brazilian responses to the pandemic. He talked for 15 minutes about ramps. He performatively drank a glass of water, a feat that could be seen as a normal part of anyone being asked to speak at great length or, alternately, as evidence that he is the "GREATEST. PRESIDENT. EVER." You decide.

One thing Trump did not mention in his two hours of remarks was the death of George Floyd, whose killing on May 25 has led to nationwide calls for police reform and set in motion rioting, looting, the destruction of monuments, the creation of a quasi-sovereign landlocked nation within the borders of downtown Seattle, and the de facto abandonment of pandemic social distancing measures. Another was Juneteenth, the holiday he has previously taken (in the case of certain audiences probably somewhat deserved) credit for popularizing after rescheduling the rally in question, which had originally been scheduled for the 19th.

My overall impression was that Trump is still somewhat uncertain about how he intends to go about campaigning in the months between now and November. Will the boos we heard when he mentioned Neil Gorsuch convince him not to seize upon his first Supreme Court nominee as a rousing success? Will he continue to equivocate about the pandemic, simultaneously crediting his (limited and almost certainly inadequate) border control measures from months ago with saving hundreds of thousands of lives and winking at people who do not take the virus seriously? Whatever the answer is, he will soon learn that, while there may be a sizable portion of the American public for whom the horrors of flag burning are an issue of paramount importance, they do not make up a vast majority, silent or otherwise, much less the exceedingly narrow one he will need again in a state like Michigan.

Saturday's show, the first on Trump's reunion tour, was for diehards only. Pretty soon he is going to ignore the deep cuts and start playing the hits, including the ones he hasn't written yet about the economic recovery that is still far from assured.

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