Trump’s deflating campaign launch
President Trump’s re-election campaign was left reeling this week, after a Tulsa rally conceived as a triumphant return to the public stage for the beleaguered president fizzled amid low turnout. The 19,000-seat Bank of Oklahoma Center was only a third full for the Saturday event, leaving a glaring sea of empty blue seats. Trump had promised a crowd “like nobody’s seen before,” and the campaign, boasting of over a million ticket requests, set up an outdoor stage where Trump was slated to address an overflow crowd that never materialized. TikTok users claimed credit for boosting expectations with a campaign rallying teens and others to sign up for tickets they had no intention of using. But the impact of the stunt was dismissed by Trump campaign officials, who said attendance was dimmed by fears of the virus drummed up by the “fake news media” and claimed groundlessly that demonstrators had blocked access to the arena. “Radical protesters, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the president’s supporters,” said communications director Tim Murtaugh.
Trump was rambling and combative in his 103-minute speech. He spoke dismissively of the coronavirus, calling it the “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu,” said he’d told officials to “slow the testing down” because it made the U.S. look bad, and cracked that a 10-year-old with “sniffles” would be counted as a positive case. He called Black Lives Matter protesters “thugs” and cast Joe Biden as a tool of a “left-wing mob” that wants to “demolish our heritage.” It was a theme Trump returned to days later, when he gave a more energetic speech to 3,000 student supporters in a jammed Phoenix megachurch. “If you give power to people who demolish monuments and attack churches, set fire to buildings, then nothing is sacred and nothing is safe,” he said.
Several national polls showed Biden opening up a double-digit lead on Trump, with a New York Times/Siena College poll showing the Democrat ahead 50-36 percent. A Marquette University poll had Biden opening an 8-point lead in swing state Wisconsin, and other state polls showed him with narrower leads in Arizona, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
What the editorials said
Trump “faced a moment of truth” in Tulsa, said The Washington Post. Kicking off his re-election campaign, he could “double down on the politics of division” or try to broaden his appeal “with modest efforts at conciliation and healing.” Trump “chose the low road,” offering defenses of Confederate statues and an imaginary scenario in which a “very tough hombre” breaks into a woman’s home. The ugly, mean-spirited display “makes more evident than ever the urgency of evicting him from the White House.”
Trump is damaged but not beaten, said The Washington Times. From the start of his presidency, he’s faced a “relentless stream of political missiles” that aim to “convince Americans that their patriotism is false pride.” He’s been besieged by Russiagate, impeachment, the pandemic, and now social media giants “mounting sleazy attempts to censor” his online posts. He and his supporters know the United States remains a beacon for those fleeing “racism and other sicknesses of the soul.”
What the columnists said
Tulsa revealed an “Emperor Orangius” with no clothes, said Tim Miller in TheBulwark.com. His claim to be an economic genius has been punctured by 13 percent unemployment. He doesn’t know how to manage a pandemic or unite a fragmented country or offer a vision for a second term, so he didn’t go to Tulsa to address any of this. He just wanted an adoring throng. “And he didn’t even get that.”
“Trump has only one re-election theme: fear,” said Walter Shapiro in NewRepublic.com. Beyond the empty seats, the rally’s lasting image “was the sheer ugliness of Trump’s fearmongering.” In his warnings of a “full-scale assault on American life” under a President Biden, he essentially suggested that “Democrats want to put religious believers in concentration camps.” Prepare for “a re-election campaign scripted by Roy Cohn from on high.”
Trump may be headed for a landslide defeat in November, said Josh Kraushaar in NationalJournal.com. Tulsa offered “a foreboding sign his once rock-solid base is softening.” His dismal polling shows slippage even among evangelical and rural voters. And facing the “triple threat” of a pandemic, a tanking economy, and racial divisions, “even some of the president’s supporters are questioning whether he’s up for the job.” To win, Trump needs a “miraculous turnaround.”
It’s too soon to count Trump out, said David Graham in TheAtlantic.com. At this time in 2016, headlines and polls also prophesied his doom. Still, images of empty seats and “Trump strolling off Marine One disheveled and doleful” at the night’s end will linger. They may create a dynamic that Trump, the “consummate marketer,” understands as well as anyone: “Once you look like a loser, there’s a danger voters will treat you like one.”
The Oklahoma debacle “has scrambled plans for future arena-style rallies,” said Alex Isenstadt in Politico.com. Insiders say the campaign is considering “smaller events at outdoor venues,” perhaps in nonurban areas to discourage protesters. Meanwhile, campaign officials have concluded that souring voters on Biden is their only road to victory. They’re debating whether to focus on casting him as “too cozy with China,” mentally diminished, “or as a Beltway insider.” They face a major obstacle, said Matt Bai in WashingtonPost.com: “Joe Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton.” He’s “a more naturally gifted politician” and son of the working class to whom charges of “phoniness and elitism” won’t stick. That leaves one route to a Trump victory: the “all-out culture war he desperately wants.” Biden won’t hand it to him, but “the party’s loudest activists” might, with talk of dismantling monuments and abolishing police. If they continue down this road, “the same people who felt trapped into voting for Trump in 2016 may do it again.”
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from AP (2) Reuters ■