Politics

Trump stokes culture wars, but low turnout mars Tulsa campaign rally

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump's first campaign rally in three months drew far fewer attendees than had been anticipated, an embarrassing blunder for a candidate who places an unusually high value on crowd sizes. 
  • Speaking for almost two hours, Trump fanned the flames of culture war issues currently roiling the nation, including racial justice and law enforcement.
  •  Trump deployed several new attack lines against Joe Biden, but none of them seemed to animate his supporters like his attacks on Hillary Clinton did in 2016.
President Donald Trump arrives at a campaign rally at the BOK Center, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump returned to one of his favorite pastimes on Saturday night: Headlining a big, brash Trump campaign rally.

After three months without a major campaign event, Trump's rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma was billed as a sort of reunion for the president and his most ardent supporters, some of whom had been waiting in line for days to be sure they got a seat.

For Trump and his inner circle, the promise of a raucous, jam-packed MAGA rally in a deep red state was seen as an opportunity for the president to put the calamitous spring of 2020 behind him, to fire up his army of loyal supporters, and to give his flagging reelection campaign a shot in the arm.

Talking up the rally last week, Trump said nearly a million people had requested tickets to attend. "We have a 22,000-seat arena, but I think we're going to also take the convention hall next door, and that's going to hold 40,000 ... We expect to have a record-setting crowd. We've never had an empty seat, and we certainly won't in Oklahoma."

But they did have empty seats. Approximately 13,000 of them, according to the Tulsa Fire Marshal, who counted slightly less than 6,200 attendees at the 19,000-seat Bank of Oklahoma Arena on Saturday night. 

A supporter sits in the upper seats during a campaign rally for U.S. President Donald Trump at the BOK Center, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

Shortly before Trump took the stage, construction crews dismantled the outdoor "overflow" space near the arena, after it was clear there wouldn't be enough people to fill it.

Trump and his campaign were quick to blame protesters outside the arena for scaring away prospective rally goers. They also blamed the media for reporting extensively on the risks associated with attending a massive indoor gathering during the coronavirus pandemic, especially one where neither masks nor social distancing are required.

Early Sunday morning, it was still unclear precisely what had accounted for the massive discrepancy between the number of ticket requests the Trump campaign said it received, and the number of people who showed up in Tulsa.

But several reports suggest that a loose network of young people on TikTok may have reserved thousands of tickets they never planned to use, and encouraged their friends to do the same. If this is what actually happened, it would amount to a jaw-dropping 21st century political prank. 

Supporters listen as U.S. President Donald Trump speaksat a campaign rally at the BOK Center, June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Win McNamee | Getty Images

The theme of dangerous protesters who pose a threat to law-abiding Americans ran throughout Trump's nearly two hours on stage, and served as a thread weaving together and blurring various culture war issues that seemed to animate Trump more than talking about traditional issues like immigration and jobs. 

"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, we're not conforming," Trump said during an extended defense of Confederate monuments.

National Guard stand before anti-Trump protestors in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty images

"That's why we're here actually. This cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion violates everything we hold dear as Americans. They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new oppressive regime in its place." 

Trump spent relatively little time on the coronavirus pandemic that has killed more than 120,000 Americans over the past five months. Nor did he acknowledge the fact that six members of his campaign advance team had just tested positive for coronavirus. 

The few times Trump did bring up the pandemic, it was usually to downplay the virus' risk, or defend his administration's slow response and monthslong testing shortages.

Coronavirus "testing is a double-edged sword," Trump said. "We have tested 25 million people by now, which is probably 20 million people more than anybody else. Germany has done a lot; South Korea has done a lot. But here's the bad part: when you do testing to that extent, you will find more cases!"

"So I said to my people, slow the testing down, please. They test and they test."

The suggestion that the president told his aides to slow down testing in order to keep infection statistics low quickly drew condemnation from Democrats and from people watching the rally on social media.

A healthcare worker takes a patient's test at a new COVID-19 drive through testing center at 1 Canal Street in Lawrence, MA on May 22, 2020. Gov. Charlie Baker spoke at the center.
John Tlumacki | Boston Globe | Getty Images

White House officials, however, insisted that the president had been "clearly speaking in jest."  

This was Trump's first rally since Sen. Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic primary, leaving Biden the party's presumptive nominee. In Tulsa, Trump appeared to be testing several lines of attack against the former vice president, including that Biden is a "helpless puppet of the radical left." 

"Joe Biden has surrendered to his party and to the left-wing mob," Trump said, using a term he employs to lump together peaceful protesters, looters and progressive members of Congress. "He has no control. Does anybody honestly think he controls these maniacs? ... He has absolutely no control." 

Trump continued: "If the Democrats gain power, the rioters will be in charge, and no one will be safe. No one will have control. Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left." 

These attacks on Biden were clearly designed to rile up Trump's supporters the same way that his attacks on Hillary Clinton had prompted crowds to chant "Lock Her Up!" in 2016.

But time and again, Trump's mention of Biden's name failed to fire up the crowds in Tulsa. 

This hints at a broader problem Trump is facing as he mounts a campaign against the former vice president: For a candidate like Trump, who fares better when voters are angry than when they're not, Biden may not arouse enough anger in Trump's supporters to really mobilize them. 

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden listens as he meets with local residents at the sports bar Carlette?s Hideaway during a campaign stop in Yeadon, Pennsylvania U.S., June 17, 2020.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

This observation is supported by polling, which consistently shows that the majority of Americans have a favorable view of Biden, something that was not true for Clinton four years ago.

The most recent Fox News survey of the 2020 race, released last week, found that Biden's favorability ratings are net positive 9 points, with 53% of respondents saying they hold a favorable view of him, versus 44% who view him unfavorably.

That same poll, however, found that Trump's favorability was net negative 13 points, with 43% reporting a favorable view of the president and 56% an unfavorable one. Taken together, this means Biden has a 22 point lead over Trump in favorability.

Some candidates might see this gap and take it as a sign to focus more energy on expanding their support among different groups. But judging from the president's speech on Saturday, Trump has no plans to temper his grievance-driven, divisive campaign rhetoric in an attempt to broaden his appeal. 

At a time when much of the country is working to identify and address systemic racism, Trump repeatedly boasted that he had helped Black Americans during his presidency.

And he accused Biden, who receives overwhelming support among Black voters, of having backed policies that hurt African Americans. "Virtually every policy that has hurt Black Americans for the last half a century, Joe Biden has supported or enacted," Trump claimed during one such riff. "I have done more for the Black community in four years then Joe Biden has done in 47 years."

Delano Frazir a "Black Lives Matter" protestor holds a sign in front of National Guards in Tulsa, Oklahoma where Donald Trump holds a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Yet in his nearly two hours of speaking on Saturday, much of which was focused on protests, race and law enforcement, Trump did not once mention the name of George Floyd, the unarmed, Black Minneapolis man whose death last month at the hands of police ignited a wave of civil unrest across the nation. 

Instead, the president returned again and again to the idea that people who protest police brutality against Black Americans should be punished, arrested, or worse. 

"We will defend privacy, free thought, free speech, religious liberty, and the right to keep and bear arms," the president said. "And when you see those lunatics all over the streets, it's damn nice to have arms."

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