In the end, history may record that the most revealing thing about President Trump’s rally in Tulsa last night was the way it was covered by the all-news networks. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News had plugged the event as if it were the Pro Bowl. The anchors and reporters vamped for hours with pregame analysis and on-the-scene color shots as the big kickoff approached. And then the moment arrived and the time for commentary ended and … only Fox went ahead and aired the rally.
I had my remote doing laps, hopping from one channel to the next. On Fox the president would be mugging and bellowing as his crowd went wild, and a few clicks away on the two liberal networks I’d find an anchor—Nicolle Wallace, Wolf Blitzer—encircled with pundits, Hollywood Squares style. In a split-screen frame or a corner box, you could see the president prowl and the commotion erupting soundlessly. Meanwhile the anchor and pundits reassured their viewers that the spectacle they weren’t letting them hear was appalling.
What a choice for Saturday-night viewing: You could watch a preening blowhard surrounded by lickspittles chirping on cue, or you could watch Trump at his rally.
Trump had high hopes for the rally, his first since the coronavirus pandemic (“the Covid,” in Trump lingo) began. At a White House gathering Thursday afternoon, the president said, “We’re going to be in Oklahoma. And it’s a crowd like, I guess, nobody’s seen before. We have tremendous, tremendous requests for tickets like, I think, probably has never happened politically before.” The unusual use of I guess and I think is a signifier of the president’s false modesty: he knew, with Trumpian certitude, that he was going to break some attendance records in Tulsa.
It didn’t turn out that way, as the world knows, despite the best efforts of his publicists to insist otherwise. The most optimistic estimates put the BOK Arena at two-thirds full. As cameras scanned hectares of empty seats, the Fox News anchor, an emphatically incurious man named Jesse Watters, told his viewers, “It looks packed!” (Who ya gonna believe—me or my lyin’ cameras?) Trump’s down-bill warm-up acts—various members of his family mostly—pretended to marvel at the size of the crowd, turning their gaze upward as if they spied men in MAGA hats hanging from the rafters.
Various news reports told us that the president was furious at the lower-than-expected turnout, and at first there were signs of it. For one thing he took the stage more or less on time and according to schedule; on more enjoyable occasions he has delighted in waiting backstage, prolonging the tension and letting the crowd’s temperature rise just short of full boil. And then, having taken the stage in Tulsa, he skipped the usual impromptu jests and goofs of a man whose highest aspiration is to be the center of attention of an adoring crowd. Instead he plunged straight into his scripted remarks as they unspooled from his teleprompter.
Watching Trump read from a prompter is like watching a man slip into a straitjacket: the grimace, the grumble, the stiff movement of shoulders from side to side. “I stand before you to say …” It never lasts long. In Tulsa this businesslike efficiency, whatever its cause, quickly dropped away, and the president fell into his familiar ramble, returning now and then to the prepared speech. He uses the lines his speechwriters have provided him the way a swimmer uses a pool wall: touch, turn, and push—and then he’s off. (A pro tip for amateur Trump watchers: You know he’s back on the prompter when he stops gesticulating with both hands. When both hands are in play, he’s riffing.)
He spoke for an hour and 40 minutes. He gathered strength and volume as he went, working through set pieces about Veterans Affairs, the “Chinese virus,” the spendthrift Democrats, “Sleepy” Joe Biden in his—Biden’s—basement, and a golden oldie about Trump’s negotiations with Boeing over the price of a new presidential plane (an account that wound around to NATO and Angela Merkel and troop withdrawals from Germany and then to … D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser?). The chaotic course Trump’s stories take is often hard to follow, owing usually to the president’s peculiar shorthand. The word they, for example, will often appear in back-to-back sentences with different, unspecified referents. In one brief span Saturday night they wanted to abolish ICE, go fight the bad guys, and open your mail. Sometimes he seems to be speaking a private language shared only between himself and his followers.
Even so, it often happens that the president’s audiences flag before he does, and Trump has to rouse them with something fresh. So it was in Tulsa. “People come up to me, they say, ‘How do you take it?’” he said. “I say, ‘What choice to do I have?’” As an example of how badly he’s treated by “the fake news,” he told the story of his famously shaky walk down a ramp at West Point last week, and of his uncertain grip on the glass of water he sipped from during his speech to the graduating cadets there.
Trump took nearly 15 minutes to tell the story. He reenacted his walk down the ramp not once but twice. Triumphantly he drank a glass of water without a tremor, and then tossed the glass aside theatrically, before turning away in disgust.
Thus the country was treated to a stunning sight: the president of the United States imitating a caricature of the president of the United States as he is defined by a relentlessly hostile press corps. It was bizarre; it was postmodern, even. It was yet another insult to the dignity of the presidential office. It was also the bravura performance of a showman in full command of his gifts—an essential display for anyone who wants to understand Donald Trump or the people who love him. And unless you were watching live on Fox News, you probably missed it.