The size of a crowd at any campaign event should be relatively unimportant, especially in a state such as Oklahoma that Trump is expected to win easily in November. Except crowd size is of utmost importance to the president, who began his tenure fighting with the media about how many people did, or did not, stand on the National Mall to watch his inauguration. The Tulsa event was a test of the public’s willingness to follow the president’s lead and to flout the advice of health officials who warned that a crowded indoor rally—where masks were handed out but wearing them was not mandatory—was exactly the type of event most likely to spread the coronavirus.
Perhaps the people of Tulsa, a city Trump won by 24 points in 2016, heeded those warnings. Perhaps they have been following the COVID-19 case count in Oklahoma, which like other states in the South and the West has been hitting records in recent days. Perhaps those who requested tickets were ultimately scared off by a waiver they had to sign clearing the Trump campaign of any liability in case they contracted the coronavirus at the event. Or perhaps they share the view of a majority of Americans who have told pollsters that, despite Trump’s insistence otherwise, it is too early to return to restaurants, stores, and other public places the way they did before the pandemic.
The president and his campaign blamed protesters for interfering with the event, “even blocking access from the metal detectors,” to prevent people from attending. Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale, amplified accusations that the media had scared off families with reports about unrest. “Radical protesters, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the president’s supporters,” campaign spokesperson Tim Murtaugh said. “We are proud of the thousands who stuck it out.” Viewers tuning in to the rally on TV, however, saw no such scenes of supposed violent conflict in the Tulsa streets; they just saw an empty slab of pavement that the Trump campaign had hoped would be filled with people. On CNN, a solemn Wolf Blitzer warned his audience that the president would not like what he saw.
The rally went on against the advice of Tulsa’s top public-health official, who warned that it could be “the perfect storm of potential over-the-top disease transmission.” Adding to the alarm, hours before the event, six Trump campaign staffers tested positive for the coronavirus.
Inside the BOK Center, however, Trump wanted to go on as normal, and so he did. In his first rally since March, the president spoke in his signature off-the-cuff style for more than 90 minutes, regaling the thousands who did attend with extended comedy routines and attacks on the media; his opponent, the former Vice President Joe Biden; and other Democrats such as Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.