Rarely has a single campaign rally drawn as much hype as the one President Donald Trump held Saturday night at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma—a relaunch of his reelection bid that, according to the president himself, more than 1 million people had requested tickets to attend. Rarely has a presidential event endangered the public health of the community it was held in. And rarely has a spotty crowd made such a statement.
It turns out Oklahomans might care more about their own health than the president does.
Trump had hailed this rally as something more than a return to the campaign trail. His insistence on speaking to a packed, indoor arena full of cheering, maskless supporters—19,000 expected inside, tens of thousands more in an outdoor overflow area—in defiance of public-health experts, in spite of a spike in coronavirus cases in Tulsa itself, was supposed to be a signal to the country that American life was getting back to normal, pandemic be damned.
And yet the arena the president addressed Saturday wasn’t packed. Thousands of seats were empty. Trump didn’t speak to the overflow crowd outside, because there was no overflow.
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.
Trump trails in the polls, and as is typical during his low moments, his speech was largely an airing of grievances. He spent a full 10 minutes trying to explain away his recent halting walk down a ramp after delivering a commencement address at West Point, as well as a much-discussed moment in which he appeared to have difficulty taking a drink from a glass of water with one hand. As if to prove his physical fitness, Trump proudly took a one-handed sip on stage Saturday; the crowd cheered, and he dramatically tossed the entire glass away in response.
Trump inveighed against the protesters who have filled the streets to demonstrate against racism and police violence, and he denounced those who have torn down “our beautiful monuments” to Confederate soldiers. He defended his widely criticized handling of the coronavirus pandemic, even as he said—reportedly in jest—that he “said to my people, slow down the testing” because too many results were coming back positive.
Borrowing a line from Richard Nixon, Trump again claimed that “a silent majority” of Americans were behind him. And he searched for a kind of solidarity with the crowd, which had heeded his call to reject a new normal in favor of the old one. “We’re not conforming,” Trump said at one point. “That’s why we’re here, actually.” He was right about that. But despite the thousands who showed up, many more Oklahomans than he expected stayed home. They were the conformists, it seemed, siding against the president in deciding for themselves that the pandemic is not yet over.