Read: Trump could still break democracy’s biggest norm
Anyone who catches the disease will have sacrificed their health for the televised illusion that Trump is in control, the virus is in retreat, and the country is back to normal, when in fact cases are hitting record highs in Oklahoma and elsewhere and millions of people are out of work. Trump’s team is expecting the 19,000-seat arena to be full, a campaign spokesperson told me, with attendees packed shoulder to shoulder. They’ll be getting temperature checks at the door, and the campaign will offer masks. But many will likely decline, taking cues from a president who refuses to wear a mask in public or acknowledge either his own vulnerability or the epic crisis that happened on his watch.
Of course, Trump has that luxury. He lives in an artificial bubble built for his safety: He’s tested regularly for the virus, and no one gets near him without first getting a nasal swab of their own. Invisible to the public, these sorts of precautions maintain the tough-guy image Trump tries to sell to his followers. But that persona is getting harder to sustain. His own frailties and fears are becoming more conspicuous, the incongruity between image and reality more glaring. Speaking at a commencement ceremony at West Point last weekend, Trump seemed to struggle to lift a water glass to his lips and then shuffled down a ramp on his way out, apparently worried that he’d fall. As I wrote last month, he seemed rattled by the protesters amassed outside the White House gates, taking the unusual step of broadcasting to the public the specific ways he’s guarded and shielded from the crowds. At one point, he was rushed to an underground bunker for his protection, the disclosure of which angered him enough that he tried to explain the incident away as an “inspection” of his fortified hideaway.
Rallies soothe a president who craves validation. For a couple of uninterrupted hours, he’s bathed in the adoration of his base. Even his allies describe the events as affirming moments important to Trump’s psyche. “He personally needs to have those big rallies,” Dan Quayle, who was vice president under Republican President George H. W. Bush, told me. “He believes—and I think he’s right—that he won the election in 2016 because of the rallies. You look at those swing states and the small amounts he won by—I think he’s correct.”
“The rallies are oxygen for him and the attendees psychologically—to feel the love,” Ralph Reed, the founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, told me. “Being tied down for months on end in Washington is never good for any president, but especially not this president.”
The events are also a way to divert attention from the grinding troubles Trump faces back in Washington: double-digit unemployment, smoldering racial tensions, and a rolling pandemic. Trump now trails Biden by about nine points in the RealClearPolitics average of national polls, compared with five points a month ago. Surveys show the former vice president leading in the trio of battleground states that propelled the president to victory in 2016: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Internal polling in recent weeks has also shown Trump struggling against Biden in swing states, two people close to his campaign told me.