A harsh lesson for Trump in Tulsa: He can't beat the virus, and even his followers know it

In a two-thirds-empty arena, the dispirited president had no magic. His shtick isn't working and he knows it

By Heather Digby Parton


Published June 22, 2020 9:43AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally  | COVID-19 patient attached to a ventilator (Getty Images/Salon)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally | COVID-19 patient attached to a ventilator (Getty Images/Salon)

The reviews are in and President Trump's ballyhooed return to the stage this past weekend in Tulsa was a dud. After three months on hiatus, with nothing but the increasingly disastrous coronavirus press briefings to keep him in shape, the president turned in a very shaky performance. Even his greatest hits, like "Lock her up" and "Build that wall," couldn't bring the magic.

The campaign and the White House had relentlessly hyped this return, telling the media that they had a million RSVPs for the event and even planned an outdoor overflow venue where the president was slated to make a surprise visit before he entered the main stage. But the huge crowd failed to materialize and the outdoor event was hastily scrapped as it became apparent they wouldn't even come close to filling the indoor arena. Local fire marshals estimated the crowd at a little over 6,000, less than one-third the arena's capacity and 40,000 short of the crowd they anticipated outside.

It turns out the hype may actually have resulted from the credulous Trump campaign falling for a TikTok prank in which tons of teenagers RSVPd for the rally, artificially inflating the expected numbers. Campaign chairman Brad Parscale denied that this, of course, fell for it and since online RSVPs aren't real tickets (the rallies are always first come first serve) it's true that cannot entirely explain why so few of the faithful showed up for their hero's big comeback.

Trump was reportedly discombobulated by the low turnout and seemed to have a hard time finding his rhythm. According to the New York Times he was extremely angry, first because Attorney General Bill Barr's botched Friday night massacre firing of the U,S. attorney from the Southern District of New York robbed his big rally of oxygen, and then because news leaked out that six members of his campaign advance team had tested positive for COVID-19. Seeing that largely empty arena was the final blow.

During the rally itself, he said many crude and stupid things, as he usually does. He called protesters animals, said that Joe Biden would surrender the country to anarchists, and spent an extraordinary amount of time explaining how he walked down a ramp and drank water at the West Point graduation ceremony. He also defended the Confederate monuments, proposed that people be put in jail for a year for burning the U.S. flag (which has already been declared constitutionally-protected speech), and claimed that if Biden is elected money will be worthless.

And the great populist, man of the people, once more brought his followers to ecstasy by exclaiming:

Someone said the other day, "Sir, the elite are really working hard to destroy you," and I said, "Why do you call them the elite? I look better than them. Much more handsome. Got better hair than they do. I got nicer properties, I got nicer houses, I got nicer apartments, I got nicer everything."

I will never understand why his crowds love such puerile self-aggrandizement, but they do. They cheered wildly for it.

Of course the most odious of all was this:

And with testing, you know, testing is a double-edged sword. We've tested now 25 million people. It's probably 20 million people more than anybody else. ... Here's the bad part. When you do testing to that extent, you're going to find more people, you're going to find more cases. So I said to my people, slow the testing down, please.

The White House later said he was joking, ha ha. It was anything but funny. Moreover, Trump has made it clear over and over again from the beginning of this pandemic that he didn't like all the testing. From that infamous photo-op at the CDC where he said he didn't want to let people who had tested positive off a stranded cruise ship because it would raise his "numbers" to comments just last week when he said that testing was "overrated" and then total explained that if you don't test you don't have cases:

The fact is that he never wanted to test people for the virus because he believed it made him look bad. At that CDC event he also said, "We're going out and looking for spots. Nobody else is doing that ... I don't even know if I agree with that. You'll find out those areas just by sitting back and waiting."

He argued that rural areas didn't need testing at an April briefing, saying, "You don't need testing there, you know, where you have a state with a small number of cases, some states with almost none." In May he made that explicit, saying during a press avail, "If we did very little testing, we wouldn't have the most cases. So, in a way, by doing all of this testing, we make ourselves look bad."

He has repeatedly made clear that he doesn't understand how it's supposed to work. When Stephanie Miller, an aide to Vice President Pence (and the wife of White House adviser Stephen Miller) tested positive, Trump again dismissed tests as unnecessary with this display of sterling logic: 

This is why the whole concept of tests aren't necessarily great.  The tests are perfect, but something can happen between a test — where it's good, and then something happens, and all of a sudden — she was tested very recently and tested negative.  And then today, I guess, for some reason, she tested positive.

If he was saying all this in public before the cameras, there can be no doubt that he made clear behind the scenes that he wanted to squelch testing and keep those numbers down. There is ample evidence that he had minions dedicated to fulfilling those desires.

It has become clear that this administration's botched response to the pandemic has cost many, many lives. A recent study has shown that if the U.S. had responded with the same alacrity as Germany, Australia, South Korea or Singapore, we could have saved 70% to 90% of the lives that have been lost.

That number reached 122,000 people over the weekend. That's how many people have died in just four months. For some reason, our president doesn't seem at all concerned about that massive loss of life. He never even mentioned it at the rally.

That event was sparsely attended because this country is still in the middle of this crisis and it isn't getting much better. It seems that some of his voters know this too and decided to stay home, regardless of his exhortations to get back out there for his sake. He had hoped to spin the pandemic as being in the past and promote an economic boom with his big comeback tour. All those empty seats in that arena showed him that it's not working. Even his devoted followers aren't buying it.

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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