So much for the "Death Star": After Tulsa and West Point, wheels are coming off Trump campaign

After the epic disaster in Tulsa and his nonsensical battle with John Bolton, Trump may have no way to save himself

Published June 23, 2020 9:29AM (EDT)

US President Donald Trump (Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (Getty Images)

If we had been living in normal times, Donald Trump would have been relentlessly heckled off the national stage while he was still riding down that escalator five years ago. Instead, he managed to lie and finagle his way into the White House, where he remains the most dangerous, incompetent American president in history.

The thing about Trump's janky, out-of-his-depth presidency is that a significant number of his biggest derps have negatively impacted Trump himself, leading me to observe (once again!) that Trump always makes things worse for Trump. His deadly laziness in responding to coronavirus, his horrendously dictator-friendly foreign policy, his blindingly obvious racism and the myriad other examples of his ineptitude aside, he constantly paints himself into political corners. 

The very fact that Trump routinely panders to the convulsive whimsy of his cult of Red Hat disciples, capping his appeal at around 43 percent of American voters, proves he's almost deliberately undermining himself, while simultaneously believing he can do no wrong. He thinks he's winning, despite enraging 55 percent of us. It doesn't make any sense until we realize that, yeah, Trump always makes things worse for himself. 

This past weekend's fiasco in Tulsa was a huge example of this self-sabotaging phenomenon. 

It kind of makes sense, given what we know, that Trump would promote his former T-shirt salesman, Brad Parscale, to the role of campaign manager in charge of a $1 billion disinformation "Death Star" in Rosslyn, Virginia, among other things. It also kind of makes sense that his former T-shirt salesman would be partly responsible for the most hilariously bungled Trump rally ever. It's worth noting, by the way, that this wasn't just any random Trump rally — it was his official campaign kickoff and his first public rally since March 2, prior to the national shutdown. So given the stakes: Heckuva job, Brad!

The first major blunder in the process was hyping the attendance days in advance. Parscale repeatedly tweeted neener-neener brags about the alleged RSVP numbers throughout the days leading up to the event, suggesting that hundreds of thousands to upwards of a million Red Hats were incoming for the rally. In the end, only 6,200 people showed up, leaving the 19,000-seat BOK Center conspicuously vacant, rendered even more pathetic given the inflated expectations.

The first thing they teach political operatives, even at the tiniest local level, is to be extremely careful about expectations. No one would have much cared about all of those empty blue seats if Trump and Parscale had downplayed attendance expectations, perhaps using the pandemic from the beginning as an obvious mitigating factor. But no. Trump and his henchmen are instinctively driven to exaggerate and amplify everything about their guy and his popularity, to the point of giving him countless participation trophies for things that shouldn't be considered presidential achievements — ballyhooing his approval numbers among Republican voters, for example.

Had Parscale and Trump simply said that they were hearing good things, but that the coronavirus might prevent a normal turnout, Tulsa wouldn't have looked quite so pathetic. But they didn't, so it did. If they'd played the game with even remotely normal political skill, the poor attendance might have been the subject of a few zingers on Twitter, but not much else. Instead, Trump manufactured a bottomless well of ridicule material for anti-Trump PACs like the Lincoln Project, and created a major embarrassment for himself. 

The president only has himself and his brittle ego to blame. He walked right into this one, believing beyond belief that hyping the numbers was the right thing to do, and no one on his team dared to tell him no. Incidentally, even if the RSVPs actually showed a million attendees, possibly due to the tireless efforts of teenagers on TikTok to inflate the numbers, Team Trump should've known better. Like their boss, Team Trump are too incompetent to smell a fart in a car.

Going back to the "zoomer" thing, Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh tried to dismiss it by saying, "Trolls thinking they hacked rally [tickets] don't know how this works. Lame trick tried many times. We weed out bogus RSVPs with fake phone [numbers]." Well, if they "weed out" fake phone numbers, why were they still bragging about hundreds of thousands of attendees? Does not compute, Tim.

Making matters even worse for himself, Trump spent a significant chunk of his time on stage at the BOK Center inexplicably recalling how he haggled over the cancellation fee for the new Air Force One — I mean, at least a solid 15 to 20 minutes. Even his most loyal fanboys had to be yawning during that one, as if anyone cares about the small print on a government contract. (Boeing probably loved the fact that Trump called one of its executives a "dumb son of a bitch.") Some of them must have been thinking, Did we really risk getting the plague to hear Trump rant about this crapola?

But the Air Force One rant, unbelievably enough, wasn't the stupid part.

The stupid part was when Trump resurrected a mostly dead story about his West Point commencement address. Specifically, this was about how, during his remarks to the cadets, Trump couldn't successfully lift a glass of water to his own mouth using one hand. And also about his feeble, baby-steps descent down a three-degree-angled ramp as if he were Jerry O'Connell crossing that trestle bridge in "Stand by Me." 

Instead of letting all that die, as even the most novice presidential-level politician might, Trump turned it into a 45-minute performance-art piece during which he re-enacted in exhaustive detail everything about lifting the glass, his allegedly exhausted right arm ("600 salutes!"), and why he looked so weak and fragile descending the ramp. 

Now, because of his ludicrous skit, the West Point story has a second wind.

I get that he likes to exploit the bully pulpit to correct the record (as he sees it), but everyone knows you don't breathe new life into a story that you'd rather kill. Trump thinks he's killing stories like these, I guess, but he's only transfusing them with fresh blood. And not just any blood. Crazy blood. He did everything he could to draw as much attention as possible to his obvious physical issues by figuratively dressing up like a garish clown, igniting pyrotechnics while waving giant semaphore flags (to the extent his frail muscles will allow), directing everyone with a social media account to point, laugh and generally gawk at his apparent decrepitude at West Point.

It's a testament to the unflinching devotion of his easily deceived fanboys, along with the Sisyphean efforts of Fox News and the White House communications bullpen, that such a blunder-prone president isn't polling in the low 20s at this stage. 

Finally, Trump's most glaring error of the past week or so doesn't have anything to do with the snoozer in Tulsa. 

For reasons that, once again, defy explanation, Trump has been inadvertently promoting John Bolton's book, "The Room Where It Happened" (which after considerable drama is being published Tuesday). You'd think he'd make an effort to quietly change the subject or simply ignore the book, as any normal chief executive would do. But Trump is a highly abnormal chief executive, in all the worst ways. 

In this case, he made absolutely sure to amplify the bombshell nature of the publication by screeching about it endlessly on Twitter and then unleashing Attorney General Bill Barr in an attempt to prosecute Bolton and his publisher, threatening both with national security investigations. 

Which is where Trump's entire counter-argument against the book falls apart.

You can't logically contend that a book is full of lies, while at the same time insisting that the book features numerous highly classified conversations with the president, violating federal law. It's either a pack of lies, which negates any need for a national security investigation, or it's full of truths about things Trump said in private classified settings, such as begging President Xi Jinping of China to help him cheat in the election. It can't be both fake news and real news. 

This isn't the first time Trump has worked this backward gambit, of course. In 2017 he described certain Trump-Russia stories by saying, "The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake." Last year, he accused the "fake news media" of publishing classified information, while saying that the stories didn't have any sources. Um — if the leaks are real, then the news stories about the leaks are also real, and the sources delivering the real leaks to the reporters who published the stories have to be real, too. He's been doing this almost literally from Day One, and he's still making the same mistake years later, essentially confessing that the backstage drama reported in Bolton's book are true because writing about it violated national security, necessitating a DOJ inquest. 

One colossal irony here is that Trump is clearly trying to make Joe Biden's age and mental acuity a campaign issue, despite the fact that in Tulsa, moments after hectoring Biden for his gaffes, Trump mentioned the name of a prominent American city called "Minnianapolis" and referred to the current year as "two twenty." Make no mistake: It's a good thing that his campaign is a mess, and that his revenge-tweets against Bolton are de facto confessions. The problem is that this same degree of rank incompetence and self-defeating capriciousness is also evident in his governance. In this respect, as well as too many others to list here, Trump continues to be a threat to the stability of the republic and a danger to the future of both democracy and, even more harrowingly, reality itself.

By Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.


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