We have endured five long years of bombast, bullying and unreconstructed bullshit — from a Trump campaign that knew no shame to a Trump administration that knows no truth. Now, however, following the president’s broad-spectrum rally calamity in Tulsa on Saturday night, there is finally the sense of a reckoning in the air.
The man who would be king was finally brought low, not by his own eternally despicable behavior, but by his inability to put butts in the seats, to get the “ratings” and “great reviews” that appear to be his first and last concern upon waking and in his sleep. Donald Trump’s campaign spoke boastfully of a million worshipful fans wishing they could join him in Tulsa, and got 6,200 of them instead. As The Washington Post reported, the band Nickelback — “This is how you remind me / Of what I really am” — did better when they came to town.
Trump hadn’t even gotten through the door of Air Force One on Saturday before learning not only that several members of his Tulsa advance team — including some Secret Service agents — had been infected with COVID, but also that this had been reported widely in the press. The latter reportedly infuriated him far more than the former. It was an appropriately grim preview of coming attractions.
Those 6,200 did their level best to recharge the ego batteries of The Boss, but an ocean of empty blue seats confronting Trump that night was the visual equivalent of a pie in the face and the “You Lose” horns from “The Price Is Right.”
All that was missing was one of those long old-timey hooks to jerk Trump off the stage after he finished puling about protesters, Democrats and the menace of leather-soled shoes. When he freely admitted that he told his people to slow down COVID testing to keep the numbers low, his campaign staff must have sounded like John Candy in “Uncle Buck.”
“President Trump and several staff members stood backstage and gazed at the empty Bank of Oklahoma Center in horror,” The New York Times reported on Sunday. “The president, who had been warned aboard Air Force One that the crowds at the arena were smaller than expected, was stunned, and he yelled at aides backstage while looking at the endless rows of empty blue seats in the upper bowl of the stadium.”
I could read that paragraph over and over until the stars burned out, and after they burned out, I would read it one last time by candlelight before dying happily in the endless dark.
This is more than simply the public comeuppance Trump has had coming since his slumlord father put him on the payroll at three years old for $200,000 a year in what was yet another familial tax dodge. “Stunned” is the word The Times used to describe his reaction to the small beer arrayed before him in Tulsa, and stunned is what he was, for a very specific reason.
Back in late May, before the police murder of George Floyd motivated a national uprising against police violence and systemic racism, Trump’s re-election numbers began to look increasingly dire due to his bungled COVID-19 response. Campaign manager Brad Parscale was unofficially demoted, and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner was installed to right the ship (insert “LOL” here).
As it is Kushner’s long practice to pour honeyed falsehoods into Trump’s ear, the main effort of the campaign from that point on was to convince the candidate that he is actually doing better than the “fake news” says he is.
The problem, of course, is that such a grift would only last for as long as Trump could be shielded from the unfriendly political reality beyond his armored bunker. After his catastrophically ill-conceived and hyper-violent photo op in front of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C., Trump appeared to believe he had regained control of the national conversation. His fawning campaign team eagerly fed his delusions, until Tulsa.
That grift exploded with a hollow half-a-room boom on Saturday night. As he stared out at that vastly empty place, Trump was thumpingly confronted — perhaps for the first time in his entire political existence — with the fact that he is not nearly as beloved as he believes he is, and is told he is.
Further, he found out that despite all his protestations to the contrary, a significant portion of his most devoted followers are taking COVID seriously enough to stay away from such a recklessly irresponsible event, where most did not wear masks and efforts to screen people were entirely substandard. Even with lower turnout than expected, the Tulsa debacle will almost certainly increase infections and deaths.
King Canute failed to command the tide deliberately as a lesson to his followers. Trump tried to command the pandemic, and his own people, and may be washed out to sea. The lesson to Trump’s followers was not missed; all of a sudden, there are some sizeable cracks in the veneer of the mighty leader’s image, and his people don’t truck much with perceived weakness.
The reasons behind Trump’s abject humiliation this weekend are myriad, but my favorite has to be the glorious prank pulled by TikTokkers and K-pop fans (read: very social-media-astute teenagers and 20-somethings, mostly), who spoofed the ticket process to make it seem as if more people were coming than had actually signed up.
In doing so, the TikTok/K-poppers sprained the brain of probably-doomed Brad Parscale. “Leftists and online trolls doing a victory lap, thinking they somehow impacted rally attendance, don’t know what they’re talking about or how our rallies work,” Parscale said in response to the revelations.
Ol’ Braddo missed the point here by a few thousand nautical miles. The prank did not affect turnout for the event — COVID and an underenthused Trump base did that all by themselves — but the prank did inspire Trump, Parscale and virtually every breathing pro-Trump Republican to run their estimations of the size of the Tulsa rally across the sky in bright lights.
First 500,000 and then 800,000 and then 1 million people signed up, they crowed. HYOOGE! We need an overflow stage! Look at this! Trump is back!
“You Lose” horns, take two.
Saturday’s debacle in Tulsa exposed what was supposed to be a Trump campaign juggernaut as actually being a hell of a lot more rickety and amateur than people were aware of. How they let this happen to a sitting president will be grist for the political professional mill for generations to come.
Further, the two-thirds-empty room showed that for all of Trump’s labors to diminish and downplay the severity of the COVID risk, a good portion of his most stalwart voters are apparently not buying it enough to risk their lives and the lives of their families for a night of yelling in a coronavirus petri dish.
Best of all, though, is the simple fact that Trump was clowned by his own campaign staff, and by himself, before the whole wide wonderful world.
Upon his return to the capital, Trump slowly walked from Marine One back to the White House like a man headed for the gallows, and The Washington Post captured a photo of the moment that speaks a thousand words a thousand times over.
Here is the essential post-Tulsa Trump. He will call Saturday night a triumph, as he will call a turd caviar … but LOOK at that face. Zoom in if you can. That frown, the MAGA hat crushed in fury, the whole pouty didn’t-get-my-pony demeanor, could crack granite. This was Ed Muskie in the New Hampshire snow, if the snow was piss.
Because Donald Trump reacts to setbacks the way tornadoes react to barns and trailer parks, his already-dirty campaign strategy will probably seek lows heretofore unplumbed in the annals of American politics. It is going to be a long 134 days until the election, friends.