“I am hard-pressed to identify any significant Trump decision during my tenure that wasn’t driven by re-election calculations.”
–John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser
Trump Wants Big Rallies — No Matter What
June 10: Amid protests over the police killing of an unarmed Black man, Trump announces that he will resume campaign rallies on June 19. The date is also known as Juneteenth, commemorating the end of slavery in the US. He plans to hold the rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 — one of the worst events of racial violence in American history.
The racial overtones associated with Trump’s choice of date and city create immediate controversy that overshadows another fact: He chose an indoor venue with a capacity of 19,000 people at a time when Oklahoma, especially Tulsa, is experiencing a spike in confirmed COVID-19 infections.
In fact, Trump misleads his followers into a false sense of security: “They’ve done a great job with COVID, as you know, in the state of Oklahoma.”
June 13: Facing widespread backlash for choosing Juneteenth for his rally, Trump moves it to June 20, but the location remains unchanged.
June 15-18: During the week leading up to the rally, reported new cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma rise by 140 percent — the second highest spike in the country. Concomitant increases in hospitalizations indicate that the jump is not due to increased testing.
June 16: Asked if he would attend the rally, Trump’s top medical expert on COVID-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci says, “Of course not.” During the week leading up to the rally, Dr. Fauci and another member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Dr. Deborah Birx, warn him not to hold it, NBC News later reports.
June 17-18: “It’s like, very few people [in Oklahoma],” Trump tells The Wall Street Journal in an interview published the following day. “And I think they’re in great shape. But I would even say the spike ends, has already ended.” Asked what happens if a supporter gets sick at one of his rallies, Trump responds, “Well, people have to know that, yes, you do. But it’s tiny. You know, it’s a very small percentage.” Trump expects almost one million attendees and predicts, “I think it’s gonna be a hell of a night.”
June 19: The Oklahoma Supreme Court denies a request by some Tulsa businesses and residents to order that the BOK Center — the venue for Trump’s rally — enforce CDC recommendations for preventing the spread of COVID-19 at the event.
Also on June 19: Trump’s press secretary says she won’t wear a mask at the rally.
June 20: Six members of the Trump campaign’s advance staff, including two Secret Service agents, have tested positive for COVID-19. At the time of their diagnoses, they are already in Tulsa for the rally.
Also on June 20: Only 6,200 people — less than one-third of the venue’s capacity — attend the rally. Following Trump’s political messaging and the example set by his staff, most are not wearing masks or social distancing, despite ample space for the latter.
Also on June 20: During his rally speech, Trump admits that he told administration officials to slow down COVID-19 testing in order to limit the rising number of confirmed cases in the US. “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.”
June 22: Two more Trump staffers who attended the June 20 rally test positive for COVID-19.
Reality Catches Up to Trump
In the midst of a pandemic, Trump expected one million people to risk their lives by attending his rally. The campaign had even erected an outdoor stage to accommodate the anticipated overflow crowd from the main arena. Trump’s success in managing news cycles with distraction and disinformation led him to believe that he was invulnerable to fact, reality, and truth.
To some extent, he was right. A Trump supporter waiting in line to enter the rally told a reporter for NBC News, “If Trump felt comfortable having it here, then I’m comfortable.” Another supporter who had driven from his home in Arkansas to attend said he doubts that he’ll need his homemade mask, saying, “I don’t fear anything. If today is the day I die, today is the day I die.”
The truth is that Trump’s myopic focus on winning re-election at the expense of Americans’ health has turned the United States into a global pandemic loser. Comparing the COVID-19 experience of the European Union (population 446 million) with that of the US (population 329 million) demonstrates just how badly:
Every day, the US has 20,000 new COVID-19 cases and as many as 800 deaths. The US ranks seventh among all nations in deaths per million of population. Two weeks ago, it ranked eighth. Moving up on that list is another defining metric of Trump’s ongoing leadership failures.
It’s true that some of Trump’s core supporters are willing to die for him. But if the turnout in Tulsa is an indication, facts and reality are making serious inroads into his base. For Trump, that’s a problem. Truth has always been his mortal enemy.