Trump Seeks a Cultural Safe Space Amid a Deadly Pandemic

TULSA, Okla. — The difference between a rally for Joe Biden and one for President Trump starts with the attire.

There is no official uniform for either event, but while those who come out for Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, show little pattern in their dress, there’s a unity to Mr. Trump’s biggest fans. A red hat is an obvious rally must. Without the cap, American flag colors will do, or a T-shirt that insults one of the president’s political archenemies — Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama or a mainstream media outlet, for starters.

Packing recently for his first-ever Trump rally, Donald Fanning, of Wichita, Kan., made sure to dress the part. On Saturday night in Tulsa, he wore an American-flag T-shirt, with American-flag suspenders, hitched to American-flag swimming trunks.

And, in sync with many other Trump supporters, Mr. Fanning did not wear a mask, even though the rally was his first event since the coronavirus pandemic ground the campaign trail to a halt.

Why? Because the virus was “a scare tactic more than anything,” he said. “And I just don’t believe all those deaths are coronavirus.”

Mr. Trump was in his element, too. Freed from the White House and back in his natural habitat of campaign rallies, the president played the hits. He unsheathed familiar attacks against Democratic opponents, casting party members as out-of-touch socialists. He derided the news media. He put specific focus on progressive women of color, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.

But more than any attack — personal or policy — Mr. Trump doubled down on a stubborn strategy of narrow focus, blocking out the onslaught of historic challenges facing the country in favor of describing the United States as he wished it to be. The Tulsa rally was, more than anything, a safe space of Mr. Trump’s own creation, however personally unhealthy for his supporters or politically ill-suited for his re-election. (Oklahoma is not a swing state.)

Inside the Bank of Oklahoma Center on Saturday night, there was no coronavirus pandemic to worry about, even as Oklahoma reported an increase in positive cases. Testing was derided as a “double-edged sword,” with the president disclosing he told advisers to slow it down. The national protests about racial inequality and police brutality were the result of a small handful of rogue officers, not evidence of systemic racism.

Asked about the existence of racism, Mr. Fanning invoked the names of black civil rights leaders, saying, “Get rid of Jesse Jackson and Sharpton and you’ll get rid of racism.”

Jeff Eskew, a 52-year-old from Oklahoma City, dismissed the virus. “I’ve been watching this closely over the last four months or so, and the numbers just don’t add up to me.”

“Give me liberty or give me corona,” he said, paraphrasing the famous phrase of revolution from Patrick Henry.

The entire scene, from speaker to speaker, brought to mind the famous words of Kevin Bacon’s character in “Animal House,” as chaos erupted around him: “Remain calm. All is well.”

Even Mr. Trump’s own political standing, increasingly in peril as polls show him losing ground among key demographics like senior citizens and suburban women, came across sounding stronger than ever — on a glide path to re-election against a bumbling Democratic opponent who would destroy the country.

“If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe and no one will have control,” said Mr. Trump, straining to redefine his opponent. “Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left.”

But the president’s attempts to revive the showmanship that helped make him famous could not obscure his own political challenges. In Oklahoma, a deeply conservative state where his victory in November is largely assured, the campaign fell well short of its attendance goals, leading to the embarrassing spectacle of empty seats. Six of Mr. Trump’s own campaign staff members tested positive for the coronavirus before the rally, underlining the persistent threat posed by the pandemic.

The Juneteenth holiday weekend also showed how Mr. Trump’s handling of race, and specifically his relationship with black Americans, continues to be a flash point.

Leaders of Mr. Trump’s campaign often assert that they can make inroads with black voters ahead of November’s election, but self-inflicted errors continue to complicate such efforts. This past week alone, the campaign received substantial blowback for initially announcing the rally on June 19 in Tulsa, considering that the city is the site of one of the country’s deadliest racist massacres and the date marked Juneteenth, which commemorates black emancipation. Community leaders were also upset that Mr. Trump’s allies, perhaps to atone for its initial announcement, floated the idea that Mr. Trump or Vice President Mike Pence might tour the Greenwood neighborhood where the 1921 massacre took place. Such a visit would have required strict safety measures and jeopardized the Juneteenth celebration that drew thousands of attendees.

The poor results could be a harbinger for the general election. Mr. Trump and his allies fell short of attendance expectations with a strategy that exclusively relied on motivating his base of predominantly white conservatives. At the same time, they fueled a backlash from racially diverse Tulsans who mobilized quickly, enraged by a president who they believe is not fit to govern for all.

Mr. Trump is “inciting people because he wants them to react, “ said Mr. Jackson, the civil rights activist and former presidential candidate mentioned by Mr. Fanning. Reached by telephone, Mr. Jackson said Trump “wants to run on law and order,” and the Tulsa rally was another example.

Kevin Matthews, a Democratic state senator from Tulsa, said he believed Mr. Trump’s approach to Tulsa backfired, partially because of a failure to consult local black leaders.

“We were not consulted on a monumental visit to our area,” Mr. Matthews said. “It’s that old attitude where that ‘we know what’s best for you.’”

If such feedback were heeded, it could be a wake-up call for a Republican Party that has, to this point, dismissed bad polling and unfavorable electoral results as outliers. But if the pattern of the Trump administration holds, a president whose first dance after being inaugurated was to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” will continue to operate in that fashion.

At the Bank of Oklahoma Center, many of his supporters said they did not want Mr. Trump to change any more than they themselves wanted to change.

They roared with approval when he called the coronavirus “Kung Flu,” a racist nickname even one of his own senior advisers, Kellyanne Conway, once called “highly offensive.” Chants broke out of “lock her up,” evoking the 2016 presidential campaign, even as the Democratic Party has moved on from Mrs. Clinton. Some people wore Confederate flags. Others brought signs that supported the QAnon conspiracy theory that claims a “deep state” plot against Mr. Trump and his supporters. (One of the president’s sons, Eric Trump, posted a QAnon image to his Instagram page Saturday afternoon before deleting it shortly afterward.)

Trina Moore, 61, drove 10 hours from Denver to attend the rally. Her children are essential workers on the front lines of the pandemic, she said.

“I’ve been home all myself during quarantine and I wanted a reason to go somewhere,” Ms. Moore said. “I just don’t believe in the virus thing. I’d go to Europe. I’d get on a plane. I’d do whatever.”

Cloth masks were given to every attendee at the security entrance, but few sported them inside. Asked where his free mask went, Mr. Eskew laughed.

“I threw it in the trash,” he said.


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