So much of the disastrous chaos of this moment in American history is compressed into this one gathering that when the history of this presidency is written, the Tulsa rally may be the one we remember more than any other.
The first reason is that the rally is happening at all when we are still in the midst of a pandemic. The Trump campaign chose Oklahoma not because it’s a swing state (he won there in 2016 by a 36-point margin) but because it’s friendly territory. But like many states where Republican leaders have been eager to remove social distancing restrictions, Oklahoma is experiencing a dramatic spike in covid-19 cases.
Into that environment, Trump will be packing a 19,000-seat indoor arena with people shouting and chanting and breathing in a cloud of each other’s droplets. The danger of a mass infection would be reduced if everyone wore a mask, but as we well know by now, Trump and his supporters have decided that doing so is a sign of weakness and insufficient devotion to the president. While the campaign will be handing out masks, it would be a shock if 1 out of 10 attendees wore them.
Thinking ahead, the Trump campaign decided to make everyone who attends sign a release promising not to sue the campaign if they contract the virus at the rally. Precisely no one will be surprised if, as a result of this event, hundreds or even thousands more people are infected.
The rally was originally scheduled for Juneteenth, the day celebrating the end of slavery, by a president who has of late been standing up for the Confederacy. Trump did bow to public horror and delay the rally by a day. But afterward — having almost certainly just learned of the existence of Juneteenth — he claimed, “I made Juneteenth very famous,” adding that “nobody had ever heard of it.”
Add to that the fact that 99 years ago Tulsa was the site of one of the worst racist massacres in American history, when whites rampaged through the district known as “Black Wall Street,” killing hundreds of people. It’s almost as if the Trump campaign picked the time and place to be as antagonistic and divisive as possible, precisely at a moment when protests against racism and police brutality have swept the nation.
Tensions are already running high. While many Trump rallies feature confrontations between his supporters and opponents, this one may be particularly dangerous. The city of Tulsa imposed a curfew in the nights leading up to the rally, fearing violence ahead of Trump’s arrival.
Then, on Friday morning, Trump tweeted this threat:
While he may be unlikely to back it up, this is a clear threat of violence against protesters. Trump is implying that protesters in those cities were treated too leniently, when in fact they were met with a violent response from authorities that included tear gas, pepper spray, beatings, and police cars plowing into crowds.
Much as Trump has complained in the past that police are “too nice” to suspects, the president apparently wants protests to be met with even more brutality. Whether he’s threatening violence from the state or from his supporters is unclear.
So to sum up: Trump is holding his first mid-pandemic rally in a place and at a time guaranteed to make people angry and upset. He’s coming to a state fast becoming a coronavirus hotspot, putting on a rally almost certain to spread covid-19. In advance of the event, he’s ratcheting up tensions and threatening violence against peaceful protesters.
All that’s left is for Trump to rant and rave in ways that are alternately appalling and nonsensical, putting on another vulgar performance that reminds us all why his presence in the most powerful office on earth is so odious.
Which is all but certain. You can bet that Trump will be absolutely jazzed for the event, and will not hold back. According to this tally, he has held 81 rallies since becoming president, but it has been three and a half months since his last one. He has plainly found the wait maddening, not only because he believes that each rally is a shot of political adrenaline that will inevitably boost his steadily falling standing, but also because he draws strength and reassurance from them.
His every day may be filled with bad news and crises he is ill-equipped to handle, but when he bathes in the fevered worship of the MAGA faithful, he knows that he is doing a terrific job and is on the way to a sweeping reelection victory.
It’s possible to imagine the Tulsa rally being just one among Trump’s many. Perhaps he will be relatively restrained in his remarks. Perhaps there will be no violence, inside or out. Perhaps through some miracle, few people in the rally will be infected with covid-19.
But more likely, we’ll look back on Tulsa as the emblematic Trump rally, the one that encapsulates everything that made this presidency such a nightmare to behold.