The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s problem in Tulsa wasn’t just empty seats. It was empty rhetoric.

President Trump speaks during a rally on Saturday at the BOK Center in Tulsa. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In his first campaign rally since the pandemic lockdowns began and Joe Biden clinched the Democratic presidential nomination, President Trump made clear — as clear as a stream-of-consciousness Trump speech can — how he plans to run against Biden: He won’t, not directly.

Instead, Trump will run against dual, intertwined caricatures.

First, against Biden as a doddering facsimile of his former self — someone who, as Trump suggested in Tulsa on Saturday night, confuses his wife with his sister, who doesn’t comprehend the talking points written for him by the “great students in English lit” who now work for Biden.

Second, against “the extremism and destruction and violence of the radical left” and against the Democratic Party as a “left-wing mob” to which the supposedly feeble Biden “has surrendered.”

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

Activist and rapper Michael "Killer Mike" Render says black Americans could "have freedom in an instant" if they plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize. (Video: Joel Adrian/The Washington Post, Photo: Joy Sharon Yi/The Washington Post)

If the Hillary Clinton of Trump’s 2016 portrayal was a not-so-closet socialist, Trump implicitly acknowledges that playbook needs some adjusting when it comes to Biden 2020. “He’s not radical left,” Trump said of the former vice president. “I don’t think he knows what he is anymore, but he was never radical left, but he’s controlled by the radical left, and now he’s really controlled.”

Biden “has no control,” Trump said. “Does anybody honestly think he controls these radical maniacs? You know what he says to his wife when he’s not confusing her with his sister? ‘Get me the hell out of here. These people are crazy.’”

Really, that’s all he’s got? This two-step fearmongering — Biden’s not so bad, but he’s under the thumb of the crazies — does not add up to a winning strategy.

Note the near total absence of a positive agenda for reelection. This is always a challenge for a president running for a second term, and there is an inevitable element, in any reelection campaign, of warning of progress being undone and clocks turned back.

But the Trumpian vision, as outlined in Tulsa, is distinctively devoid of ideas. Trump spent far more time reenacting his water-drinking and ramp-walking at West Point — indeed, he spent more time recounting his purportedly valiant negotiations with Boeing over a new Air Force One — than he did describing what he would do with four more years beyond nominating additional conservative judges.

Instead, Trump is reduced to a combination of scare tactics and jaw-dropping gaslighting. Electing Biden means that “your 401(k)s and money itself will be worthless.” Right, money itself. Biden is “a puppet for China,” more than a bit rich given Trump’s own former national security adviser’s description of the president’s begging for Chinese help to win reelection. The “Dems” will “eliminate private health insurance” and “ban fracking” — no matter that Biden does not support either of these steps. “They want to defund and dissolve our police departments, think of that” — no matter that Biden has rejected that approach.

And, classic Trump, “Racial justice begins with Joe Biden’s retirement from public life.” This from the president of “very fine people” on both sides of the Charlottesville protests. This from the president who could not, would not, make a single mention of George Floyd on Saturday night — but took pains to lament an “unhinged left-wing mob … trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments, our beautiful monuments … demolish our heritage.” Our heritage. Tell me again where racial justice begins?

The White House is considering President Trump holding an address to the nation on race and unity. Columnist Dana Milbank says he's already given it. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/The Washington Post)

Lacking a convincing substantive case against Biden himself, Trump labored to transform the campaign into a race against lightening-rod Democrats such as Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (Minn.). Biden “installed socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to be in charge of his environmental policy,” Trump claimed. Except he didn’t: The New Yorker co-chairs an eight-member climate change task force assembled by Biden and his former rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“Likewise, Representative Ilhan Omar is going to be very much involved in a Biden government,” Trump claimed. “They will put this hate-filled America-bashing socialist front and center in deciding the fate of your family and deciding the fate of your country.” Omar, he suggested, “would like to make the government of our country just like the country from where she came, Somalia. No government, no safety, no police, no nothing. Just anarchy.”

Leave aside the go-back-to-where-you-came-from dog-whistling. The notion of Omar as “very much involved” in a Biden administration is laughable. The Minnesota congresswoman backed Sanders during the primary campaign and has said she believes Biden accuser Tara Reade.

Trump’s problem in Tulsa wasn’t just empty seats. It was empty rhetoric.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: Trump used his rally to air his personal grievances. He could learn from another event.

Jennifer Rubin: The pandemic Trump cannot ignore

Dana Milbank: Reelect President Trump or he’ll sue you!

Jennifer Rubin: We figured out when the MAGA crowd thought America was great

Michael Gerson: The stage is being set for the repudiation of Donald Trump in November