The iconic image of a modern president realizing he has lost control of events and of his public image is Lyndon Johnson, holed up inside the White House with advisers in March of 1968 as antiwar protesters chanted outside: “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
Johnson — his presidency consumed by soaring casualties in Vietnam and mounting unrest in U.S. cities — confided to the advisers that his political capital had bled away. Like Trump, Johnson had for a time persuaded himself that media elites, out to get him, were exaggerating his travails and that the people were secretly with him. Soon after, Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek reelection.
Trump may have just experienced a moment that could prove similarly iconic.
While the parallel is inexact — and while Trump could still very well get reelected — something telling and new appears to have happened inside his head as he realized that his Saturday rally in Tulsa was far more sparsely attended than he and his advisers had expected.
The New York Times brings us new details from behind the curtain, reporting that Trump and several staffers “stood backstage” and gazed at the sea of empty seats in the Bank of Oklahoma Center “in horror":
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, according to four people familiar with what took place.
What’s even more interesting, though, is what Trump’s advisers took away from what happened:
Exactly what went wrong was still being dissected on Sunday. But a broad group of advisers and associates acknowledged to one another that Mr. Trump had not been able to will public opinion away from fears about the spread of the coronavirus in an indoor space. And they conceded that myriad polls showing Mr. Trump’s eroded standing were not fake, and that he might be on course to lose to former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Trump’s advisers are conceding to each other that deception and manipulation have failed him — even with his own supporters. It isn’t just that Trump was unable to persuade would-be rallygoers that the novel coronavirus doesn’t still pose a serious threat.
It’s also telling that Trump’s advisers see this as another indication of his weakened standing, as evidenced by polls — real polls, they admit — that show him trailing badly. Trump has similarly failed to persuade supporters those polls are fake.
Trump’s manufactured illusions are shattered
One suspects it’s not a coincidence that those two things are linked here. Many media accounts say that this rally — which boasted general admission attendance of only 6,200 people in an arena that seats 19,000 — was supposed to “reset” his campaign and that this “fizzled.”
But that undersells what really happened here. This rally was meant to “reset” a much larger story line: It was supposed to reinforce and embody the notion that Trump has defeated the coronavirus, that the country is roaring back to greatness and that Trump is soaring to reelection on the wings of those triumphs.
Underscoring the point, NBC News reports on another dimension to Trump’s rage: He was “furious” over the news that six campaign staffers working on the Tulsa event tested positive for the coronavirus — because this would distract from the event.
In other words, that news blew up the larger illusion that this rally was designed to feed.
Unlike Johnson, who stood down for reelection when he realized he had entirely lost control of events, Trump has long operated from the premise that he can win reelection by creating the illusion that he has mastered them.
On the coronavirus, you cannot overstate how much effort Trump and his propagandists have put into manufacturing the impression that it’s behind us.
This includes Vice President Pence telling governors to falsely emphasize the role of increased testing in creating new spikes in cases. It also includes Pence and Trump continuing to refuse to wear masks, and it includes the winding down of the task force, even as cases really are spiking in nearly two dozen states.
This gives away the game
The Tulsa rally was supposed to be a big part of this manufactured illusion. Remember, it was justified by Pence’s false claim that the curve has been flattened in Oklahoma.
Indeed, there’s a key tell in this regard contained in Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale’s defense of sparse turnout. Parscale claimed that “a week’s worth of the fake news media warning people away from the rally because of Covid and protesters” may have “had a real impact.”
See? The media hyped the coronavirus to depress Trump’s rally turnout. That the coronavirus actually does remain a threat, and that this may have genuinely weighed even on Trump supporters, must never be acknowledged to be a real factor.
After all, this shatters the illusion the rally was designed to create in the first place. Yet even Trump’s own advisers now privately concede it to be the case.
In this larger context, the image of Trump gazing at empty seats in “horror” as he appeared to realize his magical reality-bending powers are deserting him on this very front has an iconic power all its own.