In an arena that could seat 19,000 people, there were as many empty blue chairs as red “Make America Great Again” hats. A planned visit by Trump and Vice President Pence to the overflow area set up outside was abruptly canceled because it was almost empty.
His campaign claimed — falsely — that protesters had prevented supporters from coming inside; it might also have fallen victim to a prank by teens on social media, who say they sent in a flood of requests for tickets they had no intention of using.
Whatever the reason, there would probably have been plenty of room inside for everyone to stand six feet apart, as government guidelines suggest during the covid-19 pandemic. But caution was not the watchword for an evening that turned out to be an Open Mic Night for Trump’s id.
Trump spent nearly all of the 101 minutes that he spoke airing grievances — including a peculiar reenactment of his shaky walk down a ramp after his West Point commencement speech, a daredevil feat that in his telling would have tested a Wallenda.
One of the biggest cheers he got from the crowd was when he demonstrated that, yes, he is indeed capable of drinking a glass of water using only one hand. That there was an appearance to the contrary at West Point a week before, he explained, was because of his fear of ruining an expensive silk tie.
But to focus on Trump’s clownish performance is to miss what was truly disturbing about what he said — and didn’t. He made no mention of the death of George Floyd and said nothing about the systemic racism that has brought people into the streets by the hundreds of thousands demanding change.
Instead, he condemned the largely peaceful protesters, including the ones outside his rally, as “agitators” and “thugs.”
As for the novel coronavirus that has taken the lives of at least 118,000 Americans since early February, Trump suggested that concern about the growing number of cases in many areas is overblown — a function of the fact that more people are, finally, being tested.
“Here’s the bad part: 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,” he said.
The White House claimed it was a joke. But the president’s contempt for measures that public health experts say are crucial was clear when he said that some of those now being classified as victims of the virus are 10-year-olds with “the sniffles.” And he couldn’t resist throwing in a racist trope, referring to it as “Kung flu” — a term that his own counselor Kellyanne Conway has called “highly offensive.”
Trump might have done well to tune into another political event taking place over the weekend.
It was a digital gathering billed as the “Mass Poor People’s Assembly & Moral March on Washington.” Invoking echoes of the Poor People’s March that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated, it drew plenty of liberal star power, from King’s daughter Bernice to Danny Glover to Al Gore. Religious leaders of practically every denomination spoke to the need for a moral awakening.
But the emotional punch of the event, which organizers claim got 1.1 million views on Facebook alone, came from scores of ordinary Americans — a coal miner in Kentucky, a black mother in Michigan, a Kansas farmer, a homeless teen — telling their own stories of everyday struggle in one of the richest countries in the world.
As its organizer, the Rev. William J. Barber II, told me in an interview a few weeks ago, what the covid-19 epidemic and the killing of Floyd have done is made Americans realize how interrelated are the forces — racism, poverty, environmental devastation — that have left so many in a state of perpetual anger and despair.
Perhaps the next time Trump convenes one of his signature campaign events, he might think about the people who turn to their president for answers at a time when the nation that he leads is hurting. If he has no interest in leading them out of their pain, they will look elsewhere in November for someone who can.