His is not the majority position on the subject; a Fox News poll determined even a majority of Republicans think rallies shouldn’t be held without proper precautions to halt the spread of the virus. So Trump waved away concerns, including by falsely arguing coronavirus cases in Oklahoma were receding — they haven’t been — and moved forward with a rally in Tulsa.
What was so important that Trump felt the need to get back on the campaign trail, elevating the risk of exposure to the virus so significantly that the campaign made attendees sign disclaimers agreeing not to hold the campaign culpable if they contracted the virus? In part, surely polls such as that one from Fox News which showed Trump trailing former vice president Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee he’ll face in November, by double digits. In part, too, it was about scratching his own itch, getting the chance to again surround himself with devoted supporters.
But, if his actual speech is any guide, it was also to defend his ability to walk down a ramp and to drink water.
For 14 minutes and 15 seconds of his one hour, 43-minute speech, Trump walked through his speech one week ago at the U.S. Military Academy. That speech was meant to show a powerful commander in chief leading newly minted Army second lieutenants in a shared appreciation of country. Instead, two unrelated moments from the speech — one in which Trump gingerly used two hands to drink a glass of water and one in which he slowly and carefully descended a ramp to leave the stage — caught the nation’s attention. A speech intended to show Trump’s strength instead conveyed frailty, as his campaign was repeatedly trying to depict Biden as old and feeble.
So, nearly 23 minutes into his speech in Tulsa, Trump suddenly transitioned to a lengthy exposition about the nefarious news media.
“You know, it was interesting — to show you how fake they are, you might have seen it,” he said — then letting loose for more than 14 minutes about what he did at the U.S. Military Academy, the weather, how many people he had to salute, the type of shoes he was wearing, various people calling him “sir” and telling him various things, speculation about his health, what he said to the first lady. Just a steady stream of rationalization, spin and exposition, meant to contextualize his appearance on Twitter’s trending topics list — a metric that few presidents besides Trump would care about.
After setting the stage for 10 minutes and on multiple occasions reenacting his effort to walk down the ramp, Trump transitioned to talking about how and why he drank the glass of water the way he did.
He said that the first lady had informed him that he was being criticized for using two hands to drink the glass of water.
“They said you couldn’t lift your hand up to your mouth with water,” Trump said, conveying what he says his wife had told him. “I said, I just saluted 600 times, like this!”
He imitated saluting to the graduating cadets, to cheers from the audience. Well, sure, then. Not fair to criticize the guy if his hands were that tired.
Then he added: “This was before I saluted.”
As it was. Oh, okay then.
He then proved he could drink a glass of water with one hand, flinging it to the side when he was done. The crowd roared and chanted, “four more years!” Fox News summarized the diatribe as it was going on with a succinct, “Trump debunks West Point ramp fake news.”
Eventually, more than 14 minutes after he began, Trump ended his complaints with an admission that it was perhaps a bit of a non sequitur: “Okay. That’s enough of that. I wanted to tell that story.”
It’s important to note that Trump was largely battling a straw man. Yes, there was a lot of discussion of his descent on the ramp and of the water drinking, but mostly on social media. Trump tends to conflate “social media” with “traditional media,” at times because it’s useful to do so and at times because he seems to genuinely confuse the two. Media coverage of the speech was limited largely because it was a sort of typical thing a president does; his shuffling down the ramp garnered enormous attention by contrast because of his attacks on Biden. Well, really, because Trump is largely unpopular with most Americans.
To Trump, this whole thing was aimed at what the Fox chyron summarized: him against an unfair media, yet again.
“Not one media group said I made a good speech or I made a great speech,” he complained, to boos — as though the media is regularly in the habit of reviewing the quality of presidential speeches.
But he understands the media is an ever-present foil against which he can struggle, endearing his supporters to him by casting the press as the enemy. So we get 1-out-of-every-8-minutes in Tulsa focused on how people made fun of his walk down a ramp a week earlier and how that criticism was unfair.
Well, that’s overly generous. Trump spent nearly a quarter of an hour on the subject because he was mad that the incident made him look weak. The media complaint was valid, but it wasn’t really what he was upset about. What was upset was his vanity.
If you’re curious, Trump spent far, far less time talking about the pandemic itself.