And on Saturday, he will be onstage with Trump at Tulsa’s BOK Center, before 19,000 supporters, as the president launches his first campaign-style rally since the coronavirus pandemic shut down such large-scale events.
“Let’s just call it a big week,” Lankford said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon.
Lankford, 52, won his first Senate race in 2014, along with a collection of other ambitious young conservatives. They flipped the majority to Republicans and positioned themselves to become prominent GOP voices for years to come.
All told, Republicans now have 13 senators under the age of 55, almost double the number of Democrats. This group includes three women, two Latinos and the only black Republican senator, Tim Scott (S.C.).
But the Trump era has propelled Republicans in different directions. Some younger Republicans have embraced the president’s populist, America-first rhetoric, even as it has placed him in controversial positions on race and ethnicity.
Lankford and Scott, friends since they were elected to the House 10 years ago, remain in the camp that is trying to point the GOP toward its anti-slavery founding before the Civil War.
“No question this is still the party of Lincoln,” Lankford said, suggesting that Democrats were more naive in how they thought racism could be almost wished away.
“There is this sense among some that you can pass some legislation and demand racism end,” he said. “It’s not that clean.”
Democrats have preemptively signaled that Scott’s legislation is too modest to meet a moment where protests for racial justice have erupted across the nation following the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd. A Minneapolis officer pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes.
Democrats contend the GOP legislation does not actually outlaw these chokeholds and believe it is too deferential by not lowering immunity thresholds that now make it difficult to bring criminal and civil cases against bad officers.
So far there have been no substantive talks with Democrats, who have instead rallied behind a more sweeping bill that House Democrats are pushing toward a floor vote late next week. It seems destined to end in gridlock.
Having spent 15 years running a Christian youth ministry in Oklahoma before entering politics, Lankford takes some Democratic criticism in sharply personal terms.
“Right now Democrats are digging in with: All Republicans are all racists, they all hate everybody that’s not white — if they’re not male and white, they hate them all. That’s not true,” he said Monday. “But as long as they run with that theory, they can get some political kind of division out of it. That’s divisive for the country.”
He credits his “journey through scripture” with teaching him that all humans had “equal weights and measure,” something that made him comfortable with embracing these themes well before he ran for Congress in 2010. “This is just a repetitive theme through scripture,” Lankford said during Tuesday’s interview.
With a voice that blends pastoral tones and 1950s radio pitch, Lankford often comes off as measured in his remarks. And that made him a perfect intermediary for Trump late last week when his rally in Tulsa was originally slated for Friday, the same day as the Juneteenth commemoration of the end of slavery.
In a phone call Friday, Trump questioned Lankford on whether he should move his rally, something he had already been asking others.
“Yes, sir,” he told the president.
For the next few hours the senator contacted local Tulsa community leaders, trying to determine when Trump should hold his rally. They eventually settled on Saturday, avoiding what could have become a racial tinderbox of a presidential rally on a solemn day in an arena a few blocks from a brutal 1921 race riot that remains seared into Tulsa’s history.
Not all Republicans have embraced the same empathetic tones as Lankford.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), 40, the youngest senator, used a floor speech last Thursday to launch an attack on the Democratic police proposal, calling it an attempt “to demonize the fine men and women who put their lives on the line day and night.”
Hawley embraced the Trump-style approach to opposing an amendment to a Pentagon policy bill that would force the renaming of military bases named after Confederate generals.
Calling it “historical revisionism,” Hawley said Democrats wanted “to erase from history every person and name and event not righteous enough.” On Wednesday, Hawley explained in a brief interview that he would offer another amendment that would set up a commission to study the issue of Confederate names but not mandate their removal.
Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), also from the class of 2014, voiced concerns with the Democratic amendment and worked to modify the proposal, but still voted against it. When apparent looting broke out in several cities following protests, Cotton, 41, won kudos from Trump by calling for invoking the Insurrection Act and sending in active-duty military to U.S. cities as part of an “overwhelming display of force.”
But Lankford found himself among those Republicans unhappy with Trump’s June 1 walk across Lafayette Square not long after law enforcement forcibly cleared it of peaceful protesters. He said that it needlessly stole the spotlight from more conciliatory remarks Trump had just made in the Rose Garden, provoking the clash with protesters when it could have been avoided if he had just done the walk earlier in the day.
On Saturday, Lankford is hopeful that the president will use some of his rally to talk about unifying themes. He wants the president to know that a few blocks from that rally sits the John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, named after the famed black historian and in honor of the 1921 race riots. Lankford serves on the commission that is preparing to mark the 100th anniversary of the riots next year.
And, he said, the theme that they have adopted in Tulsa should be the goal for all of today’s turbulence: “From tragedy to triumph.”