As President Trump trudged across the South Lawn of the White House after deboarding Marine One, he was a picture of despair with his collar button undone along with his signature red tie, which hung loosely around his neck, and his crumpled MAGA hat in his right hand, which he switched to the left and back absentmindedly. He had returned from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he was greeted by a number no bigger than 6,200 at a venue with a seating capacity of 19,200.
The sight of 13,000 empty seats seemed to have rattled Trump, quite understandably.
The small number at the rally was quickly blamed on the media and the protestors, who were said to have blocked access to the entrance; but reports from the local fire department said the entrance to the venue was only briefly closed and nobody was turned away. A more plausible explanation is that a large number of Donald Trump supporters did not think it sensible to join a large gathering and run the risk of contracting a coronavirus infection, particularly when the campaign required attendees to sign a health waiver and “assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19“.
Watch: Trump’s Tulsa rally in less than 4 minutes
Tulsa and beyond — Trump 2020
The low turnout in Tulsa is probably the least of Trump’s worries as he runs for a second term in the White House. His campaign is not going as well as he would like due to several factors, each of which has the potential to derail his march towards re-election. Trump’s support base may not have eroded a great deal yet, but it has surely taken a beating, and the coronavirus concerns, which had been temporarily overshadowed by the protests over police brutality (a further divisive controversy), are now back with the number of the infected skyrocketing. To add to Trump’s headache, the Labor Department announced on June 18, 2020, that there had been 1.5 million fresh unemployment claims in the week prior, indicating that the quick economic recovery Trump had promised is not coming anytime soon.
One would expect a sitting President, aspiring for a second term, to address at least some of these grave concerns.
But Trump spent 14 minutes and 15 seconds of the total of one hour and forty-three minutes of his remarks, defending his drinking water with both hands and his slow and careful walk down the ramp as he left the stage at the U.S. Military Academy, where he spoke to the Army’s new second lieutenants at an in-person ceremony on June 13, 2020. The two incidents, otherwise inconsequential, attracted attention because this was supposed to be the speech of a strong commander-in-chief to the newly inducted Army personnel. But Trump’s lifting the glass of water to his lips cautiously with both hands and his careful descent from the stage made him look weak and old, which assumes significance in the context of his campaign’s consistent attempt to portray Joe Biden as old and frail.
Ties and slippery surfaces
At Tulsa, Trump attributed his double-handed lifting of glass to his trying to prevent a dribble of water on his red, silk tie — which is “never the same”, he did not forget to mention — and went on to hold his “leather-bottom shoes” responsible for forcing him to walk carefully down the ramp. Also, he pulled out a glass of water dramatically, lifted it to his lips, took a sip and tossed it aside with theatric casualness to demonstrate his single-handed dexterity with glassware. Before that, he physically enacted how he had carefully walked down the ramp “inch by inch” at the U.S. Military Academy on account of the shoes.
The time and effort he devoted to explaining the trivialities of his physical movements at an official military function to prove that he was in the prime of health made Trump look weak and defensive, like a man on the back foot.
Trump perhaps did not realize that the more time he spent trying to exude strength, the weaker he looked, because strength means not having to prove one’s might unless challenged.
Also, the discussions about his having trouble with drinking water with one hand or walking down the ramps were largely on social media, and although there was a lot of talk about it, it was trivial. Dedicating as much time to such trivial discussions because they impinge on one’s ego when matters of such gravity as the COVID-19 pandemic and police brutality, to name just two, are crying for attention is both irresponsible and unpresidential.
Caught in his own net
Furthermore, the discussions about Trump’s water-drinking and ramp-walking methods and mannerisms are the kind of tropes Trump’s campaign uses against Biden, who is portrayed as old and wanting in mental acuity, like in the Facebook ads run by Trump’s campaign where the videos say “Geriatric Health is No Laughing Matter” or “Joe Biden: Old and Out of It,” and then play edited clips of Biden’s stumbling utterances or winding monologues to suggest, with minimal subtlety, a lack of mental sharpness.
After dwelling on these inconsequential things, when the President did finally talk about COVID-19, he told the crowd that in his view if the testing was slowed the cases would not rise as steeply, implying the testing was somehow causing the infections. “When you do testing to that extent, you’re gonna find more people, you’re gonna find more cases,” he said. “So I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’” The White House later insisted that the President was just joking about asking officials to slow down testing.
It is hard to find humour in a statement as casual as that about a problem as serious as COVID-19 in a country where over 123,000 people have already lost their lives to the disease with the number climbing every day.
At the Tulsa rally, Trump came across as both defensive and in denial. He has always been in varying degrees of denial in regard to the seriousness of COVID-19, and how he handles COVID-19 is likely to influence the voters quite a bit.
Back to the old protectionist trump card
Given the newly announced extension of visa restrictions purportedly aimed at addressing rising unemployment by severely restricting the entry of the immigrants into the country, it looks like Trump is bringing the old protectionist card to the table yet again, and is banking on his old support base to carry him to the White House a second time. That may prove harder this time, as Trump’s sinking approval ratings indicate.
Trump’s troubles at the moment are varied and many, which makes his post-Tulsa long face befitting. What, however, does not fit is that fact that a consummate marketeer like Trump allowed himself to be photographed that way, which can only mean that even he failed to put a happy face to things. Is Trump feeling defeated already? Let’s not jump to conclusions yet.