In front of crowds far smaller than promised, US President Donald Trump returned Saturday to one of his favorite spots – a campaign rally stage – defying the pandemic and attacking Democratic rivals.
Gathering his political faithful for a much-hyped rally in Oklahoma, his first in three months, the Republican president sought to reinvigorate his flagging campaign in the face of a crushing health and economic crisis as well as protests against racial injustice that have swept the nation in recent weeks.
Trump all but claimed victory over the pandemic that has killed some 120,000 Americans – “I have done a phenomenal job with it!” he insisted – even as six members of his own Tulsa advance team tested positive for Covid-19.
The event – which the White House promised would be flooded with up to 100,000 people, but actually did not even fill the 19,000-seat arena where Trump spoke – has emerged as a flashpoint in the pandemic era.
In the hours before the event, crowds were significantly lighter than expected, and campaign officials scrapped plans for Trump to first address an overflow space outdoors. About a third of the seats at his indoor rally were empty.
Trump tried to explain away the crowd size by blaming the media for declaring “don’t go, don’t come, don’t do anything” and by insisting there were protesters outside who were “doing bad things.”
But Trump was more interested in reviving his political fortunes after several bruising weeks that saw continued economic woes tied to the pandemic, nationwide protests over racial injustice, the toppling of Confederate and other statues and critics including former aides savaging his performance.
“The silent majority is stronger than ever before,” Trump said in a rowdy, freewheeling speech in which he blasted his 2020 election rival, Democrat Joe Biden, as a “helpless puppet of the radical left”.
“Five months from now we’re going to defeat ‘sleepy’ Joe Biden,” he said.
Many rally-goers wore red “Make America Great Again” hats or T-shirts, but very few wore masks and there was little social distancing, even though coronavirus cases have recently been skyrocketing in Oklahoma.
The president has downplayed the risk that the evening rally – with thousands of shouting, cheering attendees – might trigger a fresh outbreak, ignoring danger warnings by Tulsa health and municipal officials.
And he suggested that the “double-edged sword” of comprehensive coronavirus testing had led to the United States having the world’s highest number of cases.
“Here is the bad part: When you do testing to that extent, you are going to find more people, you will find more cases,” Trump argued. “So I said to my people, ‘slow the testing down’,”
A White House official later told AFP that Trump was joking.
The narrative of a trouble-free campaign event was punctured, however, when the campaign announced just hours before the rally that six members of its Tulsa advance team tested positive for coronavirus.
Trump nevertheless reverted to full-on campaign mode, reviving themes that dominated his 2016 campaign: smearing immigrants, building a wall on the southern border, demanding flagburners be sentenced to jail and highlighting a rising stock market.
“If you see it happening on November 3,” he said of America’s potential rebound, “you don’t have the guts to vote against Trump.”
‘Unhinged leftwing mob’
He notably steered clear until well into his one-hour, 45-minute speech of the racial tensions that have swept the country in the weeks since a handcuffed African American, George Floyd, was killed by police in Minneapolis.
Instead he warned that Democrats were seeking to erase American heritage, a reference to the tearing down of several statues of Confederate slave owners and other figures.
“The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our beautiful monuments, tear down our statues, and punish, cancel and persecute anyone who does not conform to their demands for absolute and total control,” he said.
The stakes Saturday could not have been higher, both for the health of thousands spending hours at the arena and for Trump’s political fortunes, five months before an election in which he trails in the polls.
“Today we’re here to show we support President Trump and that we, the people, we’ll win the 2020 election, no matter what the fake news media and other liberal, leftist, mind-controlling big firms are saying,” said attendee Brad, who declined to provide his last name.
The rally has been controversial in part because it originally was scheduled for Friday – the Juneteenth commemoration of the end of slavery in the US – in a city known for one of the deadliest-ever massacres of African Americans.
Racial tensions have roiled the nation following the police killing of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, and Trump has fanned the flames with provocative rhetoric.
Dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters did gather at rally checkpoints and confronted attendees, but no violence was reported.
After the rally, officers were seen using pepper spray to disperse protesters who temporarily blocked a police convoy.
This was the first of Trump’s signature rallies since March 2, when the country went into pandemic lockdown.
The virus dramatically disrupted a once-booming economy, which had been Trump’s strongest re-election selling point.
With polls showing him trailing Biden, Trump is eager to change the narrative, and rallies have long been his favorite political tool. But while Trump rolls the political dice, the crowd gambled with their health.
Oklahoma virus cases have spiked recently, and the state’s total as of Saturday surpassed 10,000.
Rally organizers provided everyone with hand sanitizer, temperature checks and optional masks.
Attendees were required to sign a waiver protecting organizers from any liability in the event Covid-19 spreads at the venue.