It is one of the oldest divisions of labor in politics. The presidential candidate points with pride at the past and waxes inspirational about the future. The running mate, in contrast, plays partisan attack dog, depicting the rival candidate as the moral equivalent of Vlad the Impaler.
Richard Nixon in 1952 served as the model for this style of VP guttersnipe politics, describing Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson as a graduate of the “cowardly college of Communist containment.” In 1976, Bob Dole, playing second banana to Jerry Ford, decried “the Democrat wars” of the twentieth century. And then, of course, along came Sarah Palin in 2008.
For all his lapdog loyalty and religiously inspired right-wing beliefs, Mike Pence was the speaker who took the higher road at the campaign launch on Saturday night. Pence, in a warm-up speech that even Fox News didn’t carry, at least said to the almost totally white Oklahoma audience, “There is no excuse for what happened to George Floyd.” Pence promptly added, “But there is also no excuse for the rioting, looting, and destruction of property that followed.”
The lasting message from Donald Trump’s Saturday night death-defying, empty-seated Tulsa talkathon is that somebody else will have to keep hope alive. Trump has only one reelection theme: fear. Or what Franklin Roosevelt, in the depths of another economic Depression, called “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.”
This will be a reelection campaign scripted by Roy Cohn from on high.
Ephemeral aspects of the Trump campaign kickoff speech (which at 101 minutes was longer than many movies) have dominated the morning-after headlines. Here was a president in the middle of a pandemic, bragging, “I said to my people, slow down the testing.” Or Trump, displaying all the cultural sensitivity of a 1940s Charlie Chan movie, calling the virus the “kung flu.”
What was lasting, in contrast, was the sheer ugliness of Trump’s fearmongering, even by his own sewer-dwelling standards. In an extended riff, more than an hour into the speech, Trump depicted life in Gulag America if Joe Biden becomes president. “An emboldened left will launch a full-scale assault on American life,” he thundered. “They will expel anyone who disagrees. Look what happens when you disagree.… They call you a racist. They call you a horrible person. They want to crush religious liberty. They don’t want religion.”
He might as well have claimed that the Democrats want to put religious believers in concentration camps (though, according to John Bolton, Trump has praised the Chinese for doing precisely that to the Uighurs).
Believe it or not, the rally speech was disciplined by Trumpian standards. Sure, the president spent nearly 15 minutes reliving his adventures going down a ramp at West Point last week and struggling to drink from a glass of water during his commencement address. (His performance had nothing to do with his health, Trump insisted in Tulsa, but rather the dangers of wearing leather-soled shoes and pricey ties.)
But Trump never did a full Festivus airing of grievances. Bolton went unmentioned, and Trump praised his Supreme Court picks without ever acknowledging Justice Neil Gorsuch’s apostasy in last Monday’s gay and transgender rights decision. While Trump denounced “fake news” in the first two minutes of his speech, he never attacked the reporters present in the half-empty hall or demanded that they turn their cameras around to show the mostly vacant nosebleed seats.
A telling indicator of Trump’s political predicament is how gingerly he treated Biden. Rather than going after him personally, Trump chose to paint the former vice president as a hostage of supposedly dangerously extreme Democrats: “Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left.” And later, Trump echoed the same theme when he declared, “Biden is a very willing Trojan horse for socialism.”
Like much of the Tulsa speech, these were not accidental Trump improvisations but the fruit of political research by the campaign. Perhaps sensing Biden’s underlying personal popularity, Trump has consistently pretended that his real opponents in November are Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, both of whom he denounced at length on Saturday night. In a particularly ugly interlude, Trump claimed that Omar wants to turn America into a replica of “the country from where she came. Somalia—no government, no safety, no police, no nothing.” Trump certainly reflected the Know Nothing part of that equation.
It is tempting to find a larger message about Trump’s waning popularity with the GOP base in the meager turnout in Tulsa. According to the city’s fire marshal, fewer than one-third of the 19,000 seats in the BOK arena were filled. But it is hard to know whether the seats were empty because of virus fears, teenagers mischievously signing up on TikTok, or just the sensible calculation that there are better things to do on a Saturday night in Tulsa, even in the midst of a pandemic.
A far more valid test of the president’s in-person appeal will be his slated Tuesday speech to a Students for Trump rally in Phoenix, since Arizona, unlike Oklahoma, is up for grabs in November. Even there, though, Trump’s passion for personal acclaim will collide with the realities of the virus. Arizona is the site of perhaps the worst current Covid-19 outbreak in the country, with a nearly 50 percent rise in cases over the past week.
On Saturday, Trump clearly reveled in his first rally speech in three months, since he followed the Bill Clinton model of “don’t stop talking until tomorrow.” But it was hard to tell from afar whether the 6,200 hardy Oklahomans—willingly disdaining masks and social distancing in fealty to their leader—felt the same passion. As Trump finally left the stage to the overamplified sound of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” I wondered if what most of the crowd wanted was to be home an hour earlier.