There are few things the press and liberal commentators seem to enjoy more than tallying up the empty seats at a Trump rally. They can almost be forgiven for it—Trump’s boasts about crowd sizes against photographic evidence have been among the most consistent and petty examples of his dishonesty, and a vague, amusing theory has circulated about the specific circumstances that might have left thousands of seats unfilled at Saturday’s rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The New York Times reported Sunday that teens on TikTok and Korean pop fans are claiming to have poached hundreds of thousands of tickets to the event as a prank. Trump, for his part, lied to attendees about protesters disrupting entry.
But none of it really matters. Saturday’s rally was significant first as a dangerous stunt, given the coronavirus’s spread in Oklahoma, and second as the occasion for the first major speech of Trump’s reelection campaign. A normal president facing reelection might have used the opportunity to virtually deliver solemn, but soaring, oratory on the past few trying weeks and months in American life and our capacity to overcome them.
Instead, the president put 6,000 people in an arena and said “kung flu.”
TRUMP: By the way, it’s a disease, without question [that] has more names than any disease in history. I can name “kung flu.” I can name 19 different versions of names. Many call it a virus, which it is. Many call it a flu. What difference? I think we have 19 or 20 different versions of the name.
Trump had little more to say about the coronavirus beyond his praise for our increasing testing capacity and his decision to restrict the entry of the Chinese. But the pandemic is worsening—thanks in large part to state reopenings that Trump has encouraged. An even deeper economic recession would likely follow another large, uncontrolled wave of infections. None of this was discussed. But Trump did offer extended reenactments of his journey down a ramp and the sip of water he took at his West Point address earlier this month.
We will be inundated by polls and charts and the sweaty, contradictory pronouncements of serious analysts and hacks alike between now and November, but the fundamentals of the election as it stands are actually quite simple. The president is just barely matching his 2016 margin with white working-class voters. He is losing white college graduates again by an even worse margin. And he’s now losing the oldest voters. The Democratic Party hasn’t hit 50 percent with voters over 65 in 20 years. An average of polls taken in May and June showed Biden ahead with them 51–44, and a more recent Quinnipiac poll showed Biden winning them 51–43. These are the constituencies an Electoral College victory turns on. If Trump makes up ground with them before November, he can win. If he doesn’t, he will lose.
To the extent that it can be said Trump has a plan for turning things around at all, the recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd seem to be at the center of it. “The unhinged left-wing mob is trying to vandalize our history, desecrate our monuments—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 early in his speech. “This cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion violates everything we hold dear as Americans. They want to demolish our heritage so they can impose their new oppressive regime in its place. They want to defund and dissolve our police departments. Think of that!”
All of this could be very old news by the fall, even if Trump tries to rekindle this moment’s anxieties in his campaign advertising. And it should be well known by now that Republican invocations of political correctness, antifa, and monument-toppling radicals did absolutely nothing to stem the party’s bleeding with suburban voters ahead of the 2018 midterms. They and most other voters will head into Election Day with even more pressing matters on their minds than they had back then, particularly if the pandemic intensifies. Any focus on the protests could also be undermined considerably by the fact that Trump’s presidency was supposed to bring an end to what he called “American carnage” in the first place—what’s shaping up is a campaign built around a promise to restore a sense of “law and order” that, by his own tacit admission, Trump has already failed to impose.
There were other revivals of old rhetoric on Saturday. Biden, he charged, has supported “every globalist attack on the American worker” over the course of his career and has “never made a correct foreign policy decision”—there he pointed to Biden’s support for the war in Iraq. This would be potent material in the hands of a normal presidential candidate in a normal election year; even Trump managed to focus his messaging just enough to make Nafta and Iraq central to his case against Clinton in 2016. But this is far from a normal year. The central foreign policy issue on the minds of American voters is a global pandemic they believe this administration has mishandled. The intended Rust Belt audience for trade talk hasn’t seen any benefit whatsoever from Trump’s renegotiation of Nafta, but it is facing down a critically wounded economy at 13 percent unemployment. And Trump’s speech in Tulsa contained little more of an economic program than a promise not to raise taxes and predictions that the stock market will continue to rise.
All told, nothing Trump said on Saturday suggested a belief that Biden will be substantially more difficult for him to beat than Clinton was. But he will be. Biden has engaged in far fewer eyebrow-raising activities than the Clintons. (On Saturday, Trump’s allegations against Hunter Biden—the heart of the desperate Ukrainian intrigue that led to his already forgotten impeachment just months ago—were referenced in a comment so brief one could have missed it while yawning.) He won’t be the object of misogyny, either, and his gaffes haven’t been a major stumbling block for his campaign thus far. All of this will make the project of defining Biden negatively more difficult, particularly if Trump tries to paint him as a radical to scare white voters. Trump understands this, and in his speech, he reiterated a line of attack that will surely dominate the campaign’s negative messaging.
TRUMP: Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left. And he’s not radical left. I don’t think he knows what he is anymore. But he was never radical left, but he’s controlled by the radical left. And now he’s really controlled.
In short, the campaign against Joe Biden will have less to do with Joe Biden than with other shadowy figures in the party Trump knows target constituencies will find more frightening. He went on to namecheck Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar as figures who are supposedly dragging Biden along by a leash. But the argument loses a bit of its force every time he reminds audiences that Biden isn’t actually a radical. Moreover, the substantive divisions between Biden and the party’s progressives have been aired out in a highly public way over the past year.
Trump’s best opportunity to deepen these anxieties will arrive with Biden’s running mate—a person voters will have no trouble imagining not only as an influence on Biden, but as someone who could conceivably replace him as president given his age. Reporting and comments from Democratic figures indicate it’s highly likely Biden will pick a woman of color whom the public doesn’t know terribly well. The ferocity of what awaits them has been foretold by the last 12 years of American politics. There is a risk for Trump that leaning too heavily into bigotry and piggishness on the right might further alienate the suburban voters he’s already hemorrhaging and finally shatter any meager hope he might have had of meaningfully improving his performance with Black voters. But the president is not a cautious or intelligent man. He will speak and act mostly by instinct, as he usually does—trusting that the inequities of our sham democracy will allow him to feel and fumble his way back into office. And he might be right.