A lot to argue about!
Trump held his first post-lockdown rally last evening in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There was controversy before, during and after the event. Criticism was not confined to the content of the speech as usual but spread over the unusual areas of the timing, location, venue, and attendance of the rally.
The earliest criticism concerned the timing of the event. A Trump rally, held in an indoor arena, was criticized as a blatant violation of the CDC current (and often changing) recommendations regarding safeguards against the “Chinese virus”, as Trump calls it. Among the most obvious violations were the lack of social distancing in the densely packed house, without compulsory masks, and held indoors (as opposed to outdoors).
After the rally, much was made of the lower attendance. Not only were there noticeable empty bleachers (which the network cameras showed frequently), but also the scheduled outdoor appearance by the President was cancelled because the only crowd out there was the ever-present (thankfully peaceful) protesters. Nevertheless, there were approximately 18,000 or more in attendance, counting the seating on the floor of the arena, out of a published capacity of 19,000. One unaccounted-for factor was the absence of the 0ver-65 crowd who tend to be among the most loyal of the Trump base.
So, what to think about all this? First of all, there is the symbolic significance of the scheduling. The President has shown in various ways that the public health contingent – which essentially scared him (and all of us) into the lock-down in the first place – is no longer calling the shots in the White House response to the pandemic.
This column remarked very early in the process the fact that the public health perspective is necessarily limited. Never before in American history has this group been given such control over public policy. At the first sign of a public health threat, Mr. Trump, in typical CEO practice, called into service the finest experts he could find in this field – which he admitted was far from his own experience. He then followed their advice, quite uncritically. As I pointed out at the time, this was a huge gamble: if it went wrong, it could, among other things, cost him the election and even his place in history. (See https://drlarryonline.com/trumps-huge-gamble/)
After a while, he did begin to appreciate the narrowness of that perspective. But he was stuck in the middle of a lock-down which he had ordered! Thus, began the journey back to recovery, to normalcy. His diffusion of power to local politicians was a stroke of genius. Not only did he gradually shed the sole responsibility for the lock-down, but he made friends and evoked loyalties among an entire new group of politicians with whom he had had little prior contact. And it was acting out the essence of the Constitution, which sees the sovereign states as surrendering and thereby validating some of their powers to create the federal government.
This entire scenario was moving along quite nicely. Then two unexpected things happened: the Washington Democrats in Congress began to “adopt” the public health establishment, endorsing ever more stringent limitations on the population in the name of the pandemic. As this attitude began to percolate out to the state governors, the recovery slowed down.
By this time Trump and his people had fully realized that the lock-down had nearly ruined the economy and still threatened to do so. They went into overdrive to speed up the recovery. Trump was still winning, however, until the next shoe dropped: a cellphone video of the brutal murder of a defenseless Black man by a White policeman in Minneapolis went viral on social media. The reaction was a worldwide protest against civil authority in America. After a few peaceful marches, the movement turned violent and radical leadership emerged.
Among other secondary effects, the total attention of America — and much of the world – turned away from the economic recovery and toward the protesters and the rioters.
Some past events of this type have elicited soaring rhetoric from leaders such as the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert Kennedy to begin healing the wounds. Soaring rhetoric is not one of Mr. Trump’s talents. Nor does he have the soothing, compassionate manner of a Bill Clinton or a George Bush. In the face of these disasters, Donald Trump stumbled.
The Democrat opposition immediately made him the face of the disaster. His poll numbers have tumbled, yielding to the reclusive Mr. Biden whose silence has served him well.
Trump may not be a great orator or an instinctive healer, but he does excel at one thing: he can draw thousands of impassioned participants to his rallies. This is his unique sandbox and he felt the urgency to activate it.
The Tulsa Rally was the first step on Trump’s road to recovery. It was an act of defiance to the public health establishment and their new sponsors, the Democrats and the press. It also emphasizes the simple truth that the virus is going to be around for a long time, and we have to learn to live with it while carrying on our normal economic activity. Our financial survival as a nation depends on it.
Whether Trump’s new strategy succeeds or not depends on the next steps. In one of Mr. Trump’s favorite sayings, “We’ll see what happens.”
Indeed, we will.