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OPINION

Trump’s got bigger problems than empty seats

The rally exposed a far larger set of problems for Trump and his reelection effort.

President Trump returns to the White House early Sunday, June 21, after hosting a poorly attended campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla.
President Trump returns to the White House early Sunday, June 21, after hosting a poorly attended campaign rally in Tulsa, Okla.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Things could have gone a tad better for President Trump on Saturday night in Tulsa.

A much-hyped return to the campaign trail, billed as the president’s kickoff for the fall campaign, turned into an evening not of ego stroking for Donald Trump but rather embarrassment. The president was welcomed by thousands of empty blue seats and a crowd that filled only a third of Tulsa’s Bank of Oklahoma arena. An overflow stage built outside the stadium attracted about 25 people, and a scheduled appearance there by President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence was canceled by the campaign due to low turnout. This after the campaign boasted of a million ticket requests for the event. In the hours before Trump took the stage, it was revealed that six members of the campaign’s advance team had tested positive for the coronavirus — a situation that is, unfortunately, likely to play out among rally-goers, few of whom wore masks or engaged in social distancing.

Supporters of President Donald Trump listen as he speaks at the BOK Center, in Tulsa on Saturday, during his first campaign rally since March 2. Inside the campaign, advisers believe disappointing attendance at the rally shows genuine fear of the coronavirus and the reality of President Trump’s sliding poll numbers.
Supporters of President Donald Trump listen as he speaks at the BOK Center, in Tulsa on Saturday, during his first campaign rally since March 2. Inside the campaign, advisers believe disappointing attendance at the rally shows genuine fear of the coronavirus and the reality of President Trump’s sliding poll numbers.DOUG MILLS/NYT

But the event exposed a far larger set of problems for Trump and his reelection effort: He has no message for the majority of Americans who are planning to vote for his opponent Joe Biden.

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Since the day Trump took office he has focused his policy and political actions on the 40-44 percent of Americans who are his most die-hard supporters. He has played to their fears about immigrants and foreigners and made little effort to win over those not already in his corner. For a candidate who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots, this was always going to be a political problem and one that could be corrected only by Trump’s persistent advantage in the Electoral College. Even before the pandemic and subsequent economic downturn few predicted that Trump would win the popular vote.

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But with the country now wracked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of 120,000 Americans, and a mass protest movement in response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Trump’s numbers have been in a free fall. In Tulsa, Trump offered little indication that he has any plan or inclination to stanch the bleeding.

It was bad enough that Trump offered not one word of condolence for those who have died. It’s even worse that he actually said he asked his aides to slow down testing for the virus. But from a political standpoint, he offered no path forward for dealing with COVID-19.

Instead, at a time when the number of coronavirus cases are spiking around the country, Trump painted a rosy picture of future economic renewal that seemed even more divorced from reality than his usual pronouncements. Considering the lackluster turnout in Tulsa, there’s good reason to believe that Trump’s supporters are a bit more concerned about being exposed to COVID-19 than he is.

When it came to the overwhelmingly peaceful protests of the past several weeks, Trump decried those marching in American streets as “left-wing radicals” who, he said, “burn[ed] down buildings, loot[ed] businesses, destroy[ed] private property, [and] injure[d] hundreds of dedicated police officers.” Not once did Trump utter the names George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, or Breonna Taylor. With polls showing that a majority of Americans support the protests, Trump again chose to focus his message on the minority of Americans who oppose them.

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The president again condemned efforts to tear down statues of Confederate generals, calling the movement a “cruel campaign of censorship and exclusion [that] violates everything we hold dear as Americans.” It may seem obvious, but few Americans hold dear the tradition and monuments of a secessionist movement that fought the bloodiest war in American history to maintain the practice of slavery.

When it came to presumptive Democratic nominee Biden, Trump’s message was all over the place. At various points he criticized the former vice president for being a “helpless puppet of the radical left” while also calling him a creature of the D.C. establishment. In criticizing his Democratic rival he repeatedly went back to the limitless well of grievance and xenophobia that has long defined Trump’s limited political appeal. He said the former vice president “wants to end immigration enforcement” and require Americans “to provide free health care for millions and millions of illegal aliens.” This is not true, but as a criticism of Biden, it again plays mainly to those who are already sympathetic to the president’s incessant immigrant-bashing. It’s not the kind of message that is likely to sway the suburban women who have abandoned the president in droves.

As a political pundit, I am supposedly required to point out that it’s a long time until Election Day and anything can happen. But the one consistent through-line in Trump’s presidency is his historic unpopularity. For three years, Trump has been unable to broaden his support — and unwilling even to try. Saturday night in Tulsa was more of the same. There is perhaps time for Trump to right his sinking electoral ship, but little reason to believe it will happen.

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Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.