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The Great American Comeback? Trump Resumes His Re-Election Campaign With Bizarre Speech in Tulsa

Donald Trump re-started his reelection campaign with a rally in Tulsa that was marked by bizarre digressions, red baiting, racist dog whistles, and cynical attempts to appeal to Black voters. The speech caused the hashtag #TrumpMeltdown to trend on twitter.

Sybil Davis

June 21, 2020
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Credits: AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Donald Trump took the stage at his comeback rally in Tulsa on Saturday night in a difficult political position. The trio of coronavirus, economic collapse, and nationwide uprisings have taken a toll on his polling numbers. His re-election fight is looking more and more challenging. Joe Biden, his Democratic party opponent, has been surging in the polls,  handily beating Trump both nationwide and in several key states. To add insult to injury for Trump, attendance at the Tulsa rally was significantly below the campaign’s estimation. This forced them to close the overflow stage and cancel what was supposed to be a speech just to the overflow crowd. 

The rally was controversial from its announcement. To begin with, experts almost universally agree that holding a rally with thousands of people during the current pandemic poses significant risk to all participants. This risk was only increased when the Trump campaign chose to not require attendees to wear masks — though all attendees did have to sign a waiver that agreed not to hold Trump or his campaign responsible if they contract the virus. Shortly before the rally, news broke that six Trump campaign staffers had tested positive for Covid-19.

Another reason the rally was controversial was that it was originally scheduled for June 19th — better known as Juneteenth, which commemorates when news of emmanciation reached the last group of enslaved people in Texas. Furthermore, Tulsa is also the location of the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, where white supremacists burned Black Wall Street down and killed hundreds of Black people in what is considered one of the single worst incidents of anti-Black violence in American history. That Trump was holding a rally in a racially loaded location on a racially loaded date during the largest uprising about racist violence in generations was widely criticized, and public outcry forced Trump to shift the rally back a day. Still, as the rally began, many were prepped for Trump to throw gasoline on the fire and encourage white supreamcist violence against protesters. Indeed, Trump’s tweets from earlier in the day seemed to tacitly encourage violence against protesters at the event, in keeping with Trump’s tweets from throughout the current uprisings that have been aimed squarely at the most radical elements of his base.

“So Far Tonight, I’m Average”

At the beginning, the rally was not as explosive as many had feared. Trump, by and large, stayed true to standard Republican talking points, touting his ability to get conservative judges on the bench and the “Great American Comeback” of his presidency. Gun control was also a topic of conversation as the age-old arguments of “the Democrats want to take your guns” were predictably trotted out. However, the rally quickly took a surreal turn.

After starting off his speech relatively contained, Trump began to go off-script into lengthy pseudo-comedic routines. The oddest of these was a lengthy story about his struggles to descend a ramp — a performance that culminated in Trump theatrically sipping and then throwing a full glass of water to the side of the stage. Added to this was another strange interlude about ordering a new plane to serve as Air Force One from Boeing. During this story, Trump called an official at Boeing a “dumb son of a bitch.” These stories show that Trump’s messaging was confused, even for him. As former Barack Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau put it: “for all the lies and offensive things Trump said in 2016, there was a message: he was the outsider who could drain the swamp and fight the elites and make the country look like it did in the 50s. What’s the message now? There isn’t even a hint of one.”

Throughout the entire speech, Trump was unable to put together a coherent message, oscillating between standard Republican talking points, attacks on Joe Biden from both the Right and the Left, peculiar stories, racist dog whistles, and red baiting. All in all, as a political tactic, it seems doubtful that the speech in Tulsa will do much to stop Trump’s bleeding in the polls. Rather, it seems as if the intent of the speech was two-fold: to shore up his base and to attempt to appeal to Black voters. For the former, he packed in his usual collection of far-right buzzwords and for the latter, he spoke about George Floyd, the need to make changes, and how the Democrats do nothing for the Black community.

Even that strategy, however, was tempered by Trump’s lack of focus in  his speech. At moments, Trump also seemed to be attempting to appeal to the more establishment Republicans who have been uncomfortable with his more authoritarian measures. This, surely, was the rationale behind the strong focus on judges at the beginning. The contradictions between both trying to appear as a radical outsider and an establishment Republican can best be seen in Trump’s statement that “we are the party of Abraham Lincoln and the party of Law and Order.”

“You want to save our heritage… you’re so lucky I’m president, that’s all I can tell you”

While Trump did still use racist dog whistles — including calling people thugs and referencing Illhan Omar’s birth country of Somalia — he was more restrained than in many of his recent statements on the uprisings. Even when speaking about Seattle, Trump was torn, both continually offering to send in the army to “straighten it out in an hour” and saying that it would probably be best to “just watch the disaster” as an example of the failures of leftism. Indeed, Trump’s main way of getting around specifically attacking the Black community was by continually referring to agitators and anarchists as the ones perpetrating the unrest. This narrative allows Trump, and others, to shield themselves from criticism. They aren’t attacking those who are demanding justice; they are attacking those pesky anarchists who keep pulling down “our beautiful statues.” This red baiting should cause some alarm for all of us on the Left. If Trump continues to stoke tensions, we could see an increase in right-wing attacks and state repression against left-wing activists. 

It was on statues that Trump most clearly stoked white nationalist sentiment. After first referencing the Confederate statue in DC that had been taken down and burned by protesters the night before, Trump began to make a series of statements about “our heritage.” These remarks directly played to the most radicalized sectors of his base, the same sectors who are driving their cars at protesters and shooting at them. Indeed, Trump played up this nationalistic “patriotism” by suggesting that flag burning be a crime punishable by a year in prison. He also said the radical left wants to “tear down our statues and punish and cancel anyone who does not conform to their demands.” He also made the intentionally vague declaration that “We used to have things, we don’t anymore, because we want to be open.” What exactly these things that we can’t have anymore because we want to be open are, he never clarified. 

The contradictions in Trump’s rhetoric on the uprisings built to a head when he launched a hypocritical full-on assault on Biden’s record on race. Making a series of shockingly salient points, he pointed out Biden’s personal affinity for segregationists, his terrible voting record, and how the economic policies that Biden has long-supported have impoverished Black Americans. The climax of the attack came with Trump declaring, seemingly unaware of the irony that the statement could just as easily apply to himself, that “racial justice begins when Joe Biden retires from public life.” That Donald Trump, with his decades-long history of racism, was able to mount such a valid attack against his opponent is as clear a sign as any that many of the differences between the two parties are cosmetic. Both Biden and Trump are racists, both Biden and Trump have been accused of sexual assault, both Biden and Trump support the racist and deadly system of imperialism, and both Biden and Trump will continue to prop up the system of capitalism that is built upon and sustained by racism. 

“Slow the Testing Down!”

The Covid-19 pandemic has left over 121,000 dead in the United States, and that number is only growing. Trump’s handling of the pandemic has been an unmitigated disaster that has left the Black and Brown working class especially vulnerable. As states across the country are re-opening — even though many of these same states’ numbers are still rising — it is likely that we are headed for another deadly spike in infections. In this context, Trump’s comments on Saturday about the virus are especially indefensible.

Throughout the speech he mixed together unscientific claims about the virus (including his classic assertion that there is little difference between Covid-19 and the flu), racist rhetoric (including calling Covid “kung-flu”), and horrifically ill-advised proposals for re-openings. One of the more insidious of these proposals came after an extended assertion that young people can’t get Covid-19 — they can — and demanding that schools reopen in the fall. Given that Trump is already making demands in June about schools reopening, it seems very likely that, come August, schools across the country may be coerced into reopening. This would put teachers, students, staff, and families at untold risk.

In between all of his references to the “Chinese virus,” Trump did offer one piece of scandalous information: that he had explicitly instructed officials to slow down testing to suppress the numbers of infected. In a shockingly candid moment, Trump told the audience: “When you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people. You’re going to find more cases. So I said to my people, ‘slow the testing down please.’”

What this means is that Trump has now admitted, on national television, to deliberately falsifying the number of Covid cases in the U.S. We have no idea how many people actually have Covid because, as medical professionals have been insisting from the strat, we aren’t testing people. This is a massive problem when it comes to understanding the full scope of the pandemic. The fact that Trump is now talking about ordering fewer tests while also bragging about how he saved “hundreds of thousands of lives” is criminal 

Red Baiting in a Red State 

One of the most consistent parts of Trump’s speech was his use of red baiting. Red baiting is a classic tactic of right-wing leaders to whip up fear about the left as a way to polarize their base. That Trump returned time and time again to the supposed threats from “ultra leftists” and “anarchists” is notable. Indeed, both he and Mike Pence, who opened for him, spoke about the need to resist the Democrats and their socialism. While the notion that the Democratic party supports socialism is ridiculous, this tactic shows that uprisings have further polarized political discourse. As once-radical demands like abolishing the police are becoming more mainstream, Trump is hoping to scare his base into turning out to vote. 

The problem with this strategy for Trump is that portraying the protesters and the Democratic establishment as being unified is laughable. While he is correct that the largest uprisings are occurring in Democrat-controlled areas, the Democrats in those cities have been brutal about using the police to repress protesters. Millions of people have watched videos of New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago police violently attacking protesters. It is abundantly clear to huge swaths of people that the protesters are just as much fighting back against the Democratic leaderships of their cities as they are against Trump. 

Trump is clearly trying to tie the demands of the protesters to Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic party. The problem with this strategy is that the Democrats have been very clear that they don’t support demands such as Defund the Police. Neither Trump nor Biden wants to attack the system of policing in any meaningful way. After all, Biden’s version of reform looks like calling on police officers to shoot suspects in the leg rather than the head. As the uprisings continue and develop, politicians of both parties will continue to attempt to co-opt them. That’s why Donald Trump, of all people, announced the designation of a civil rights site in Tulsa. Both Biden and Trump are trying to appeal to the protesters on the streets, but we cannot be fooled. They don’t have our best interests at heart, and they do not agree with us. They both want to protect the current racist system of imperialist capitalism.

Donald Trump is one of the worst examples that capitalism has to offer and, at every turn, is making it clear that his only solution to the current crisis is to make the working class pay. He said over and over on Saturday that next year will be the best economic year that we’ve ever had, but even if it’s true — and there is very little evidence to suggest that it is — that prosperity will only come for Trump and his ilk. Trump has nothing to offer us. Both parties have nothing to offer us. We need to build a party of our own. 

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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