His body language on the long walk from Marine One to the White House residence seemed to say it all: The only reading he’d done in years should have been the writing on the wall, emphatically spelled out by almost 14,000 empty blue seats in the Bank of Oklahoma Center in Tulsa last Saturday. By all reports Donald Trump was champing at the bit, anxious to kick off his re-election campaign in front of an adoring, capacity crowd so badly overestimated that an additional stage was constructed outside the arena so he and Mike Pence could dazzle the anticipated “overflow.”
After weeks of badly mangled public relations nightmares including awkwardly hefting a Bible during a photo op preceded by the violent ouster of peaceful demonstrators and fleeing to a fortified bunker during another protest, ostensibly to “inspect it,” the Tulsa rally would mark a turning point. Campaign Manager Brad Parscale — boy wonder of Trump’s unlikely 2016 win — boasted a million plus ticket requests, promising huge crowds inside and out. Parscale’s genius was quickly called into question when it became apparent that he may have been played by teenage K-pop fans and Tik Tok users, who apparently ordered hundreds of thousands of tickets.
Although the president’s late-night shamble across the lawn lasted less than a minute, it spoke volumes: shirt unbuttoned, tie undone with a red MAGA hat scrunched in his fist, his half-hearted thumbs up did nothing to temper the gravity of the moment. Dubbed “The Walk of Shame” on Huffington Post, Trump carried himself like a relief pitcher heading toward the dugout after giving up a walk off home run.
By all reports Trump, who frequently boasts inaccurately of never having had anything but a full house at one of his events, was furious at the sparse crowd, particularly after being assured by staffers that the 19,000 seat hall would be so completely inadequate to hold supporters that the 40,000-seat venue next door would need to be utilized. In the days leading up to the rally, the president relied on his usual bromides regarding expectations: “Nobody’s ever seen anything like it” ... ”We’ve never had an empty seat and we certainly won’t in Oklahoma,” a state so solidly red that Trump carried it by a 36-point margin in 2016.
But as Americans have come to expect from a leader incapable of reflection or responsibility, Trump’s first inclination was true to form, lashing out at the usual suspects, particularly the press for accurately reporting his myriad stumbles and tanking popularity. But the president went well beyond “fake news,” race baiting that “thugs” and “some very bad people” outside the auditorium had frightened the crowd away despite no evidence of anyone — good or bad — congregating outside.
During the rally Trump remained disinterested in doing much to unite a country staggering in outrage over the murders of unarmed Black men by White police and a surging COVID-19 infection rate, joking about the “Kung Flu” and maintaining that the real problem was too much testing, rather than valuing the economy over people’s lives. Alternately preening and pouting about the unfairness of it all, the president spent a full 15 minutes lambasting the media coverage of his departure from the West Point stage after delivering the commencement address to graduating cadets.
Trump’s unscripted delivery falls somewhere between inebriated uncle explaining why he’s no longer allowed within 100 feet of the elementary school and a down-on-his-luck Borscht Belt comedian working for free pastrami sandwiches and a couple of beers. Most of us rarely see more than a snippet of the president’s speechifying to the faithful, and we probably feel it’s quite enough, but it can be informative to devote 10 minutes to viewing just a little more. Like him explaining ramps, leather soles, drinking water and how Joe Biden is the sick one.
You may at some point, amid the bonkers screeching and screaming, need to remind yourself — as we all certainly have before — that the man behaving this way is the President of the United States. And defiant of any logic you can come up with, the audience — scant as it may be — absolutely loves it. You might wonder why he’s acting like this. Or perhaps feel words woefully inadequate to explain exactly what’s going on. When you notice the biggest crowd reaction of the night comes when he drinks a glass of water with only one hand, you might be curious how the bar got so low.
Even as White House staffers played down Trump’s contention that he told “his people” to slow down testing as a joke, the president doubled down, saying, “I don’t kid,” steadfastly maintaining that he was serious. It hardly matters whether he meant what he said. Simply voicing it in the first place was enough to heap even more confusion on an already incomprehensible federal pandemic response leading to so profound an increase in cases that several states are curtailing their reopening efforts and the European Union is considering a travel ban on U.S. citizens.
If any of this made a dent in the president’s consciousness it was not apparent. In the face of mounting evidence that the virus was spreading rapidly in places like Arizona, he packed a Phoenix mega-church with 3,000 largely unmasked supporters while he raged over the “rigged” election this November; bragged about his “beautiful wall”; and seemed confused about what the 19 in COVID-19 meant: “What’s the 19? Some people can’t explain what the 19 is.” In situations such as this, when Trump uses “some people,” he generally means himself.
Earlier this week the president made it perfectly clear that the multi-faceted leadership America desperately needs would not be coming from him. Responding to systemic racism with directives to protect Confederate statues from vandalism; addressing the exploding coronavirus infection rate with more packed rallies and decreased the testing so vital in stemming the tide; and continues sabotaging confidence in the November elections, falsely claiming mail-in ballots will lead to massive voter fraud. The country is floundering. Trump is AWOL.
His final “walk of shame” should be out of the White House for good in January.
Walt Amses lives in North Calais