DONALD TRUMP has held more rallies than any other recent president. Yet they still manage to surprise. The event in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on June 20th was no different. The president rambled like a man who didn’t want it to ever end. For a flavour, try his anecdote about inspecting the most recent class graduating from the army’s academy at West Point a week before. At this point in the story, Mr Trump has spoken to the cadets and is trying to work out how to get off the stage without making a fool of himself:
“I said, ‘General, I’ve got myself a problem, General.’ Because I’m wearing leather bottom shoes which is good if you’re walking on flat surfaces. It’s not good for ramps and if I fall down, look at all those press back there, look at them. This was a steel ramp, you all saw it because everybody saw it. This was a steel ramp. It had no handrail, it was like an ice skating rink, and I said, ‘General, I have a problem,’ and he didn’t understand that at first. I said, ‘There’s no way.’ He understood, I just saluted almost 600 times. I just made a big speech. I sat for other speeches. I’m being baked. I’m being baked like a cake. I said, ‘General, there’s no way I can make it down that ramp without falling on my ass, General. I have no railing.’
“So I end up saying, ‘Okay, General, let’s go. I will only grab you if I need you.’ That’s not a good story. Falling would be a disaster. It turned out to be worse than anything, I would have been better off if I fell and slid down the damn ramp. Right? So what happens is I start the journey, inch by inch, right? I was really bent over too. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like this picture. This picture I’m sure will be an ad by the fakers. So I was bent over, right? Bent over like this. Then we finally reached almost the end and the fake news, the most dishonest human beings, they cut it off. You know why? Because when I was ten feet short, I said, ‘General, I’m sorry,’ and I ran down the rest, right? I looked very handsome. That was the only good.”
Mr Trump went on like this for an hour and 45 minutes. While listening it was easy to forget that outside Tulsa’s BOK Centre, America is going through a bout of introspection about racism, the unemployment rate exceeds 13% and more than 100,000 people are dead from covid-19. And the disease is shifting from blue-voting to red-voting America: Oklahoma is one of 14 states that reported their highest infection rates yet between June 16th and June 20th. But forgetting is in fact the point of a Trump rally, both for the crowd and, perhaps more important, for the president himself.
Since his inauguration Mr Trump has held more than 80 rallies. None has been in states he lost in 2016; only a handful have been in states that might be competitive in November. According to our election model, Mr Trump has a greater than 99% chance of winning Oklahoma in November. Only two states (West Virginia and Wyoming) look safer. Other politicians hold rallies to win votes; Mr Trump holds them to make himself feel better.
A poll for Fox News last week put him on 38% to Joe Biden’s 50%. That is landslide territory. Our model, which is more measured, reckons Mr Biden is on course to win 340 electoral-college votes, which would be the biggest winning margin since Barack Obama’s in 2008. Ordinarily a president facing numbers like that would be heading to one of the swing states. Mr Trump prefers the comfort of an already adoring crowd.
This tonic for the president may come at a heavy cost (though not to him). Some residents of Tulsa and local businesses tried to have social-distancing protocols enforced, which would in effect have scuppered the rally. Oklahoma’s state supreme court rejected an appeal. Yet the Trump campaign still made attendees sign a waiver, agreeing not to sue Trump 2020 should they subsequently contract covid-19. Part of the appeal of Trump rallies is that they are transgressive. The president always says something outrageous (this time it was “kung flu”). But to risk catching the virus in the name of Keeping America Great seems to have been too much for many would-be attendees and the arena, which can hold more than 19,000, was half empty.
The rally mattered even so, because it was the president’s first since Mr Biden sealed the Democratic nomination. Mr Trump has been trying out attacks on the former vice-president for a while, but he has now honed them into a formula that will be repeated until November. In the president’s telling, Mr Biden is a sleepy, clueless puppet controlled by the radical left:
“Joe Biden has surrendered to his party and to the left-wing mob. He has no control. Does anybody honestly think he controls these radial maniacs? You know what he says to his wife when he’s not confusing her with his sister? ‘Get me the hell out of there. These people are crazy.’ That’s what he says. He has absolutely no control.”
Mr Biden, as passages like this suggest, makes a much harder target for Mr Trump than Hillary Clinton. The former vice-president cannot be successfully caricatured as crooked or extreme, so Mr Trump has to settle for attacking his party instead. And fantasising aloud about a stockmarket surge in the weeks leading up to November that would come to his rescue:
“And if you see that happening, if you see it happening on November 3rd, you don’t have the guts to vote against Trump. You, even you, you don’t have the guts to vote against Trump. Say, ‘Wait a minute, darling. My 401(k) is higher than it was the last time. I don’t think I want to take a chance.’ You’re not going to want to do that. The stockmarket has been the best. Think of this, go back one week and go back 50 days. In that 50-day period, it’s the strongest 50 days in the history of the stockmarket, think of it. And your wife or your husband says, ‘Darling, I love you so much. You are such a great investor.’ And all you did is just keep the same crap you had the first time, right? ‘Darling, I love you so much. You’ve always been a loser. You’ve always lost money. But now under President Trump, you’re one of the greatest financial minds in our country.’ And all you did was keep your stock.”
His few hours of escapism over, Mr Trump returned to America as it actually exists. In the past few days alone his campaign has seen adverts removed by Facebook for using Nazi symbols; his former national-security adviser has alleged, in a forthcoming book, that he encouraged China’s president to build “re-education camps” for Uighurs; and his attorney-general has botched the sacking of the chief federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York, who has built several cases against the president’s inner circle. The prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, departed on June 20th. But rather a more pliable replacement, as the White House seems to have wanted, Mr Berman’s deputy is now in charge.
A lazy conclusion from this confluence of disasters is that the president has had an unusually terrible week. In fact the past week has been little different from any other since January 2017. Keeping America Great in November would mean signing up for another four years of the same. Given that, what’s remarkable is not how low the president’s chances of re-election appear to be, but how high.