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Trump’s 24 hours in Tulsa

2020 June 23
by Paul Vallely

Occasionally the mask slips on even the greatest showman. Donald Trump, at the rally to launch his re-election campaign this week, spoke to a half empty auditorium. Afterwards, in the dark, the dispirited President of the United States was seen with his red tie undone and his ‘America First’ baseball cap crumpled in his fist as he arrived home alone.

This was not how it was supposed to be. Mr Trump’s 24 hours in Tulsa were intended to set him on the road to re-election, to put behind him his inept handling of the coronavirus crisis and his wayward responses to the Black Lives Matter protests. He had, he boasted, had a million requests for tickets for the 19,000 seater stadium and had had to build an overflow compound to hold the excess crowds.

It was not needed. Perhaps even his devotees decided they did not fancy attending an indoor rally with thousands of people not required to wear face masks or remain socially distanced in an expression of the President’s contempt for COVID-19. Ironically six Trump staffers contracted the virus while preparing the rally.

More likely the President had been out-smarted by thousands of teenagers who had used their K-pop TikTok accounts to encourage one another to apply for tickets and then not attend the rally which was being indelicately, or provocatively, held in the city which was the site of a horrific massacre of Black Americans by a mob of their white neighbours in 1921. The social media post outlining the plan was viewed two million times before the kids swiftly deleted their messages to keep them from spreading to the mainstream internet.

Whatever the cause Trump staffers stood horrified as the start time approached as they gazed at the banks of empty seats.  The local Fire Department estimated only 6,200 people attended. The president, after yelling at aides backstage went out and gave one of his most rabble-rousing speeches ever – decrying the “Chinese virus”, which he dubbed Kung Flu, and spending 15 minutes lambasting the “fake news” mainstream media for broadcasting an unflattering video clip of him gingerly descending a ramp at West Point or using two hands to drink a glass of water.

Critics often suggest President Trump’s hyper-sensitivity is rooted in some kind of personal narcissism. But in a live-streamed lecture last week the Cambridge academic, Sir Richard Evans, posited a more calculated explanation.

The eminent 19th and 20th century historian was discussing populism, a movement which began among Russian radicals and American farmers in the 1890s and continued among Peronists in Argentina and Poujadists in France in the 1950s. It has resurfaced in our own times on the Left – with Chavez in Venezuela, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the global Occupy movement – but mostly on the authoritarian Right, with Erdogan in Turkey, Le Pen in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Brexit party in the UK and Bolsonaro in Brazil.  There are touches of it in Boris Johnson.

What unites all these, and Donald Trump, is a vision of The People versus The Elite, in which the populists present themselves as the purest expression of the silent majority. They attack the Establishment, ‘the system’ or the ‘deep state’ which they perceive in self-perpetuating elites in politics, business, the media, banks, universities and the judiciary. They insist that referendums are more democratic than parliaments which can frustrate their plans. And they use vulgar language to show they do not belong to the polite elite but are men of the people. They offer simple solutions to complex problems.

They generate a constant sense of crisis – to which they claim to embody the answer. They belittle opponents. They peddle conspiracy theories. They even tell bald lies. “I have done a phenomenal job on it,” says Mr Trump of COVID-19 which has now killed 121,000 Americans. Yet their supporters accept personal corruption as the price which must be paid for getting things done.

Populists seek to undermine alternative sources of authority – parliaments, judges, awkward journalists and academics, and neutral civil services. They disregard or dismiss experts, which is why President Trump has already had four national security advisers, four White House chiefs of staff, three heads of the FBI, and four attorney-generals.  

For populists emotion and instincts trump evidence. That’s why they are better in opposition than actually running things – and why populist leaders have the worst record in handling the pandemic. But eventually in government they run out of road.  Donald Trump appears to have just got an inkling of that fact.


This is a longer version of my Church Times column for 26 June 2020

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