Robin Givhan: Trump's rally looked like his vision of America: limited and pitiless
Summary: As Pence exited the stage, he reassured everyone that Trump would "make America great again, again" — which was far too many adverbs in one short sentence. Perhaps, if we just keep it simple and try to make America great — for everybody. That's challenging enough.
The president paused for dramatic effect before he walked onstage at his Tulsa rally. He was silhouetted under a blue and white "Make America Great Again" banner and against an American flag. And in the few seconds that he stood basking in adulation, he resembled a giant black rectangle. A massive, inanimate void.
When he emerged into the light, he walked into the cheering embrace of a mostly unmasked crowd bedecked in red Trump hats and MAGA T-shirts, along with the occasional QAnon tank top and "Don't Tread on Me" pullover.
It's tempting to say that it was a crowd that didn't look anything like America because it appeared to be so lacking in diversity — so overwhelmingly white. But, in fact, the crowd looked precisely like America does in more than a few suburbs, counties and hollers. In churches and offices. In the president's inner circle. There were only a few brown faces sprinkled directly behind the president's lectern, along with a small cluster of them under "Black Voices for Trump" signs.
Such a homogenous throng might be jarring to some. For others, it's completely normal and right. For the president, it was like coming home.
The crowd also looked like the America that baffles so much of the world in the midst of a pandemic. It was a snapshot of an America that refuses to wear face masks even as science has argued that doing so is one of the few ways to fight the spread of the coronavirus.
Masks are not for one's own good, but for the public good. It would be easy to explain this lapse on this country's tradition of rugged individualism. But sometimes cruel selfishness gums up our understanding of personal freedom.
The crowd, draped in the red, white and blue of the flag, looked like an America determined to celebrate the rah-rah idea of our national identity, not one ready to wrestle with the uncomfortable, challenging nuances of it. How else could folks cheer a president after he suggested a new law punishing flag burning — or as the Supreme Court has called it, "symbolic speech" that's protected by the First Amendment?
The crowd didn't fill the 19,000 seats of the BOK Center. The upper tiers of the arena were mostly empty. There were no people to overflow into the outdoor, overflow festival space where the president and Vice President Mike Pence were supposed to speak. And so that stage was dismantled. But there were still plenty of people who sat through the president's nearly two-hour campaign speech —no small portion of which was taken up by an elaborate narration and pantomime explaining why he'd had so much trouble walking down a ramp after a speech to West Point graduates earlier this month and why he needed two hands to drink from a glass of water.
It was a long, rambling performance with the president lamenting that he surely must have saluted some 600 times and by God, it was so hot that day and the ramp was like an ice-skating rink and he was wearing leather sole shoes. As far as he was concerned, he really should have been cheered for making it down that ramp unscathed instead of being mocked in the media. So perhaps it made him feel better when the Tulsa crowd — his crowd — applauded after he theatrically drank a glass of water onstage with only one hand and didn't dribble any of it on his tie.
It was Trump's crowd. Everything is his. Everything is because of him. "We — I — have done a phenomenal job," he said about the federal government's response to the pandemic. "I saved hundreds of thousands of lives."
The coronavirus and the disease it causes, covid-19, have riled Trump almost as much as his political opponents or the news media. He has given this plague derogatory nicknames, calling it the "Chinese virus" and the "Kung flu," as if he can insult it into submission. He lamented the rising case numbers that have been detected through increased testing and admitted that he said to officials, "Slow the testing down please." And his crowd was unbothered by this comment — whether it was horrifying truth or an attempt at humor at a time when the American death toll from the virus continues to rise.
The vice president warmed up the arena. He mentioned the terrible death of George Floyd, but then quickly directed the attention to the destruction of property, to praising the members of law enforcement and reassuring the audience that the president would not be defunding the police. Everyone chants, "Sleepy Joe, Sleepy Joe" — Trump's nickname for Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
As Pence exited the stage, he reassured everyone that Trump would "make America great again, again" — which was far too many adverbs in one short sentence. Perhaps, if we just keep it simple and try to make America great — for everybody. That's challenging enough.
But Trump is not an "everybody wins" sort of president. Some people soar and others don't. He stood at the microphone, pinching at the air with his hands, ruminating and fulminating until everything becomes a blur of interminable, unearned preening. He has been draining the swamp, he says, even as so many of his former staff accuse him of being the slimiest of all its monsters.
He bragged about saving the nation's capital from civic unrest in the aftermath of Floyd's death in police custody, even though predominantly peaceful protesters were set upon with chemical agents and rubber bullets.
He knows about racial justice. He practically invented racial justice, says the self-proclaimed law-and-order president who had no idea of the meaning of Juneteenth, which was when his rally was originally scheduled, even though for three years his own White House has been sending out proclamations recognizing it.
He extolled the virtues of policing in Tulsa but offered no thoughtful consideration of the 1921 riot in which white residents — aided by law enforcement — destroyed a prosperous black enclave and killed its residents.
And then with his chest thrust forward he boasted: "I've done more for the black community in four years than Joe Biden has done in 47 years."
And his crowd, his America, roared.
Robin Givhan is a staff writer and The Washington Post's fashion critic, covering fashion as a business, as a cultural institution and as pure pleasure.