President Donald Trump had anticipated his campaign rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Saturday as the “real launch” of his 2020 reelection campaign, and his staff boasted that more than a million people had registered for tickets to an event they promised would be a “wild evening.”
But on Saturday night, the numbers turned out to be a tiny fraction of that: The Bank of Oklahoma Center Arena Trump spoke in was roughly two-thirds empty, and plans for a second speech to an outdoor crowd in an overflow space were scrapped because the outdoor area was sparsely populated. Ultimately, the most notable news from the event ended up being that half a dozen members of the advance team for his campaign tested positive for the coronavirus ahead of the rally.
The flopped event — dogged by controversy from its announcement due to Tulsa’s history of racist violence — marks a substantial blow to Trump’s agenda to regain reelection momentum after months of pausing his campaign rallies due to the coronavirus pandemic, and comes as presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden soars in the polls and outstrips Trump in fundraising.
At the rally, Trump reiterated some past campaign themes, but at times seemed more focused on defending himself from criticism in the media than on attacking his presumed opponent.
At one point, he called testing for the coronavirus a “double-edged sword” — because it reveals more cases of the virus — and said that he had told “his people to slow the testing down.” The White House later said the president was joking, but the remark drew condemnation from Democrats. The federal government’s failures on testing and Trump’s skepticism of it are well documented. More than 2.2 million coronavirus cases have been recorded in the US to date, and new cases are on the rise in a number of states.
While the Trump campaign had bragged for weeks about hot ticket sales and not having enough space to contain the crowds, the actual showing on Saturday night was strikingly small. The arena Trump spoke in seats 19,200 people, but fewer than 6,200 came.
Trump was also expected to give a second address to a crowd of more than 40,000 in an outdoor overflow space, according to CNN, but after a report from staff that the area held only a couple dozen people hours before the event, that speech was canceled.
It’s unclear what exactly explains the disconnect between the Trump campaign’s reports of high registration numbers and the low turnout. The Trump campaign complained about anti-Trump protesters blocking entrances, but reporters on the ground said protests were modest in size and entrances were not blocked.
According to the New York Times, hundreds of teenagers who use TikTok and fans of Korean pop music say they banded together online to flood ticket registrations in a bid to inflate the numbers and deny Trump supporters seats in the arena. Videos with instructions to register for tickets — which were free — and then not show up received millions of views online. The political prank took hold among parts of the TikTok and K-pop scene that sometimes leverage their social media networks for online activism.
A thread of some of the TikTokers/Zoomers who reserved tickets to Trump’s rally to shrink the crowd today in Oklahoma pic.twitter.com/ITz4NAbeTD— Jenna Amatulli (@ohheyjenna) June 21, 2020
It’s unclear if the efforts to overwhelm ticket registrations began early enough to deny people seats, since arena seats were reserved on a first-come, first-served basis, but it could explain why the ticket requests were so high for an event meant to cater to only tens of thousands of people.
There are reasons to think other factors may have influenced the poor turnout. This is Trump’s first campaign rally as the coronavirus pandemic rages, and Tulsa has seen a surge in cases in recent weeks. It’s possible that not very many people who had plans to attend ever registered, or that people who registered decided against coming after weighing concerns about contracting the virus, especially after news broke that six campaign staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus the day of the rally. (According to the Times, two members of the Secret Service in Tulsa also tested positive.) Those who did attend had to sign a liability waiver saying they couldn’t sue Trump’s campaign if they contracted the coronavirus.
Trump was cavalier about the safety of the crowd in advance of the event. The Trump campaign handed out masks to rally attendees, but the president made it clear he had no expectation that people wear them.
In an interview with Axios on Friday, he said he recommended “people do what they want” when it came to mask-wearing, and even floated the false claim that wearing a mask could harm people. “You know, there was a time when people thought it was worse wearing a mask,” he told Axios. “I let people make up their own decision.”
While Trump declines to wear a mask in public, recent polling indicates that most Republicans view people who wear masks favorably, and just 45 percent of people who approve of the job he’s doing think it’s a good idea to hold large political events and campaign rallies right now.
How did Trump fail to fill an arena in an ultra-red state?— Dylan McLemore (@voiceofD) June 21, 2020
Only 45% of his supporters think rallies are a good idea. Just 23% have an unfavorable opinion of wearing masks.
Tulsa is seeing its highest #COVID19 numbers to date.
Not everyone is in a suicide pact with the guy.
Photos of the event showed that many people didn’t wear masks and sat close to each other in the lower parts of the arena.
Trump’s campaign rally was also tainted by controversy since it was originally set to take place on Juneteenth — a holiday marking the effective end of slavery in the US — and amid ongoing racial justice protests triggered by the police killing of George Floyd. After a backlash, Trump changed the date, but his choice to hold the rally in Tulsa still drew criticism since it is the site of one of the bloodiest episodes of racist violence in American history.
Trump tried to claim victory after the event despite the poor turnout. “THE SILENT MAJORITY IS STRONGER THAN EVER BEFORE!” he tweeted, attaching photos that were cropped to make the arena look more filled up than it was.