If a demagogue shouts and no one’s in the auditorium, does he make a Noise?
Before his Saturday rally in Tulsa, Okla., Donald Trump marketed this return to amphitheater politics as a turning point in his Summer of Hate campaign. His team boasted that a million people had requested tickets. Instead, according to the city’s fire department, a mere 6,200 tickets were scanned, for an arena with capacity of 19,000. The outdoor rally that Trump’s campaign had planned for his surplus crowd—those Kool-Aid-drinkers unlucky enough not to be able to squeeze into the indoor, undistanced, mask-optional Führerfest—also had to be canceled.
Inside the arena, those present were treated to a stream of consciousness from the president about flag-burning, the importance of preserving Confederate statues, the texture of his shoe soles when he slow-walked down a ramp at West Point last week, and a bizarrely unguarded riff about how he had tried to slow down coronavirus testing so that the number of positive results would be lower. It was, from start to finish, a Trumpian riff on the greatness of Trump.
But there are many matters of global importance that the Leader of the Free World did not talk about.
He didn’t mention the death of George Floyd, or the protests for racial justice that have transformed American politics over the past month.
He didn’t mention the skyrocketing coronavirus infection rates around the country, particularly in states governed by those who share Trump’s skepticism about masks, and who sped ahead with economic reopening. States such as Arizona, Texas, and South Carolina are nearing capacity for hospital and ICU beds, and the numbers for new infections per day are soaring. In Florida—where Trump hopes to hold the Republican National Convention in August—the number of cases just surpassed 100,000. All of this is a recipe for intense stress on health providers, of the kind that New York experienced in the spring. Yet Trump had nothing to say on any of it.
He didn’t mention the escalating climate crisis—including the fact that the other day, the temperature in parts of Siberia hit triple digits. Or the fact that the Arctic region is currently experiencing one of the world’s worst ecological catastrophes, after a fuel reservoir in Russia collapsed in late May and released over 21,000 tons of oil into northern waters.
Trump also didn’t mention the increasingly unstable international situation. Last week, Chinese and Indian troops brawled high in the Himalayas; the Indian military claims that 20 Indian soldiers were killed during the conflict. On June 16, North Korea blew up its joint liaison office with South Korea, as a part of its recently stated goal of eradicating all communication with its neighbor. There are a whole lot of nuclear powers playing chicken right now—but Trump was silent about this on Saturday. He was also silent on the cascading humanitarian crises of hunger, poverty, and lack of health care in developing nations that are being exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
All of this escalating chaos and misery ought to be the Signal. America under Trump is increasingly absent on the global stage, leaving other actors to shape a world from which Trump seems determined to seal off the United States.
The day after Trump’s rally, John Bolton—the president’s former national security adviser and author of a newly released book about the administration—told ABC News that Trump represented a “danger for the republic.” One could have equally said the same of Bolton and his hyper-aggressive, shoot-from-the-hip foreign policy. Even so, Bolton is not wrong about this.
Imagine having a podium that gives you the power to influence the world, and using that opportunity for nothing greater than a two-hour display of self-titillation. Trump’s Tulsa rally was pathetic—not just for the puniness of the crowd, but also for the smallness of the political and moral imagination on display.