In Tulsa, the site of what was essentially a political and public health experiment, the true effect of Donald Trump’s rally last week will only be revealed in the weeks and months to come.
When Trump’s campaign announced the rally on June 10, the fact that he chose Tulsa as the location shocked almost everyone in the city of just over 400,000 people. Tulsa is considered by many to be the more liberal of Oklahoma’s two major cities, but it is also a reliably red place, with a history of Republican elected officials. And likewise, all 77 counties in Oklahoma went overwhelmingly for Trump in 2016.
So why here?
That answer may be a ways off, if it ever comes. But in the meantime the rally, and the 10 days of tensions that led up to it, exposed a good deal of strain in the local community, and has left many questioning if the rally was even worth it in the first place.
Leading up to Saturday, the Trump campaign was riding a wave of public interest that had waned during the coronavirus pandemic. Trump aides have long maintained that the president likes being on the road, likes rallies and the energy that crowds bring, and being unable to travel during the pandemic has been difficult for Trump.
That mindset may offer a glimpse of why Oklahoma hosted the rally. If there were internal worries that the pandemic might keep attendees at home, then the campaign — which told Tulsa officials it wanted a full crowd — might have seen reliably red Oklahoma as its safest bet to pack the house.
Of course, that never materialized. When Air Force One flew over downtown at about 5 p.m., everyone expected there to be tens of thousands cheering from the ground below. Instead there were tens of tens. And inside the arena things weren’t much different.
Hours before Trump took the stage, the arena appeared to be about half full. And when he came to the podium, with a Linkin Park song pumping through the BOK Center’s speakers, the arena was still shockingly empty. Crowd estimates vary, but the reality is the Trump campaign, which bragged first of 200,000 ticket requests, then 800,000, then over a million, expended tremendous political capital making the event happen in the first place. And it still fell somewhat flat, though the president’s supporters inside the arena remained somewhat raucous and surely millions watched the speech on TV and online.
But the rally’s true effect will only be divulged in the future. As the Trump campaign put a lot on the line in order to hold a rally, so did local and state officials.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt spent the 10 days leading up to the rally downplaying the risk of the coronavirus and its potential to spread in an enclosed arena with thousands of people inside. And, at a time of increased racial tensions in the country, Stitt urged Trump to visit Tulsa’s historic Black Wall Street, the site of the 1921 Race Massacre. That never materialized, and it was Vice President Mike Pence who spent part of Saturday in the area, though activists tarped off Race Massacre monuments they feared might be used for a photo opportunity.
Even hours before the rally, as Stitt was speaking to a gaggle of reporters outside the BOK Center, he said he didn’t think there would be an uptick in deaths as a result of the rally — something local and state health officials had warned was possible, if not probable.
Stitt had previously said that Trump had come to Oklahoma by invitation, which angered the Oklahomans still wearing masks and social distancing amid the pandemic. But he later said it was Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell who had made the invitation, which had actually been an attempt to hold the displaced Republican National Convention.
And, perhaps oddly, when Saturday’s rally started, Stitt watched it from the sidelines, in a blue BOK Center seat off to Trump’s right. Trump praised Stitt, and his handling of the coronavirus and the state’s reopening plan, but never called him to the stage. Vic Regalado, the Tulsa County Sheriff, and Cathy Costello, a mental health advocate and wife of slain former labor commissioner Mark Costello, were the only locals to take the stage.
Nevertheless, Stitt will be forever linked to the fallout of the rally should coronavirus cases and deaths spike as a result. Last week Tulsa Health Department Director Bruce Dart told a local municipal board he hoped to have nearly 100 contact tracers working to follow the post-rally aftermath to discover how prevalent the virus was inside the BOK Center and how prevalent its post-rally spread might be.
Likewise, Tulsa’s mayor, no stranger to the ebb and flow of the court of public opinion, is now anchored to the rally. When Tulsa was announced as the site of the rally, local liberals pleaded with Mayor G.T. Bynum to wield some executive power and stop Trump from coming, or at least mandate masks and social distancing inside the arena.
Bynum, a Republican, was nevertheless something of a darling to Tulsa’s center-left voting population when he ran for mayor in 2016. The incumbent, Dewey Bartlett, with his oil background and long legacy of right-wing policies, was never a choice for Tulsa’s liberal minority.
But Bynum offered a more palatable type of Republican. He talked about data and fixing issues in Tulsa’s long-ignored Black population. And maybe most of all he oozed both smarts and empathy.
When he said in 2017 that he no longer supported the controversial Live PD television show being located in Tulsa, the city’s left-wing cheered. But when he allowed the show to come back the following year, and loudly, and proudly supported it, Democrats who voted for him and thought the show was problematic, if not outright racially insensitive, felt betrayed.
But in March of this year, when Bynum bypassed Stitt and Trump, both of whom were still downplaying the risk of the coronavirus, and issued stern lockdowns in the city in the name of public health, he won back much, if not all of the goodwill he might have previously lost.
But earlier this month when, Bynum, in a national TV appearance, said the 2016 death of Terence Crutcher, a Black unarmed Tulsan, at the hands of a white police officer was about “the insidious nature of drug utilization” rather than his skin color, he again angered liberals who’d previously voted for him. His comments even earned himself a challenger in local activist Greg Robinson for the mayoral election later this year. (Bynum later offered a mea culpa for the comments.)
And then came the Trump rally. Bynum said the power to stop Trump lay only with ASM Global, the company that books acts at the BOK Center, and said there was nothing he could do to stop the rally from happening. And since Oklahoma fully re-opened on June 1 with no restrictions on social gatherings, he said there was nothing he could do to limit what happened in the arena. Social distancing and masks would be optional. Though the Trump campaign made sure that everyone entering the fenced-off rally zone was wearing a mask, the facial garments were almost completely non-existent inside the BOK Center. And the only social distancing was accidental, a by-product of the almost completely empty upper bowl of the arena.
And now Bynum is indirectly being blamed by the Trump campaign for the low attendance. Late last Thursday, Bynum enacted a curfew for the blocks surrounding the BOK Center. People who were camping outside the arena were moved, and the curfew order seemed targeted at making sure protesters and Trump supporters didn’t square off directly outside the arena.
But suddenly, and surprisingly, the curfew was rescinded on Friday afternoon. Bynum said the Secret Service had requested it on Thursday, then told him it was no longer necessary on Friday. But on Sunday the Trump campaign complained that “local officials” had made it difficult for people to attend the rally, and perhaps that warnings about the coronavirus had kept tens of thousands of people home.
Thank you Tulsans for showing the world how to let views be heard without violence. The world media was bored because there was nothing controversial to report. How do we change the narrative? By being #OneTulsa. @TulsaPolice pic.twitter.com/JPf7GVZRFr
— Tulsa Police Department Chief Franklin (@TPD_Franklin) June 21, 2020
Even the local police have found themselves in the crossfire. Hours before the rally inside the BOK Center began on Saturday, Tulsa police angered many by arresting a local woman named Sheila Buck inside the rally zone. Buck had a ticket and had entered legally, but she also had an “I Can’t Breathe” shirt on, a nod to the many deaths of Black Americans who’ve uttered the line while being killed by white police officers.
The shirt was a no-go for the Trump campaign, who told police to remove Buck, a local Catholic school art teacher. But she wouldn’t go, and when she sat down and refused to leave, she was arrested on live television by police.
The arrest angered Tulsans who felt like the police were acting as an arm of the Trump campaign, though the department said in response that doing so was essentially their job that day. The campaign, they said, controlled who went in the rally zone and who got sent out. If they wanted someone to leave, and they wouldn’t go, officers had no choice but to make a trespassing arrest.
Sheila Buck is well-known and well-respected in Tulsa and Oklahoma in general.
The Trump campaign, Tulsa Police, and Mayor Bynum fucked up by having her arrested on live television. https://t.co/Eun4utdLFY
— Kendall Brown (@kendallybrown) June 20, 2020
But, like Bynum, the local police found themselves as a Trump campaign scapegoat for the rally’s poor attendance. The campaign first blamed protestors for scaring away Trump supporters — during his speech, Trump praised the “warriors” who made it inside the building against the wishes of “the bad people” outside. Reporters noted only one gate was briefly closed during a short 15-minute standoff, and other gates remained open and unused during that time.
Since then, Brad Parscale, the campaign manager for Trump’s re-election campaign, has lashed out in the wake of the Tulsa rally’s flop, and told the New York Times that local law enforcement had “overreacted” and blocked thousands from entering the arena. That claim was not backed up by any evidence and none of the dozens of reporters covering the rally from outside the BOK Center reported anything like that happening.
Health officials seem primed for the rally to result in a spike in cases, which they’ve called essentially unavoidable as a result of having thousands of unmasked people inside an enclosed space for hours.
If that spike doesn’t come, or if it does but it’s not followed by deaths and hospitalizations, it’s possible the rally has no lasting effects here politically and Bynum is re-elected without issue later this year, and Stitt continues his quest to make Oklahoma a “top 10 state,” as he so often preaches.
But if coronavirus cases in the state rise dramatically, as they had been in the days leading up to the rally, and if hospitalizations and deaths later rise as well, the question may arise as to why it was so important to have the rally in the first place, especially since only a fraction of the expected crowd of 120,000 materialized.
And any blowback here is unlikely to fall on Trump, who won every county in Oklahoma in 2016 and it would be a shock if he didn’t easily carry the state again in November.