TULSA, OK -- Early Sunday morning, as a furious and disheveled Donald Trump, his tie unwrapped and hanging loosely from his neck, his complexion a faded bronze, his expression dour, stormed across the South Lawn of the White House, the marketing disaster of his first post-COVID-19 event was still reverberating.
It had failed every metric — messaging, tone, excitement, pretty pictures — exposing both the arrogance and incompetence of a campaign that has little room for error. If you’re choreographing Trump 2020, and you can’t make it in Oklahoma, you can’t make it anywhere.
Worse, from the governor of the state to the mayor of the host city to those who wanted to celebrate the end of slavery, to the souls of those who have been haunting the area around the arena for a century, nobody won Saturday night.
With apologies to Robert Towne: Forget it, America — it’s Tulsa.
There was Donald Trump, equal parts bombast and carny, tweeting (and almost spelling everything correctly) about his upcoming rally in Tulsa, complete with US v. THEM dog whistles.
There was Oklahoma’s governor, Kevin Stitt, on June 10th, in an interview with reporters, playing doctor. “Am I suggesting masks? Sure, if that makes you feel more comfortable. I would think it would be great.”
There was an actual doctor, Dr. Bruce Dart, the director of the Tulsa Health Department director, telling the Tulsa World on June 13th the Bank of Oklahoma Center (BOK), site of the rally, was a potential petri dish.
“I’m concerned about our ability to protect anyone who attends a large, indoor event, and I’m also concerned about our ability to ensure the president stays safe as well. Covid is here in Tulsa, it is transmitting very efficiently,” Dart said. “I wish we could postpone this to a time when the virus isn’t as large a concern as it is today.”
There was G.T. Bynum, the mayor of Tulsa, a Republican, who spent the week flushing away his bi-partisan cred, telling the Tulsa World on June 16th that he was trying to find the middle ground, preferably in another city.
“Do I share anxiety about having a full house at the BOK Center? Of course... I would have loved some other city to have proven the safety of such an event already.”
There was Doug Thornton, executive vice president of arenas, stadia, and theaters of SMG, the management company that runs the BOK, telling readfrontier.org on June 18th, he didn’t want the event.
“What if (Bynum) would have said no?” asked one of the TPFA [Tulsa Public Facilities Authority] trustees. “If he’d have said no, we would have said no, too,” Thornton replied.
There was Juneteenth. There were memories of Tulsa’s own holocaust.
There was a 116% increase in COVID-19 cases in town between June 6 and June 13.
There were the Trump supporters on the sidewalk in front of the BOK, their Sinai, on stadium chairs and under canopies, festooned with merchandise.
“This is a birthday present to myself,” Wilma (who do not disclose her last name) tells me on Wednesday. She is from Okmulgee, a town about 40 miles south of Tulsa.
“You worried about COVID-19?” I ask.
“No, I already got really, really sick in February and I heard that if you had a flu shot, you’re going to test positive. And I love my president. And where I come from, you respect the president or you get a whupping.”
I called Dr. John Schumann, president, University of Oklahoma, Schusterman Campus, for his response to the flu-shot claim: “This has no basis in fact.”
“Show him the big hat,” a woman in a wheelchair in Wilma’s tent, tells Wilma.
“When did you get here?” I ask.
“Will you wear a mask inside, even if you’re not wearing one now?”
“Of course,” Wilma says. "We’re all Trump supporters, but we’re not stupid."
This has been Tulsa’s spring of discontent. The Tulsa Race Riot — that’s how it was originally described, but it was a massacre — had happened 99 years ago, on May 31st-June 1st, 1921. A mob of whites, after reports that a black teen had attacked a white woman, killed more than 300 and burned down more than 1,200 businesses in the Greenwood District. The Tulsa Tribune, the afternoon paper at the time, had the headline “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in an Elevator.”
The Tulsa World, the morning paper, still the morning paper, wrote that the “innocent hard-working colored element needed to control the “‘Bad N----rs.”
Fast-forward to 2019. Mayor Bynum announced he would reopen an investigation into mass graves related to the pogrom, calling it a murder investigation. As the Washington Post reported on March 13th, 2020, it got in the way of his breakfast.
The mayor was about to take a bite of his pecan waffle at his favorite breakfast spot when a white woman stalked up to his table, pointed her finger and lit into him about his decision to reopen an investigation into a century-old race massacre.
“You are doing this to make white people feel bad,” the woman told G.T. Bynum as he and his wife and two children were eating at Phill’s Diner on a recent Sunday morning.
Eric Harris, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white Tulsa sheriff’s deputy in 2015; Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, was killed by a white Tulsa police officer in 2016. These events were not isolated.
A report by Human Rights Watch, titled "Get on the Ground!’: Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma," found that ". . . beyond the statistical disparities of treatment by police of the different races, black people nearly all had personal experiences of abusive policing, ranging from extreme violence towards themselves or family members, to more mundane harmful interactions like unnecessary traffic stops, coercive searches and intimidating encounters."
Bynum asked for an independent oversight of the Tulsa Police Department, which was rejected by its police union. If the city wasn’t coming to terms with the racism in its DNA, the mayor was at least acknowledging the shadows on the X-ray.
That is the Tulsa that the president came to visit Saturday night. That the rally was originally scheduled for Friday — Juneteenth, the annual celebration of the end of slavery — was peculiarly tone-deaf for an administration that is tone-deaf by default.
During the week of May 30th, Tulsa demonstrated in support of the movement that arose after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.
On June 11th, Tulsa police officer Travis Yates said on a local radio station: "We’re shooting African Americans about 24% less than we ought to be based on the crimes." In response, the Tulsa Police Department put its foot down, albeit firmly in midair, issuing a statement that it didn’t "condone or support" Yates’ comment.
Yates still gets a paycheck.
Brad Parscale, Trump presidential campaign manager, announced on Sunday, June 14th, that they had received 300,000 requests for tickets. By Tuesday the 16th, he tweeted that number was a million. There are 651,552 residents of Tulsa County, which includes 176,579 registered Republicans. Statewide, there are about four million people, with 1,008,775 registered Republicans.
That 6,200 showed at the rally, according to the Tulsa Fire Department, in an arena that holds 19,199 was embarrassing, according to analysts. To put the 6,200 in perspective, the Tulsa Ice Oilers of the East Coast Hockey League — don’t ask — who play their home games at BOK, drew 8,900 against the Idaho Steelheads.
The mayor told the Washington Post on June 17: "The president chose this city, and so it falls on us," Bynum said. "And it is an honor."
Area doctors and nurses responded that holding the event was "unbelievably reckless."
Bynum, who had championed social distancing and was rarely seen around town without a mask in the weeks leading up to the rally, met the president at Tulsa International without one.
Brandon Watkins, a lieutenant with the Tulsa Police Department, told me, "There will be fires all over, and the Great Divider is throwing sticks of dynamite in the middle of it."
An editorial in the Tulsa World on June 15th came out against the rally.
“It has already concentrated the world’s attention of the fact that Trump will be rallying in a city that 99 years ago was the site of a bloody race massacre. This is the wrong place for the rally.”
When it was then announced Reverend Al Sharpton was speaking in town on Friday, at a Juneteenth celebration, the paper wrote another editorial bathing itself in bothsiderism.
“Like Trump, Sharpton is a controversial figure. Like Trump’s, Sharpton’s perspective is shared by a lot of Tulsans who are eager to hear him. Like Trump’s rally, we fear the Sharpton appearance could leave our community more divided and less likely to move toward healing.”
Responding to an email, Susan Ellerbach, executive editor of the Tulsa World, not about the editorial — it’s not her side of the newsroom — but about the event itself. “This is a very volatile situation we’re facing, and then you throw in the health concerns and it’s a little untenable.”
Donald Trump, then Presidential candidate, was here in 2016, at the Mabee Center on the Oral Roberts University campus and Ellerbach said:
“We were incredibly naïve, for that situation turned hostile quickly and some of my toughest reporters and photographers told me later they felt threatened for the first time in their careers. Now we know what to expect from the rally. Add into that the volatility of protesters who will congregate outside the venue — which is two blocks from our office."
“Are you going, Barry?” she asked. We’re friends.
“If I get credentials.”
“You can’t go.”
“You have a 93-year-old father. You’d have to quarantine yourself afterwards.”
Ellerbach knows about my father, Jack, because I chronicle his life on Facebook. “Remember,” she said, “we love Jack. We like you.”
Dylan Goforth, the editor of ReadFrontier.org, echoed Ellerbach’s take on the feel this time around.
“Everyone is at risk, whether it’s the coronavirus, the protesters against the rally, the media,” Goforth told me. “There’s definitely a different vibe now than 2016.”
QuikTrip, the city’s ubiquitous convenience-store chain, for one, boarded up many of its locations in anticipation of trouble.
“The mayor can say whatever he wants about what an honor it is to have the President here,” Goforth said, “but if your city invited hundreds of thousands of people to come downtown to this event, and the eyes of the nation are upon you, and all your businesses are closing down, the market is speaking about what it thinks.”
Trump won Oklahoma with 65.3% of the vote in 2016, so I called Michael Whelan, president of Camelot Consulting, a political consulting firm, and asked — other than campaign ads and B-roll footage for Fox — what Trump could possibly get out of this.
“I’ve been a political professional for over a decade, and I’m really trying to wrap my head around it,”
“Either Trump doesn’t care what the ramifications are because he’s a knee-jerk type
of guy, and if wants to throw a big party in Tulsa, he’s going to do that. . . . Or, the coven of witches running the White House right now, led by Stephen Miller, think that completely dividing
the nation will somehow benefit the campaign, in that it will fire up the base, the folks that want to be angry and those who are tired of the quarantine and want to get back to normal."
“I can see if they had data, because the White House polls every day — that a president holding this kind of rally will reflect that it’s time to get back to normal — but I’d be surprised if they did."
Whelan, who was once chairman of the Tulsa County Democratic Party but is now speaking as a strategist, can’t figure out the political calculus.
“My guess,” he said, “is it’s the former. Trump is a guy who thrives on anger, and it can’t be coincidental he chose Tulsa on the anniversary of the race riot, the massacre, on Juneteenth, to have a rally. They want the African-American community to be angry, so angry that something bad happens. . . . They want it to be ugly, so he can say, ‘We need to crack down on these people who are trying to tear apart our country,’ so he can crack heads.”
When I asked Monroe Nichols, who represents the Greenwood area in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, about that anger, he told me that Trump coming to the area was “particularly stinging.”
“The birther claims on President Obama,” said Nichols, “and the ‘good people on both sides comment after Charlottesville disqualifies Trump in this moment.”
I ask Whelan if Trump can win being that polarizing. “They won the first time with Trump being an insufferable asshole, and they probably think the only way he can again is to be an insufferable asshole.”
On the Sunday after the rally, Tulsa suffered from a slight hangover, as the stench of local and state obsequiousness lingered. As one government official who asked not be identified told me, “The mayor just didn’t have the balls to stop it.”
There was the President, mendacious and racist (“Kung Flu”?) as ever; there were the racial wounds and dead souls who were prodded and poked; and there was the prospect of hundreds, maybe thousands, in the coming days, waking up with fevers and dry coughs.
My press credentials came two days before the rally. I didn’t go.