Donald Trump's Tulsa rally: It may have been a vile nod to racists, it certainly was a disaster – Henry McLeish

Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa was a flop that could be a turning point in the US President’s political fortunes, writes Henry McLeish.

There were large swathes of seats at Donald Trump's first rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic (Picture: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
There were large swathes of seats at Donald Trump's first rally since the start of the coronavirus pandemic (Picture: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Desperate for the unwavering adulation of his base and anxious about his calamitous handling of the coronavirus, his slump in the polls and the increasing support for presidential candidate Joe Biden, President Trump held a ‘Maga’ rally on Saturday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

But for the President, this comeback rally was a humiliation and another embarrassment for the American majority who are now exhausted and want to see an end to this Trump nightmare.

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Despite wild claims by the Trump camp that a million people had registered for tickets, the 19,100-capacity arena was only two-thirds full and the overflow facility wasn’t used. In a characteristically incoherent two-hour rant the President showed no compassion for George Floyd, used a racial trope, “kung flu”, to describe the coronavirus, joked about too many coronavirus tests making him look bad, and embraced his followers as “warriors”.

Holding his first rally for three months in this strong Republican state, which he won by 36 percentage points in 2016, made sense for a President who has shown little interest in governing, but who loves campaigning and has set a record for holding rallies while in office. Trump’s time in the White House has been one long campaign, in which nearly 90 political Maga rallies, or nearly threee each month, have been held since his inauguration in January 2017. Rallies are a life-line for his base and medicine for the President.

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The love of the crowd, the raw fanaticism, being in a safe place, the stroking of his gigantic ego and frequent shots of adrenalin allow him to escape into his own world, befitting his ‘dear leader’ status. An unusual way to run a country, but for Trump the game is about winning, and too much governing is a distraction.

Why Tulsa, why now?

But Trump’s visit to Tulsa, a second home for me, after visiting friends and teaching there for nearly 30 years, raises fundamental questions about his state of mind, judgement, character, and alleged racist leanings, beyond his mere obsession with rallies. Why Tulsa, why now, and was this an act of serious racial provocation or casual malice on his part or incompetence on the part of the White House?

The President’s trip to Tulsa never made any sense.

A pandemic is raging in America and despite his positive comments on Oklahoma’s handling of the virus, the state is experiencing soaring levels of new cases, with national and local health officials recommending that he stay away.

A few weeks after George Lloyd’s death and amidst the continuing protests throughout America, a Trump Maga rally, with naked racism on display and a hostile atmosphere, was never likely to be a healing event and ran the risk of serious violence.

The gun-toting potential in America, the anti-lockdown movement, and the existence of libertarian and white supremacist groups provide an incendiary backdrop for Trump to stoke the flames of civil unrest in a country which is already fragile, frustrated, and fearful.

Faced with obvious realities, previous presidents would have rescheduled, or cancelled the rally. But not Trump. He is hooked on chaos with little knowledge of history.

Hundreds murdered by a white mob

One of the first steps taken after Oklahoma achieved statehood in 1907 was to implement the “Jim Crow” laws, taken from the southern states, which ensured segregation by race. Equal but separate was the cynical and corrosive mantra, as transport, schools and housing operated on a black and white divide.

Against this racially charged background, two additional factors confirm why this event should never have happened and expose his real intentions.

The 19 June 1865 was the day, two-and-a-half years after the emancipation proclamation was signed by President Lincoln, that a federal order freed all the remaining slaves in Galveston, Texas.

This day is celebrated every year by African Americans. Some describe it as America’s second “Independence Day” or the ‘Juneteenth’, a combination of June and 19th. It is hard to imagine that Trump was in Tulsa to celebrate the end of slavery and his rally, originally planned for the 19th, was moved to the next day following public uproar.

Tulsa is also the site of one of the most brutal and bloodiest acts of racial violence in American history. A white mob, on 31 May and 1 June, 1921, attacked a predominately black neighbourhood resulting in nearly 300 deaths, mostly African Americans.

Dick Rowland, a black shoe-shine boy, was accused of assaulting a young white woman, and after being arrested, angry whites met outside the courthouse and the mob violence exploded. By all accounts, white people rampaged through a successful and prosperous black neighbourhood called Greenwood – known locally as Black Wall Street or Little Africa – killing men and burning and looting stores and houses. Nearly 10,000 people were left homeless. By dawn, the area lay in ruins. It has been described as the deadliest single act of racial violence in American history.

Known as the Tulsa Race Riot, this act of racism is one of America’s best-kept secrets, erased from local and national history.

‘An aggressively white supremacist gesture’

Historians are still learning about what happened. A Tulsa Race Massacre Centenary Commission has been established to plan a 100th-anniversary commemoration in 2021. Last year, what appeared to be a mass grave of victims of the massacre was discovered. A taboo topic for decades, it is now being given the prominence it deserves.

Throughout my many visits to Tulsa, the “race riot” came up in conversation, but never as the historically significant event that it was. Part of the failure to address racism in America is based on the country’s selective amnesia, and the deliberate efforts to ignore events of history if it proves inconvenient or contests the ‘white’ narrative.

With all this history in mind, what message was Trump sending on his trip to Tulsa? Michael Tomasky, editor of Democracy – a Journal of ideas, told USA Today: “So maybe he (the President) didn’t get the significance of June 19th and the Tulsa riots put together. But if he did, it is a sick, vile, aggressively white supremacist gesture.”

This may be a harsh verdict on Trump. But this President breaks all the rules. One thing is always clear. To him, ‘Trump’s life matters’. The President is in politics to win, and at any cost. His most successful weapon has been to nurture his base, ignore the majority and divide America. For Trump, Tulsa may prove to be a step too far and one rally too many, a catastrophic miscalculation and a possible turning point in his political fortunes.

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