President Donald Trump billed his rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last Saturday as the official public launch of his campaign for a second term.
It should have been a grand and portentous occasion, a chance for the president to present his case before 19,000 cheering supporters plus thousands more on a plaza outside.
Alas for Trump, only about 6,200 showed up, an embarrassing shortfall that captured most of the media coverage. But the president’s message still deserves a serious look — if only because, like the BOK Center arena, it was so full of empty spaces.
The main reason to vote for Trump, he said, is that without him in charge the nation will descend into chaos and lawlessness.
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He sounded a series of racist dog whistles, describing protesters marching for racial justice as “thugs,” warning that police are needed to stop a “very tough hombre” from breaking into women’s homes, and promising to defend the “beautiful heritage” of Confederate statues.
For good measure, he called the coronavirus the “kung flu.”
He spent more than 14 minutes recounting his halting walk down a steel ramp after giving a commencement speech at West Point, claiming it “was like an ice rink.”
He criticized the National Football League for encouraging its players to protest racial discrimination.
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But in a speech that rambled for an hour and 41 minutes, he never got around to saying much about his plans for a second term.
He rattled off a list of long-standing priorities: more conservative judges, more miles of wall on the border with Mexico.
He promised to revive the flagging economy — but he never said how.
As for America’s other problems — the deadly pandemic that isn’t over, the crisis in race relations that sent peaceful protesters into thousands of streets — he said relatively little.
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He congratulated himself for doing “a phenomenal job” on COVID-19 and said he had asked aides to reduce testing — because “when you test ... you find more cases.”
On race relations, he promised “a future of safety and opportunity for Americans of every race.” He never mentioned that police were charged with murder in the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis, but promised “always” to support law enforcement.
Until recently, the Trump campaign website didn’t even have a page on issues. Now it does, but all it yields is a list of what the president has already done (or claims to have done) — no plans for the future.
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To be fair, it’s only June. “He has a convention in August where he can start to lay out a second-term agenda,” Republican strategist Scott Reed told me.
But four years ago, Trump’s first presidential campaign was further ahead than he is now. In June 2016, he was already making specific proposals on job creation and trade.
He’s missed earlier chances, too. When George W. Bush and Barack Obama ran for reelection, they stuffed their fourth-year State of the Union speeches with second-term ambitions. Trump’s biggest proposal this year was sending a man to Mars, which isn’t happening anytime soon.
Instead of an agenda, the president has offered mostly warnings.
“If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge, and no one will be safe,” he said in Tulsa.
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If Joe Biden wins, he added, “Your 401(k)s and money itself will be worthless.” That does sound dire.
But here Trump faces a problem: The former vice president doesn’t frighten most voters. He may annoy them, disappoint them, or bore them — but unlike Hillary Clinton, Biden’s too likable to be scary.
So Trump has chosen to run against “the radical left,” focusing on two first-term congresswomen: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).
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“Joe Biden is not the leader of his party,” the president argued. “Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left.” This will come as news to Ocasio-Cortez and Omar, both of whom endorsed Biden’s biggest rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The president’s campaign was slumping in the polls even before he spoke to all those empty seats in Tulsa.
It’s easy to guess why. Despite his self-congratulation, he hasn’t tamed the coronavirus. It’s getting worse across the Sunbelt, including in states that Trump desperately needs in November. Nor has he settled on a strategy for ending the recession beyond promising that prosperity is just around the corner.
So he’s left with attack lines and attitude. So far, his second-term program is mostly noise and resentment.
That may be enough for the president’s fiercely loyal base, the 40% or so who stick with him no matter what. It doesn’t seem to appeal to many others.
If Trump’s message in Tulsa is the best he’s got, Biden can safely stay in his basement for another month or two.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.
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