Brad Parscale’s going to be blamed for last night’s PR fiasco but that’s not entirely fair. Normal campaigns work to lower expectations for themselves and to raise expectations for their opponents; that way it’s easy for the campaign to “overperform” and for the opponent to “underperform.” The Trump campaign and the RNC do the opposite. They continuously lower expectations for Joe Biden by treating him like a complete mental defective, inadvertently making it easier for him to “impress” by delivering a coherent answer on anything. And they continuously raise expectations for themselves because that’s just how the boss rolls and always has. The biggest, the greatest, the best of everything — that’s the Trump hype machine, 24/7/365.
So even if Parscale had wanted to lower expectations last night for strategic reasons, expecting that a huge crowd would turn out anyway, I don’t think the boss would have stood for it. It would have amounted to doubting, even for merely rhetorical purposes, that Trump fans currently feel the same enthusiasm for their hero as they always have. All things Trump are phenomenal and super-popular and all things anti-Trump (i.e. Biden) are moronic and contemptible: That’s the script Parscale has to work with because the president’s ego won’t tolerate anything else. The campaign can’t deviate from it even when it’s to their benefit to do so.
He dutifully played the Trump hype game in promoting the rally over the past week…
Before entering each guest will get:
There will be precautions for the heat and bottled water as well.
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) June 15, 2020
The outdoor stage for @realDonaldTrump’s Rally in Tulsa being built.
This will be the 1st time that POTUS speaks to BOTH crowds in person – inside & outside.
If you come to the rally and don’t get into the BOK Center before it’s full, you can still see the President in person! pic.twitter.com/7hoLFgzvLA
— Brad Parscale (@parscale) June 20, 2020
…but the reality turned out to be different:
— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) June 20, 2020
— Will Steakin (@wsteaks) June 20, 2020
Rally programming starting now. Here’s the scene outside. pic.twitter.com/CRnV6b4LfY
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) June 20, 2020
The president is reportedly “livid” at the humiliation:
— Rick Klein (@rickklein) June 21, 2020
“Mr. Trump was furious about the unused outdoor stage and the comparatively thin crowd in the stadium, according to two people familiar with his reaction,” reported the NYT this morning. “News broadcasts carried video of the partially empty stadium, and even the Drudge Report, a reliably conservative website, carried an all-caps headline that said ‘MAGA LESS MEGA’ with a picture of rows and rows of empty blue seats.” I’ve seen people on social media scolding the press and Trump critics for getting into a pissing match with him about crowd size, supposedly another example of the president convincing his opponents to obsess about his own obsessions…
The Emptysburgh Address
— The Lincoln Project (@ProjectLincoln) June 21, 2020
…but keying in on the size of his crowd isn’t empty schadenfreude. Trump himself was treating the event as a show of political force designed to contrast the intense enthusiasm his base feels for him with the decidedly unenthusiastic sentiment for Biden on the left. Not only that, a “festival” atmosphere inside and outside the arena was supposed to signal that America was leaving its coronavirus worries behind and getting back to normal after the first wave of COVID-19 had passed. (Well, maybe not passed. “Somewhat abated,” let’s say.) Trump has spent months insisting that the economy needs to reopen ASAP. Now he was going to host his own reopening kickoff extravaganza, with MAGA fans turning out in droves to prove that they won’t be intimidated by overly cautious eggheads like Anthony Fauci and his Democratic fan base.
But they didn’t turn out. A lot of righties, even Trump-loving righties, know a potential viral catastrophe when they see one. If Trump had taken the advice of Oklahoma’s governor and moved the event to an outdoor arena, maybe more Trumpers would have gambled that it’d be safe to show up. Why he insisted on holding it indoors against the health advice of literally everyone, I don’t know. Spite, I guess. His supporters seem to have limits on how far they’ll go to show spite even if he doesn’t.
Does fear of the virus fully explain the low turnout last night, though? There are reports elsewhere today that mischievous teens pranked the campaign by flooding them with ticket requests for the rally despite having no intention of going, but I’m skeptical that that was as much of a factor as people seem to think. As Dave Weigel points out, if there really were one million RSVPs (per Parscale’s tweet), even if *95 percent* of them were pranks there still should have been 50,000 Trumpers in and around the arena. In reality there were 6,200 inside the building according to the Tulsa fire department and not a whole lot outside.
My guess is that a big chunk of the RSVPs came from earnest Trump fans from around the country who had no intention of going but who wanted to help boost the president’s talking point about how much demand there was for the event. One million RSVPs! MAGA is stronger than ever! Those people probably assumed, not unreasonably, that the event would end up being sold out and that the media would ooh and ahh at the possibility that a million Trump supporters really did want to attend. But it backfired once reporters saw the empty upper deck. Now everyone thinks Team Trump got suckered by a teen prank.
Weigel raises another possibility:
Something that kept occurring to me: Even after the George Floyd protests became peaceful, Fox was playing and replaying footage of a store being burned in Minneapolis. How do you over-hype the threat of protests then ask people to crowd into downtown?
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) June 21, 2020
There was a lot of hype in red-state America over the past few weeks about Antifa plotting to descend on small towns and wreak havoc as the George Floyd protests raged nationally. Between that and Fox amplifying left-wing violence of all stripes, some Trumpers may have wanted to show up last night but were too frightened about what might be waiting for them outside the arena. (In reality, and contrary to Team Trump’s excuses today about protesters blocking Trump fans from attending, there weren’t that many demonstrators on the scene.) And ironically, a different kind of hype might have steered people away: As Philip Klein says, the breathless tweeting by Parscale and others about a million RSVPs may have convinced some Trump fans who wanted to attend that there’d be no chance of getting in, that they might encounter a mammoth crowd outside the arena in Tulsa that would fill not only the arena but many blocks around the overflow area. Why bother venturing out on a hot summer evening and risking exposure to the coronavirus from a huge crowd when your chances of actually seeing the president were — or so you thought — nil?
For whatever reason, Trump didn’t get his show of force and so now someone must pay. “I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody gets fired over this,” tweeted Axios reporter Jonathan Swan last night. At a minimum, Parscale is now on thin ice: If attendance underwhelms at the next rally Trump holds, a scapegoat will be found and it surely won’t be the president. If Parscale’s smart he’ll make sure the next one’s held outdoors to try to lure out Trump fans who want to attend but fear being infected by COVID-19.
In lieu of an exit question, go watch Swan at Mediaite speaking to MSNBC after the rally about the fallout within the campaign. “There will be recriminations,” he predicts.