TULSA, United States: US President Donald Trump returned Saturday to one of his favourite spots – a campaign rally stage – defying the pandemic and attacking Democratic rivals at an event with crowds far smaller than promised.
Gathering his political faithful for a much-hyped rally in Oklahoma, his first in three months, the Republican president sought to reinvigorate his flagging campaign in the face of a crushing health and economic crisis as well as protests against racial injustice that have swept the nation in recent weeks.
Trump all but claimed victory over the pandemic that has killed some 120,000 Americans – “I have done a phenomenal job with it!” he insisted – even as six members of his own Tulsa advance team tested positive for Covid-19.
The event – which the White House promised would be flooded with up to 100,000 people, but actually did not fill the 19,000-seat arena where Trump spoke – has emerged as a flashpointin the pandemic era.
Trump arrives for the campaign rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. — AFP photo
But Trump was more interested in reviving his political fortunes after several bruising weeks that saw continued economic woes tied to the pandemic, nationwide protests over racial injustice, the toppling of Confederate and other statues and critics including former aides savaging his performance.
“The silent majority is stronger than ever before,” Trump said in a rowdy, freewheeling speech in which he blasted his 2020 election rival, Democrat Joe Biden, as a “helpless puppet of the radical left.”
“Five months from now we’re going to defeat ‘sleepy’ Joe Biden,” he said.
Many rally-goers wore red “Make America Great Again” hats or T-shirts, but very few wore masks and there was little social distancing, even though coronavirus cases have recently been skyrocketing in Oklahoma.
The president has downplayed the risk that the evening rally – with thousands of shouting, cheering attendees – might trigger a fresh outbreak, ignoring danger warnings by Tulsa health and municipal officials.
The narrative of a trouble-free campaign event was punctured, however, when the campaign announced just hours before the rally that six members of its Tulsa advance team tested positive for coronavirus.
Trump nevertheless reverted to full-on campaign mode, reviving themes that dominated his 2016 campaign: smearing immigrants, building a wall on the southern border, demanding flagburners be sentenced to jail and highlighting a rising stock market.
“If you see it happening on November 3,” he said of America’s potential rebound, “you don’t have the guts to vote against Trump.”
The rally has been controversial in part because it originally was scheduled for Friday — the Juneteenth commemoration of the end of slavery in the US – in a city known for one of the deadliest-ever massacres of African Americans.
Racial tensions have roiled the nation following the police killing of a black man, George Floyd, in Minneapolis, and Trump has fanned the flames with provocative rhetoric.
Dozens of Black Lives Matter protesters did gather at rally checkpoints and confronted attendees, but no violence was reported. After the rally, officers were seen using pepper spray to disperse protesters who temporarily blocked a police convoy. — AFP