A movie a day is the usual daily diet of this blog, but every so often, we write about what we see by accident on television; not all viewing experiences are intentional. Last night it was the much heralded gathering in Tulsa that seemed to be live-streaming through every orifice of the internet. This blog has often noted the anti-Trump bias in the mainstream-media, even more pointed outside the US than within, so this seemed like an opportunity to view 2020 politics in action.
Whatever the contribution made to the current spike in virus cases, Trump’s Tulsa rally will go down in the history book as a debacle, an ill-advised victory lap in a battle that’s barely begun, inviting the world’s press to view a gathering which hadn’t been effectively planned or executed. Most news outlets started with the empty outdoor overflow stage where Pence and Trump were scheduled to speak, which was swiftly dismantled. But inside the main arena, a sea of blue-seats surrounded a gathering of Trump’s faithful, loyal enough to sign a waiver indemnifying Trump against any blame should they catch the virus. Much like the rock festival vibe the rally aimed for, the eye was drawn to the stragglers on the side-lines, rotund, bearded, middle-aged men in long baggy shorts, staging informal dance-offs with their friends to pass the time.
The Bloomberg news channel had sound for their live feed, except they were taking it from two sources, so that each speaker or musical track played seemed to double back on itself, transforming Tom Petty’s I Won’t Back Down to a duet with himself. Meanwhile on Fox News, one wag aptly described The Rolling Stones as ‘Her Majesty’s Satanic Heroes’, but the music sounded like a broken Wurlitzer coming to rest at the bottom of a swimming pool. The sound issues continued as we saw Mike Pence grimacing through Free’s All Right Now; when he spoke, his voice emitted from a closed mouth like a ventriloquist dummy. It’s often hard to find suitable words to capture the spirit of such a wayward tv event, but Pence somehow managed it; ‘Let’s make America great, again, again.’
Was the rally deliberately sabotaged, not just in terms of the attendance, but in terms of the media presentation? Trump has long since enjoyed the help of WWE’s Vince McMahon in terms of the staging of live events, and yet its hard to imagine that such an experienced operator would allow such faux-pas as the long vistas of a largely empty stadium that Fox News would pull back to. Even as Trump entered, the dishevelled venue looked like a five-act rock show, round about the time as the second band came on, a chance to hear Utah Saints or Stereo MC’s. Back on Bloomberg, data-mosh was distorting the images, making the few attending glow like stars then slide down the screen like confetti.
Trump’s speech, complete with vaudevillian shtick, virus jokes and endless chat about his own health, seemed to be based around the notion of Tulsa as a triumph, but if so, his team sorely let him down. Other commentators had noted swathes of empty seats and tightly controlled camera angles at previous rallies, but little heed was paid back then. But by staging a supposed crowd-busting event in the middle of a pandemic, Trump courted a more intense degree of scrutiny, the optics of throwing baseball caps with glee into a whooping crowd while hundred of thousands of Americans are in mourning was never going to be anything but horrendous, no matter the size of the crowd. If Trump is to recapture his mojo, it’ll take considerably more showmanship that the vague ‘will-this-do?’ spirit displayed in Tulsa.