Like most populist authoritarians, Donald Trump thrives on the energy of crowds. The nearly religious fervor they inspire motivates his base, and the feedback loop between the frenzied crowd and Trump’s rambling, improvisational speaking style often drives news cycles.
It is likely no accident that Trump’s political fortunes have declined as the COVID pandemic has shuttered his in-person rallies. Of course, the pandemic itself, the subsequent recession and the recent protests against racist police violence are all bigger factors, combined with Trump’s wrongfooted and unpopular approach to all three. But the fact that he is unable to stand in front of adoring crowds on television also means he reportedly has been in a foul temper for weeks, and has difficulty dominating the news cycle or effectively attacking his opponents. He has his twitter account, but the president’s stochastic musings have started to become a dull background noise in the country’s political life: even when their content is explosive, people tend to shrug and forget about it. His inability to hold rallies also likely led to his insistence on long, televised COVID briefings as a replacement. These briefings were largely disastrous, exposed the depth of Trump’s rudderless leadership and demonstrated his shocking ignorance of basic facts about government, science and biology.
So it’s no surprise that Trump is desperately eager to go back to the rally platform where he is happiest and most comfortable. But the problem is that now those very rallies carry a huge political downrisk in both actual pandemic impacts and in public perception.
First and most obvious is the reality that COVID-19 has not gone away, and is in fact surging again after a plateau in new cases. While other developed countries around the world has largely curbed the virus and brought new case rates to low levels, the United States never managed to even move past phase one before already moving on to phase two of new outbreaks. We also know that the virus is much more dangerous and transmissible indoors than outdoors, spreading rapidly through air conditioning and poorly ventilated buildings in large gatherings. And while many rural white Americans may think of the virus as mostly impacting poorer, nonwhite and most city-dwelling Americans, that disproportionate impact is rapidly changing as the virus expands and spreads to less densely populated areas and as more comfortable populations who had been quarantining and social distancing begin to relax. Sure enough, six Trump campaign staffers in Tulsa tested positive for COVID-19, and it is a near certainty that Trump’s rally will be the source of a new major local outbreak. Not only will that be bad for those who attend the rally and the healthcare workers who will treat them, it will also be politically damaging.
Second, the effort to hold rallies is in part a desperate effort on the part of Trump and his allies to signal that they should recommence normal economic activity. Trump still gets strong marks in polls for his handling of the economy, so getting the economy back on track is crucial to his campaign–despite the fact that his incompetent response to the pandemic is the biggest reason why the economy cannot come back to normal. But it’s not at all clear that most people will be willing to go back to anything resembling normal, and trying to force the issue could make things worse by plunging states and cities into a second wave of forced lockdowns before the first wave was ever truly over.
Finally, new polling shows that most Americans think that wearing masks is a good thing, and they disapprove of people holding big public rallies:
A new Fox News poll published Friday found that registered voters think large political rallies are a bad idea, and most voters have a favorable view of face masks.
A majority of respondents don’t support large political rallies amid the coronavirus pandemic, with 59% saying they’re a bad idea. 23% of respondents said rallies were a good idea, and 16% said it depends on the situation.
The poll also found that 80% of respondents have a favorable view of wearing face masks, including 89% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans. The poll was released on the eve of President Trump’s much-disputed rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Saturday.
Mask-wearing, of course, has turned from a non-controversial public health recommendation during a pandemic into yet another culture war issue fused with libertarianism and toxic masculine signaling. Trump will not be requiring masks at his Tulsa rally, and both the optics and the practice of a big public rally indoors with no masks will be both a major public health risk for the rallygoers and the city of Tulsa, but also a gigantic political risk.
Rallies, in other words, were one of Trump’s greatest political assets. But now they have also become an enormous potential political liability.