There was a time when the political chattering class frequently described Donald Trump as “unpredictable.”—a characterization that seemed to encompass a range of his behaviors, from tearing up treaties and turning on allies to his bizarre pronouncements during public appearances and on Twitter. As his presidency has stretched on, however, it has become clear that much of what was “unpredictable” about Trump is actually astonishingly rote. Pull the string on his back and you’ll hear one of about five words: Tremendous, beautiful, unfair, overrated, and fake. Cross him, even a little bit? You know exactly how he’ll respond. Back against the wall? You know, sure as the sun will rise, that he’ll start whining about Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or the Russia “witch hunt” soon enough. However shocking something he does may be—suggesting that disinfectant injections treat coronavirus, say, or implying that a black man killed by a white police officer is smiling down on him from heaven because of a jobs report—none of it is ever surprising.
This much, too, is predictable: whatever the situation, Trump will make it worse. Which is precisely what he’s poised to do next week when he holds his first campaign rally since March. With the COVID pandemic ramping up again in the United States, and the nation in the throes of a reckoning over systemic racism following the death of George Floyd, Trump will hold a megarally in Tulsa, the site of one of the worst acts of racist terror against black Americans in history, on Juneteenth, the day commemorating the end of slavery in the U.S.
The event, which Team Trump hopes will telegraph a return to normalcy after months of turmoil, seems designed to exacerbate both crises gripping the nation: the pandemic, and the upheaval over racism and policing. How can you make a public health crisis worse? Pack thousands of people, many of them presumably elderly and thus particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, shoulder-to-shoulder. How can you further inflame racial tensions? Send the president, who has called those protesting for racial equality “thugs,” to a city infamous for the 1921 burning of Black Wall Street, on a day of symbolic significance to the struggle for Black civil rights in America.
A coincidence? Perhaps. For this to have been Trump’s idea, he’d have to know something about history and about people who are not himself, two subjects with which he has little familiarity. (The notion floated by some observers that Stephen Miller, the White House’s most prominent white nationalist, lined the whole thing up may be more believable.) For the president, it’s perhaps more about getting to bask in the adulation of raucous crowds, something he’s been itching to do throughout the pandemic, and to further his narrative that the coronavirus crisis is in the rear-view. “I think we need to get going,” Hossein Khorram, a developer who serves as the Trump Victory Washington State finance co-chair, told Politico. “It’s time to resume life. It’s past due. It’s about time.”
“Resuming life”—again, by jamming supporters into a stadium amid a pandemic that has killed more than 115,000 Americans—is, of course, wildly premature. In the wake of the reopenings Trump pushed for, more than a dozen states are experiencing significant spikes in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations. Trump, however, reportedly feels he can resume the rallies without criticism because of the massive Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have erupted across the country, which a number of Democratic leaders have taken part in. There’s differences of course—one is to address structural racism, the other is to give the president a stage and a receptive audience—but such distinctions don’t matter to Trump or his allies, especially as he falls further behind Joe Biden in polls.