Anxiety peaks 24 hours from Trump’s Tulsa rally

On a scorching evening this week, Tulsa County Republican chief Bob Jack thought he would check on the hundreds of Donald Trump supporters camping outside the arena where the US president will hold his first political rally in three months.

Those fans had been sleeping outside Tulsa’s 19,000-seat Bank of Oklahoma centre for a week to make sure they attend Mr Trump’s campaign meeting, which takes place on Saturday. On-site, instead of tents and Trump supporters, barricades erected by police awaited Mr Jack.

“It looks like a cage match arena,” he said.

Hours before the rally, Tulsa has become the focal point of all the tensions that have gripped the US: the Covid-19 pandemic, antiracism protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in police custody, and the presidential race which has been in limbo because of lockdowns. The city’s Republican mayor, GT Bynum, has imposed a curfew from Thursday evening until Saturday 6am, which has resulted in police removing the Trump supporters.

The Tulsa meeting has been mired in controversy since Mr Trump announced that it would be held on Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the US on June 19, 1865. The city was also the scene of some of the worst violence against African Americans when hundreds were massacred in 1921.

Mr Trump pushed the rally back one day after a backlash. But on Friday, he repeated some of the inflammatory language he has used about protesters.

“Any protesters, anarchists, agitators, looters or lowlifes who are going to Oklahoma . . . you will not be treated like you have been in New York, Seattle, or Minneapolis. It will be a much different scene!” he tweeted.

Monroe Nichols, the vice-chair of the Democratic caucus in the Oklahoma House, said Tulsa would normally welcome a president of either party. But he said his rhetoric on race, including describing white supremacists at a 2018 protest in Charlottesville as “very fine people” made him unwelcome.

“Charlottesville disqualifies you from being able to talk to a community that has been hit like that,” Mr Nichols said. “Would he think there were ‘very fine people’ in 1921?”

In addition to concerns about racial clashes, critics are worried about potential spread of coronavirus in a packed arena. The Oklahoma supreme court will on Friday decide whether those concerns should halt the event.

“This has the potential to be one of those super-spreading events,” said Emily Virgin, the Democratic minority leader in the Oklahoma House of Representatives. “The president, governor and mayor are . . . using the citizens of Oklahoma as guinea pigs.”

Tulsa has had a sharp spike in Covid-19 cases since the start of June. But echoing a broader debate across the country about how quickly to ease lockdowns, conservatives argue that people should be free to attend.

“If you’re a conservative and don’t like the government telling you what and when you can do something, it’s not a concern. I haven’t worn a mask and I will not wear a mask,” said Mr Jack.

But this is not a consensual idea among local Republicans. Samantha Whiteside, a Tulsa doctor and conservative voter, expressed concern about the lack of social distancing at the rally and the capacity of hospitals to cope. “The virus doesn’t care if you’re Republican, Democrat or independent,” she said.

Trump supporters sleep in the early morning on Friday while lined up to attend the president’s campaign rally near the Bank of Oklahoma Center in Tulsa on Saturday © Win McNamee/Getty

Abby Broyles, a Democrat who is vying to challenge James Inhofe, a Republican senator from Oklahoma, in November, said the state was already seeing the ramifications of loosening restrictions too soon. “Now we’re bringing Trump in for a photo-op. It’s putting Oklahoma lives at risk.”

Anthony Fauci, a White House coronavirus task force member, would not comment on the rally, but said big crowds would result in “increasing the risk of both getting infected and transmitting the infection”. Bruce Dart, the head of the Tulsa health department, has warned that the rally was a “huge risk”.

Even Mayor Bynum, who will greet Mr Trump but not attend the rally, said he would “have loved some other city to have proven the safety of such an event”.

But for Mr Trump, the event is a critical chance to rally his base in person at a time when Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger, leads every national poll. The president also trails Mr Biden in most of the swing states.

Many conservative supporters of Mr Trump argue that Democrats, and other critics are being hypocritical.

“Why is it OK for 10,000 people to swarm New York City streets, but not OK for 10,000 Trump supporters to meet in Tulsa?” said Chris Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax Media who is a personal friend of the president.

But Mr Nichols responded that the situations are not equivalent. He said the rally was an organised event, while the protests were an organic movement. He said Mr Trump was taking a political risk that could hurt Republicans even if he has almost no chance of losing the state himself. 

“There will probably be someone who goes to this rally that is going to die from coronavirus,” said Mr Nichols. “The country will be watching to see what happens as a result of this rally.”

Additional reporting by Donato Paolo Mancini

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

Visitors from Texas pose this week at Tulsa’s Black Wall Street memorial, commemorating racial violence in the city in 1921 © Sue Ogrocki/AP