Saturday’s campaign rally in Tulsa was supposed to be a rare good day for the Trump administration – a game-changer, a show of vitality and vigor for Trump’s struggling re-election campaign. The event, held at Tulsa’s Bank of Oklahoma on Saturday, was expected to top 19,000 attendees and require a second speech, given outside, in a specially-built outdoor arena meant to contain audience overflow. Trump’s re-election efforts have been severely hampered in recent weeks by plummeting poll numbers, massive civil unrest, a self-destructing national economy, and a global pandemic still in its first wave of contagion. The rally was supposed to be a “hard reset” for the campaign, and as such, it was anticipated to be sold-out stadium arena event.
Instead, attendance just barely cracked 6,000 – with tens of thousands of seats going unfilled, and the outdoor venue being dismantled before it was ever used, in a last-minute attempt to avoid embarrassment.
So what happened?
The abysmal attendance at Trump’s Tulsa rally on Saturday, it turns out, was a group effort – equal parts COVID-19 consciousness, American ingenuity, Alt TikTok, and KPop Twittersphere – with a sprinkling of Trumpian incompetence for good measure. After all, no Trump-era dystopian plotline would be complete without the bizarre, cartoon villain antics of Jared Kushner (Trump’s de facto campaign manager), and the woefully inept life choices of Brad Parscale (chairman of Trump’s re-election campaign).
One obvious reason for Saturday’s low attendance is baked into the hardware. By design, Trump rallies are massive, unsanitary, unhygienic, and just-plain-dangerous gatherings of some of America’s most vulnerable people. Trump rallies are bad for public health and safety even in the absence of a pandemic – but in today’s COVID-19-infected world, they are catastrophic flashpoints, rife for disease, and they serve as open invitations for spectacular public ridicule.
They are vulnerable not just to physical, real-world attacks – but to online, digital ones as well.
The coronavirus initially didn’t seem to worry Trump or his staff. For days leading up to the rally in Tulsa, sources say, Mr. Trump was positively beaming with excitement. MAGA fever gave his cheeks a rosy glow. Saturday’s Trump rally at Tulsa’s BOK (Bank of Oklahoma) was to be his first stadium event since March 2. Unfortunately, it was based on bad data. His re-election campaign manager, Mr. Brad Parscale, had cited false and misleading attendance projections for weeks prior to the event.
If it occurred to the Trump team that the Tulsa rally might backfire, leaving the Trump campaign vulnerable to public failure, such concerns were brushed off or hidden from the President until after the event. The event was originally scheduled for Juneteenth, the anniversary of the emancipation of American slaves. This was a blatant attempt, one can only assume, to be as offensive and racially insensitive as possible, as a means of riling up the most disgusting undercurrents of Trump’s notoriously racist base. After a quick and viral wave of internet backlash, the rally was rescheduled for the next day.
Despite Mr. Parscale’s wild claims that the event had received over a million requests for tickets, old guard veterans from both the GOP and the Democratic party remained seriously doubtful. Behind closed doors, and amongst themselves, the Trump campaign’s preposterous audience projections were seen as a joke and a cause for concern.
Since Saturday, as part of the GOP’s frantic attempts at damage control, various theories have been floated about the reasons for low attendance – including false reports of widespread BLM (Black Lives Matter) protests, Antifa riots, and overly harsh security measures that kept Trump supporters from entering the stadium. None of those theories, however, would account for the drastic, overwhelming discrepancy between the expected attendance and the actual number of tickets sold. (Instead of 19,000, the Tulsa Fire Department counted only 6,200 tickets, all told.)
The other thing about these theories is that they leave out a crucial piece of the puzzle – the massive, deliberate, and strategically planned disruption of the event by TikTok teens and KPop Stans. (Yes, you read that right. Teenagers and KPop fans are responsible, at least in part, for the failure of Trump’s rally this past weekend.)
The truth started bubbling up to the surface on Saturday night, just a few hours after it became clear that Tulsa was a PR disaster. One deliriously entertaining tweet exchange between Brad Parscale and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez captures the mood well. In the evening, Parscale tweeted: “Radical protestors, fueled by a week of apocalyptic media coverage, interfered with @realDonaldTrump supporters at the rally. They even blocked access to the metal detectors, preventing people from entering.”
Within hours, AOC smartly fired back: “Actually you just got ROCKED by teens on TikTok who flooded the Trump campaign w/ fake ticket reservations & tricked you into believing a million people wanted your white supremacist open mic enough to pack an arena during COVID. Shout out to Zoomers. Y’all make me so proud.”
In true millennial style, she ended her retaliatory tweet with a smiley face. 🙂
AOC is not the only one to catch on the truth of what happened. Media outlets around the country and across the internet have quickly picked up on the K pop and Alt-Twitter subculture origins of the Tulsa rally prank, with The New York Times doing several in-depth pieces of reporting just in the last 72 hours.
According to The New York Times:
“TikTok users and fans of Korean pop music groups claimed to have registered potentially hundreds of thousands of tickets for Mr. Trump’s campaign rally as a prank. After the Trump campaign’s official account @TeamTrump posted a tweet asking supporters to register for free tickets using their phones on June 11, K-pop fan accounts began sharing the information with followers, encouraging them to register for the rally — and then not show.”
From TikTok, the trend spread like wildfire to other highly popular social media platforms, including SnapChat and Twitter. As CNN reported on Tuesday, these quick-and-easily-digested videos quickly racked up tens of millions of views, and each video gave detailed instructions on how to prank the Tulsa rally.
The CNN piece gives more detail, saying:
“Oh no, I signed up for a Trump rally, and I can’t go,” one woman joked, along with a fake cough, in a TikTok posted on June 15.”
The delicious irony of this event cannot be overstated. The President has repeatedly denied the widespread dangers of COVID-19 and called the Coronavirus, at various points, a Chinese Hoax, a liberal news hoax, fake news, and “Kung Flu.” And yet, despite all his chest-thumping to the contrary, the virus is very real. It is not going away, and even his most dedicated supporters are not willing to risk their lives by public exposure in a COVID-19 hotspot. Much of his base, after all, is elderly and uninsured – the very people who are most vulnerable to the virus.
Compounding the irony is the fact that internet subcultures, including vicious undercurrents of anonymous pranksters, were heavily involved in Trump’s election to the White House in 2016. It seems those same groups who helped get him into office are now beginning to turn against him – or at least, that those same internet guerilla tactics and viral marketing efforts are now being used by people on the other side: people who are smart, technologically savvy, and who have a very different idea of who and what constitutes good governing in today’s world.
Outside advisers to the president, meanwhile, have stated since the Tulsa flop that his reelection team is essentially up to their elbows in nuclear PR fallout, fielding call after call from spooked big-money donors and frightened GOP lawmakers. People are understandably nervous and jumpy after Saturday’s events. The failure of this rally could, indeed, be a turning point – just not the kind that the Trump team was expecting. It could be the beginning of the end. In a campaign besieged by problems, it could be a sign of problems yet to come, or problems currently in progress, that are much too large, and much too deeply engrained in the public conscious, to fix. Problems so large you’d need decades to address them all.
Trump doesn’t have decades. Trump has a measly four months separating this rally from Election Day.
The Tulsa Trump rally (or lack thereof) is a PR nightmare, certainly, and it doesn’t bode well for the rest of Trump’s re-election campaign – but more than that, it was a rare example of perfect dramatic irony foreshadowing future events in American politics, brought on by a failure to understand the mobilizing power of the internet: due to his own disastrous mishandling of the pandemic, and as a result of his own failure to adapt, President Trump’s two favorite political weapons – the stadium rally and the internet – have now been turned against him. The very things he relied upon to feed his bottomless ego and fire up his base, in good times, have now become major instruments of his demise.
As always, there’s a treasure trove of business lessons to be gleaned from the Trump team’s mistakes. Insignia SEO would like to highlight a few main takeaways:
1. Do your homework. Don’t assume that your audience is bigger than it is.
2. Don’t lie. Don’t exaggerate, don’t distort, and don’t insult your audience (or your customer base, or your social media following) by assuming they won’t notice or won’t care that they’re being misled.
3. Surround yourself with good people. Make sure your business is filled with competent, compassionate individuals who won’t cut corners, throw you under the bus or drive your business into the ground to make a quick buck.
4. Prepare for reality on reality’s terms – not on the advice of yes men who tell you what you want to hear. That way, your business will be able to weather any storm and handle even the hardest of times with grace and intelligence.
5. Never underestimate the power of the internet. We might be biased as a digital marketing agency, but we think this one goes without saying. Viral marketing efforts and internet strategies have never been more powerful, or more essential, to creating change, growth, disruption, and progress. Whether your goal is to unseat the President or simply to get more customers, the internet is the most powerful resource at your disposal.
(For more invaluable life lessons that you can apply to your business, feel free to check out the rest of our blog.)