Updated at 9:05 a.m. ET Sunday
In his first big campaign event since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, President Trump reached back into his culture war playbook to paint an image of a left-wing extremist dystopia that will take hold if he is defeated and Democratic opponent Joe Biden is elected this November.
"If the Democrats gain power, then the rioters will be in charge and no one will be safe and no one will have control," Trump said to a crowd, which numbered in the thousands but failed to fill an arena in Tulsa, Okla., on Saturday night and was far smaller than Trump's campaign promised. "Joe Biden is not the leader of his party. Joe Biden is a helpless puppet of the radical left."
But then Trump seemed to undercut that message, saying of Biden, "He's not radical left" and that "he was never radical left. But now he's controlled by the radical left."
That highlights a problem that Trump and his campaign have recognized since before the Democratic primary. It would have been much easier to tie many of Biden's more progressive primary opponents to more extreme positions, because Biden has disavowed many of them. He has had to stand on debate stages and argue from the center-left when the energy, enthusiasm and loudest voices within the party were against him.
Amid Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests that have swept the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the incumbent president's political standing has suffered. His campaign hoped the Tulsa event would provide a morale boost. It billed that a million people had signed up for tickets, and it built a second stage outside for an overflow crowd. The president and vice president were scheduled to give two speeches — one outside, one in. But the overflow crowd never materialized, and the outdoor festivities were called off.
About 120,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 on Trump's watch, and he is seen by voters as fanning the flames of racial tensions in the wake of Floyd's death.
On Saturday night, the president defended his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, claiming to have saved "millions."
"We saved millions of lives. Now it's time, get back to work," Trump said to a tightly packed crowd, most of whom were not wearing masks. Trump made the claim despite downplaying the threat posed by the coronavirus for months and despite evidence that cases are spiking in many parts of the country, such as Florida, Texas and, yes, Oklahoma.
At one point, Trump said he told his administration to "slow the testing down" for the coronavirus.
"When you do testing to that extent, you are gonna find more people, you're gonna find more cases," Trump said. "So I said to my people, 'Slow the testing down, please.' They test, and they test. We have tests that people don't know what's going on."
A White House official said that Trump was joking and that the administration is "proud" of the level of testing it has done, according to a Wall Street Journal reporter. Yet Trump has repeatedly said he thinks high levels of testing make the U.S. look bad, because it shows more cases than if less testing were done.
Democrats have seized on the comment. The Biden campaign released a statement after the rally, saying that in "an outrageous moment that will be remembered long after tonight's debacle of a rally, President Trump just admitted that he's putting politics ahead of the safety and economic well-being of the American people."
Biden also tweeted, "Speed up the testing," about an hour after the rally ended.
By Sunday morning, a Democratic group had already cut an ad seizing on the moment.
Trump, who at one point meandered into a long defense — and reenactment — of his gingerly walking down a ramp and drinking water during a speech at the West Point military academy, again played on racist stereotypes and nicknames. He labeled the coronavirus the "Chinese virus" to approving laughs from the crowd, even adding in the phrase "kung flu."
He created a fictional story about life under the left, referencing when a "tough hombre" tried to break into a house, and a woman in it, whose husband was away for work, tried to call 911 but the number was no longer working.
Trump defended Confederate statues, saying the left is trying to "desecrate our monuments."
He pushed Congress to pass a law punishing people with a year in jail for burning the American flag, though the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right to burn the flag under the First Amendment decades ago.
He took aim at the NFL, which apologized recently for how it treated black athletes who kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Trump implored, "Never kneel — we will stand proud and stand tall."
He hit several culture war notes, arguing that conservative culture was under attack from the likes of Biden and making a range of false claims about late-term abortion, taking away guns and wanting to "prosecute Americans for going to church but not burning a church."
Trump said Democrats want to abolish bail and ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. They want to dismantle police, he said, while freeing vicious MS-13 gang members, and he said that they want "rioters" and "looters" to "have more rights than law-abiding citizens."
"The silent majority is stronger than ever before," Trump said, declaring the Republican Party "the party of Lincoln" and "law and order."
But whether that message will work again in 2020 is very much an open question. Polls have shown shifts on how Americans view protesters and the police — and Trump has done little since becoming president to reach out to independents, a group he won in 2016.
His campaign was hoping that Saturday night's event, which went against the guidance of health officials, would signal the enthusiasm that the president still retains — and be a shot in the arm.
But the event did not live up to its high billing. Thousands gathered inside the arena, filling the lower portion of it, with many scattered in the upper section, but it wasn't full. Not long before the event, the campaign announced that the events outside were called off.
The campaign blamed it on protesters.
"President Trump is rallying in Tulsa with thousands of energetic supporters, a stark contrast to the sleepy campaign being run by Joe Biden from his basement in Delaware," campaign spokesman Tim Murtaugh said in a statement. "Sadly, protestors interfered with supporters, even blocking access to the metal detectors, which prevented people from entering the rally. Radical protestors, coupled with a relentless onslaught from the media, attempted to frighten off the President's supporters. We are proud of the thousands who stuck it out."
There were certainly protesters, but those on scene reported largely peaceful protests.
It's not a good sign for a president who needed a shot in the arm as he faces slumping poll numbers. There are still four and a half months to go until Election Day, and a lot will change, but it's hard to imagine that this is what his campaign was hoping for.
Trump and his campaign know that he is at a low point, and it's clearly gnawing at Trump that it was spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, which derailed the economy.
He was "riding high," Trump said, but that was "before this thing [the coronavirus] came in."