By Jarrett Renshaw and Ernest Scheyder
TULSA, Okla. (Reuters) – When President Donald Trump takes the stage at his first rally in three months on Saturday night, the scene in Tulsa, Oklahoma, will be familiar: a large venue filled with ardent supporters wearing “Keep America Great” hats and T-shirts.
But outside the 19,199-seat arena is a country reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic, an economic collapse and a wave of protests over police brutality and racial injustice, a trio of crises that have dented his support just months before the Nov. 3 election.
Trump’s campaign advisers believe the rally is a way to rejuvenate his base and display the enthusiasm behind his re-election bid, at a time when a string of national and state opinion polls have shown Trump falling behind his Democratic rival, Joe Biden.
But even some Republican allies worry that his divisive rhetoric and unapologetic appeal to his conservative base may appear increasingly out of step with changing public opinion in the aftermath of last month’s killing of George Floyd, a black man, while in police custody in Minneapolis.
“His style and message won’t change, but the world has. I don’t know if he can get to places that people now care about,” said Amy Koch, a Republican strategist based in Minnesota, a battleground state Trump narrowly lost in 2016 and aims to flip this year.
In Tulsa, officials said they were worried the rally would set the stage for potential clashes between Trump supporters and protesters who may try to crash the event to argue the Republican president has failed to address racial injustice or police brutality against African Americans.
Trump has positioned himself as a “law-and-order” president and advocated a militarized response to the protests, calling on states to crack down on the unrest.
Residents have also been rattled by the prospect of a large, indoor gathering – the biggest such event in the United States since the coronavirus pandemic began in March, at a time when Oklahoma, along with other states, has reported a new spike in COVID-19 cases.
“Ultimately, the president doesn’t ask for permission before he” goes places, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, a Republican, said during a briefing on Wednesday. “So we found out that the president was coming, so we are going to make sure it’s the best and the safe as possible.”
Stitt, who is expected to introduce the president at the rally, said he will visit the White House on Thursday after he gets tested for the virus.
Trump initially decided to hold the Tulsa rally on Friday, June 19, the holiday known as Juneteenth that marks the end of U.S. slavery in 1865. In an unusual move, Trump rescheduled it to Saturday, June 20, after public backlash over the plan to hold a rally on Juneteenth in a city known for one of the nation’s bloodiest race massacres, in 1921.
Alicia Andrews, chairwoman of Oklahoma’s Democratic Party, said her phone had been ringing off the hook from supporters inquiring about potential anti-Trump events. The change in the date did nothing to dampen enthusiasm among supporters who want to protest against Trump, she said.
Andrews said there would be many such events but that they were in the planning stages. Any event would be outside and not at the arena, she added.
The prospect of clashes worries officials such as Tulsa City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper.
“I fear for my community,” said Hall-Harper, whose husband is a police officer.
A group of city residents and business owners sought a temporary injunction against the company that manages the arena, arguing the rally posed a “deadly risk” to the community, according to a lawsuit filed in Tulsa County. A judge denied the request on Tuesday, court records showed.
ONE MILLION TICKETS
The campaign said more than 1 million people had signed up for tickets for the rally at the BOK Center in Tulsa. It is the first event the arena will have held in months.
“It’s clear the campaign wants this event to be huge and people are working hard to avoid any problems,” one Trump adviser said, requesting anonymity to speak freely.
“For all practical purposes, this is the restart of the Trump 2020 campaign.”
But health officials fear such a large crowd in a closed venue – particularly if there is not widespread usage of masks – could become a “superspreader” for the virus, which has infected more than 2.1 million people in the United States and killed more than 116,000, the most of any country.
More than a dozen black community leaders, activists and ministers who spoke to Reuters this week said they feared in particular for the arena workers, most of whom are elderly African Americans, a demographic that public health experts warn is extremely susceptible to the virus.
“The president’s rally here just seems to make the threat of coronavirus even more real and frightening from my perspective,” said the Rev. Ray Owens of Tulsa’s Metropolitan Baptist Church.
Trump’s advisers have argued the recent huge protests in U.S. cities make it harder for liberals to criticize him for holding a rally. The campaign plans to hand out masks and hand sanitizer to attendees before they enter the arena, although they will not be required to maintain social distancing or wear masks.
Attendees must sign a waiver that they will not sue Trump or the campaign if they contract the virus.
“We have not seen this many people gather in one place in a long time, so it’s hard to predict. Some people I know get scared watching old shows of people gathering,” said Koch, the Republican strategist. “We are all learning on the fly here.”
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Soyoung Kim, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)