For Trump, the mocking press coverage (“Trump Rally Fizzles,” ran the New York Times headline) marked an end to five years of largely triumphant use of crowds. When he launched his campaign in 2015, Trump’s obsession with personal, physical crowds seemed almost antique. His rallies were somewhere between a tent revival and a rock concert, where he traded off the energy of people shouting back at him. They were unsettling to pundits, who doubted that the rallygoers were actual voters, but it was Trump who had the last laugh; the rallygoers turned out at the polls in November. And, in a sharp departure from previous presidents, Trump has made rallies part of a permanent campaign, complete with crowd chants of old favorites like “lock her up!” years after Hillary Clinton’s involuntary return to private life.
In another sense, however, the president’s insistence on his capacity to attract huge throngs has always loomed as a potential trouble spot. His first day in office—literally—was dominated by the spectacle of press secretary Sean Spicer demanding that the press disbelieve the obvious evidence that Trump had drawn less than an Obama-size inaugural crowd. (It was also evidence that Trump’s often casual relationship with reality would persist into his presidency.) And in bragging that he’d never had an empty seat at a rally, Trump was setting himself up for the kind of fall that Tulsa provided.