The most cringe-inducing thing about Donald Trump’s Saturday night rally didn’t happen in Tulsa, Okla., where it was held, but 700 miles away in Alabama.
But before I get to that, let’s set the stage. The Tulsa rally was supposed to signal to the country that the “Transition to Greatness” was fully underway. It was going to demonstrate to supporters that the Trump magic had never faded. More importantly, aides hoped it would lift the president out of his months-long case of the Mondays.
It failed on all counts. The campaign touted a million RSVPs for Trump’s big date with his admirers. Going by the fire marshal’s official tally of 6,200 attendees, that means some 993,800 opted for Netflix and the couch instead.
Trump’s performance was not as lackluster as the attendance, but it says something that in a nearly two-hour speech, the most memorable part was a 17-minute riff on walking down a ramp and being able to drink water manfully. Trump’s show-stopper was when he drank some H2O with one hand and flung the cup to the side like a Viking discarding a drained flask of mead. The crowd burst into chants of “Four More Years!”
Beyond that, there were only what in a normal time would be considered gaffes. He called COVID-19 “Kung flu” and recounted how he instructed his staff to slow down testing to spare him bad numbers. The campaign insists it was a joke, but when your best defense is that the president was joshing about a disease that has killed 120,000 Americans and wrecked the economy, you’re not exactly in what the pros call a messaging sweet spot.
But, while the Trump inner circle immediately rushed to find someone to throw under the bus, one man in the far outer circle, the ousted circle to be more accurate, saw something very different. That man was former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, now back in Alabama and trying to reclaim a U.S. Senate seat after vacating his to serve in the Trump administration.
He declared on Twitter:
This may be the saddest tweet from a politician in the comparatively short history of the medium.
Say what you want about Session’s political views, he has always held to his principles with dignity, and he has a lifetime of impressive accomplishments under his belt. As the first senator to endorse Trump in 2016, he lent Trump desperately needed legitimacy. As attorney general, he was arguably the most instrumental figure in carrying out the Trumpist agenda on immigration. But that never mattered to Trump, because he prizes personal loyalty over effectiveness, and after Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe and subsequent Mueller investigation, Trump began routinely humiliating his attorney general.
Trump called him “weak,” “mentally retarded,” and a “dumb Southerner.” After one particularly severe dressing-down in which Trump called him an “idiot” to his face, Sessions told “associates that the demeaning way the president addressed him was the most humiliating experience in decades of public life,” according to the New York Times. A Washington Post report recounts how Trump called Sessions “Mr. Magoo.”
In 2018, Sessions resigned at the president’s request.
Not long after, as he geared up for his Senate run, Sessions said in a video announcement widely mocked as a “hostage tape”:
Trump did not wade into the crowded primary, but when Sessions and his opponent Tommy Tuberville went into a runoff, to be decided in a July primary election, Trump couldn’t help himself and endorsed Tuberville.
I understand that politicians have a remarkable capacity to convince themselves that the country needs them. Surely that is what’s going on with Lindsay Graham, another senator who has debased himself to stay on the good side of Trump and his most loyal voters. But Graham is a comparatively young man, with no wife or kids to go home to. Sessions is 73, with three children and 10 grandchildren. What is so terrible about going home to that? Does the country need you so much? Or is the need to be in the room where it happens so great that selling off your dignity piecemeal is worth the price of admission?
The most depressing thing about the Trump presidency hasn’t been Trump himself, but what it has exposed in others—not just in the politicians who will debase themselves to prove their loyalty to a man incapable of returning it, but also in voters who apparently need to be told that the naked emperor’s new clothes, or at least his water drinking skills, are “Masterful!”
Photograph by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images.