I went to bed Saturday night just after Trump started his rally, and I had considerable trepidation about the headlines that would confront me on Sunday morning. I worried that the people who’d been lining up for the event–and been interviewed incessantly by the media–would be joined by huge numbers of other “fans” of our deeply disturbed President; I worried about violence between protestors and supporters; and most of all, I worried that the event would jump-start enthusiasm for Trump’s re-election campaign.
Schadenfreude alert! I woke yesterday to headlines characterizing the rally as a dud, and televised photos of a half-full arena.
One of my favorite headlines was from the Guardian: “Trump sows division and promises “greatness” at Tulsa rally flop.” In the same issue, opinion writer Richard Wolffe called the rally a “farce,” and wrote that “It was so toe-curlingly cringeworthy, such a crushing humiliation. There are 80s pop bands who have enjoyed greater comebacks than Donald Trump.”
The rally had been designed to jumpstart the campaign of a would-be demagogue who takes his energy–and cues–from the adulation of crowds. (He seems totally unaware of how unrepresentative those crowds are of the voting public.) The campaign boasted that a million tickets had been spoken for, and it clearly anticipated a huge turnout.
The campaign got pranked–mostly by teenagers who know their way around algorithms and social media.
Tulsa’s BOK Center holds 19,000; just under 6,200 actually showed up. Apparently, fans of Korean pop music who use TikTok, along with Instagram and Snapchat users, had participated in a pretty sophisticated effort to order free tickets they had no intention of using.
When I say the effort was sophisticated–these kids didn’t simply order tickets. They were clearly aware of the way political campaigns harvest and use the information disclosed by people reserving tickets or otherwise contacting campaigns (in 2016, the Trump campaign had made savvy use of that information), so most of them created fake accounts and used Google phone numbers–and then deleted them. They also deleted social media posts referring to the plan, to minimize the chances of Trump folks finding out about it.
As a result, Trump’s campaign was caught totally unawares. Workers had to rush to dismantle the outdoor staging erected in anticipation of an overflow crowd.
It wasn’t only the turnout that was embarrassing. Trump delivered his usual, interminable word-salad, but rather than the usual chanting, the crowd seemed…bored. Attendees were caught on camera yawning and checking their phones. And then there was “the sentence”–the shocking admission that pundits predict will anchor hundreds of Biden campaign spots: “When you do more testing to that extent, you are going to find more people, you will find more cases. I said to my people, ‘Slow the testing down, please.’”
Because if you don’t test, Trump can lie with impunity…
Far from energizing Trump’s 2020 campaign, the rally made Trump look like a washed-up performer who has lost his audience and become a punchline for the new kids in town. According to White House reporter Andrew Feinberg, a Trump campaign staffer told him that Biden “should have to report our costs to the [Federal Election Commission] as a contribution to his campaign.”
As happy and relieved as I am at what I can only describe as a “best case” outcome, the campaign that truly makes me hopeful is the one waged by the thousands of teenagers who knew their way around technology and social media, and who clearly have their hearts and heads in the right place.
The Times headline was “TikTok Teens and K-Pop Stans Say They Sank Trump Rally.” (Full disclosure: I had no idea what “K-Pop Stans” even were before this.)
“It spread mostly through Alt TikTok — we kept it on the quiet side where people do pranks and a lot of activism,” said the YouTuber Elijah Daniel, 26, who participated in the social media campaign. “K-pop Twitter and Alt TikTok have a good alliance where they spread information amongst each other very quickly. They all know the algorithms and how they can boost videos to get where they want.”
I still don’t know what “Alt-TikTok” is. But what I know or don’t know doesn’t matter–my generation has passed its “sell-by” date. What does matter is the mounting evidence that the students I see in my classes are genuinely representative of a generation that is more inclusive, more humane, and less receptive to authoritarianism than mine.
The kids are all right.