TikTok users, K-pop fans take partial credit for inflating expectations at Trump rally

Credit: AJC

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Trump slams mail-in voting

Credit: AJC

After years of accusing President Donald Trump of using foreign influence to win the 2016 White House election, one leading Democrat boasted about the use of TikTok to inflate expectations at Trump’s Oklahoma rally.

Trump's return to the campaign trail was designed to show strength and enthusiasm heading into the critical final months before an election that will decide whether he remains in the White House. Instead, his Saturday rally in Tulsa was marred by media reports of lower-than-expected turnout.

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A coordinated effort was underway on TikTok in the days leading up to Trump's rally, CNN reported, encouraging people to register online for the free event and not show up. TikTok is owned by a Chinese company and has drawn bipartisan attention in Washington for its possible threats to U.S. national security.

One TikTok video called on fans of South Korean pop music, known as K-pop, to join the trolling campaign.

On Saturday night, as images showed empty sections of the BOK Center, TikTok celebrated. “Gen Z is unstoppable,” one young person wrote on TikTok.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez congratulated the social media users.

Trump’s political team spent days proclaiming that more than 1 million people had requested tickets. They also ignored health warnings from the White House Coronavirus Task Force and Oklahoma officials, eager to host an event that would help him move past the civil rights protests and the coronavirus.

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Trump’s first rally in 110 days was meant to be a display of political force.

Instead, the city fire marshal’s office reported a crowd of just less than 6,200 in the 19,000-seat BOK Center. At least six staff members who helped set up the event tested positive for the coronavirus. Most of the attendees, including Trump, did not wear face masks as recommended by the Trump administration’s health experts.

After the rally, the president berated aides about the turnout, according to The Associated Press. He fumed that he had been led to believe he would see huge crowds in deep-red Oklahoma, according to two White House and campaign officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.

On Trump’s reelection team, there was no sign of an imminent staff shakeup, but members of Trump’s inner circle angrily questioned how campaign manager Brad Parscale and other senior aides could so wildly overpromise and underdeliver, according to the officials.

Publicly, Trump's team scrambled to blame the crowd size on media coverage and protesters outside the venue, but the small crowds of pre-rally demonstrators were largely peaceful. Tulsa police reported one arrest Saturday afternoon.

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It's Trump vs. Biden this November

Trump won the presidency in 2016 with a similar message aimed largely at energizing conservatives and white working-class men. But less than four months before early voting begins in some states, there are signs that independents and educated voters — particularly suburban women — have turned against him. Republican strategists increasingly believe that only a dramatic turnaround in the economy can revive his reelection aspirations.

“It’s bad,” said Republican operative Rick Tyler, a frequent Trump critic. “There’s literally nothing to run on. The only thing he can say is that (Joe) Biden is worse.”

It is unclear when Trump will hold his next rally. Before Oklahoma, the campaign had planned to finalize and announce its next rally this week. Trump is already scheduled to make appearances Tuesday in Arizona and Thursday in Wisconsin. Both are major general election battlegrounds.

At least one swing state governor, meanwhile, says Trump would not be welcome to host a rally in her state amid the pandemic.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, said she “would think very seriously about” trying to block Trump from hosting a rally there if he wanted to.

“We know that congregating without masks, especially at an indoor facility, is the worst thing to do in the midst of a global pandemic,” Whitmer said in an interview before the Oklahoma event, conceding she wasn’t aware of the specific legal tools she had available to block a prospective Trump rally. “I just know we have limitations on the number of people that can gather and that we’re taking this seriously.”

Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, seized on a fresh opportunity to poke at the incumbent president, suggesting that Trump “was already in a tailspin” because of his mismanagement of the pandemic and civil rights protests.

“Donald Trump has abdicated leadership, and it is no surprise that his supporters have responded by abandoning him,” Biden spokesperson Andrew Bates said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Clarification: The original headline for this story was rewritten to better reflect the tone of the post. A coordinated effort by TikTok users and K-pop fans likely helped inflate expectations for President Trump's rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The effort was not coordinated by the Democratic Party.