Moments before he took centre stage in Tulsa for the rally meant to mark the unofficial launch of his 2020 reelection campaign, US President Donald Trump gazed out from behind the curtains in disbelief: Where he had expected to see supporters packed to the rafters, there was a sea of empty blue chairs. The president "gazed at the empty Bank of Oklahoma Center in horror," according to the New York Times.
In the run-up to the event, campaign staffers had boasted about receiving 1 million RSVPs, and local officials had pegged the estimated attendance at 100,000. But hours before the rally was set to begin, aides aboard Air Force One briefed a “stunned” Trump on the news that turnout was far lower than anticipated, multiple sources with knowledge of the conversation told the New York Times. A second, outdoor rally that Trump and US Vice President Mike Pence were slated to speak at was eventually scrapped due to low attendance.
Days after the flopped event, it remains unclear what actually led to the low turnout, although a group of Trump advisers acknowledged to the Times that fears over the spread of the coronavirus in an indoor space likely played a role. But as aides rush to explain away the low turnout as a fluke, hundreds of teenagers on TikTok and many fans of Korean pop music are taking credit for the modest crowd size, claiming that it was the result of an elaborately staged prank designed to feign high demand for tickets.
In dozens of videos posted in the weeks leading up to the event, TikTok users encouraged viewers to register online for the free event in the hopes of derailing the eventual turnout numbers. Although the platform is more widely associated with dance challenges and memes, many of the TikTok-using cohort are members of Gen Z, the generation that prides itself for its nihilism, left-leaning politics and love of dumb pranks — especially at the highest level.
Many sectors of K-pop fans are similarly prone to activism: earlier this month, groups mobilised en masse in defence of Black Lives Matter, flooding police tip lines with requests for footage of “illegal activity” by protesters, racist hashtags, and “fancam” videos in order to distract from those who would seek to weaken the movement. Fans also mobilised to match BTS's USD $1 million donation to Black Lives Matter in less than 24 hours, showing the capability of their massive audience.
But Team Trump denies the insinuation that Tiktok's Gen Z or K-pop's hard leftist could be responsible for derailing this large of a rally. In a statement, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale — who organised the event, and who advisers told the Times the inflated original campaign numbers could most likely be attributed to — blamed the “fake news media” and overblown concerns about coronavirus for the low turnout.
“Leftists and online trolls doing a victory lap, thinking they somehow impacted rally attendance don’t know what they’re talking about or how our rallies work,” Parscale said. “Registering for a rally means you’ve RSVP’d with a cellphone number and we constantly weed out bogus numbers, as we did with tens of thousands at the Tulsa rally, in calculating our possible attendee pool.”
Regardless of which factors were responsible for the low turnout, the flubbed campaign relaunch seems to have spurred a reckoning within the Trump camp as poll numbers continue to suggest that Trump is lagging behind presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in popularity.
And while the event had been planned, in part, to demonstrate a high demand for more public appearances by the president, White House advisers told the Times that the rally was ultimately an optics “disaster” and an “unforced error” that will disincentivize the campaign from holding future events this summer. So, as it turns out, Gen Z and K-pop stans might just save us all yet.