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Why Trump’s Tulsa Rally Fail Was More Than a “Prank”

TOPSHOT - The upper section is seen partially empty as US President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the BOK Center on June 20, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. - Hundreds of supporters lined up early for Donald Trump's first political rally in months, saying the risk of contracting COVID-19 in a big, packed arena would not keep them from hearing the president's campaign message. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

“How K-Pop and TikTok trolled a president” is certainly not the narrative the media thought they would be covering in the days following Donald Trump’s first rally after COVID-19 shut down the country. We expected to be talking in horror about the tens of thousands of fools who risked their lives and other’s wellbeing to listen to a maniac tell lies for an hour. And 6,200 people still did that, but the massive failure of the rally and how it happened is what we didn’t expect.

But maybe we should have. The announcement that the rally would allow digital registration in hindsight seems like a rallying cry for the Very Online kids that have used hashtags and other digital strategies for weeks to disrupt white supremacists and help in the fight for racial justice. These “zoomers” are more plugged into TikTok, YouTube, and Twitter than most political strategists can even comprehend. They have grown up with The Algorithm and know very well not only how to manipulate it, but how to change a narrative. This shouldn’t be surprising though, because if you understand fandom and online cultures, you understand that fandom and activism often go hand in hand.

K-Pop fandom specifically has a long history with activism, with groups and idols over that past decades encouraging their ardent devotees to give to charity and do good instead of sending them personal gifts. But they’re not the only ones; fandoms from Schitt’s Creek to Supernatural can point to life-changing and massive charity drives as part of their fandom activities, and the way that these fandoms often interconnect means that these networks for good can all activate and rush into battle when a movement starts within one.

That’s in part what happened with the mass sign-up for the Trump rally. It wasn’t just K-Pop fans and it wasn’t just teens, though they seem to have been the leaders, it was people from across the internet that activated together in a way that isn’t necessarily new for fandom, but is certainly finding a very specific and very successful method of online activism now, thanks to how good the zoomers are at this new kind of digital warfare.

The K-Pop and TikTok kids already had honed their online skills in order to boost their idols (remember the “canceled” hashtags just a few months ago that were filled with K-Pop fan cams?), and they transferred this skill into activism. And as this continued to be successful, we’ve seen activism basically become a part of fandom. Again, this isn’t new or specific to K-Pop, but the success and mainstream notice of it is. Now doing online guerilla warfare against racists is as much a fandom activity as writing fic or listening to an idol’s songs. The consequences of that are huge and go way beyond a “prank.”

Yes, it wasn’t just the kids that made this a failure. Pundits and analysts have been quick to point out that the factors in the failure are more complex that “K-Pop kidz trolled Trump.” There were myriad reasons no one showed up: fear of the virus and distaste for the President high among them.

But what the online folks did wasn’t just about the attendance, it was also about data, and despite the campaign’s claims that they root out “fake” sign-ups, the massive amount of fake registrations has probably completely screwed with the campaign’s data gathering. As this great Twitter thread explains, campaigns run on data for fundraising and these darn kids absolutely ruined that pool of vital information.

What these teens, many of whom probably can’t even vote yet, did with the online activism is hurt the campaign, and perhaps most importantly, further hurt the perception of the President. This narrative that emerged from Tulsa was about the story and the perception, which for Donald Trump, is often all that matters. And Trump, after promising massive, unprecedented crowds, couldn’t even fill an arena that had once sold out to an appearance by The Wiggles.

These kids didn’t just inflate these numbers, they massively and hugely embarrassed Donald Trump. After days of his campaign aids crowing about the huge attendance they expected, to then only have 6,200 people out of RSVPs of hundreds of thousands? Humiliating. And if there’s one thing that an egomaniac like Donald Trump hates, it’s humiliation.

And he truly was humiliated and furious, according to The New York Times: “The president, who had been warned aboard Air Force One that the crowds at the arena were smaller than expected, was stunned, and he yelled at aides backstage while looking at the endless rows of empty blue seats in the upper bowl of the stadium, according to four people familiar with what took place.”

After the rally, Trump trudged back to the White House, tie hanging limp and MAGA hat crumpled. He had been faced with a real failure, right before his eyes. Proof that not even he could change reality and reset the narrative. He couldn’t just make Coronavirus be over. He couldn’t just lie about the polls. This could the actual “emperor has no clothes” moment that we’ve been waiting five years for.

What will this mean going forward? We obviously don’t know, but it’s put a kernel of suspicion and fear into the minds of even the most ardent Trumpers, and Trump himself. The data can’t be trusted. The Trump claims that the pandemic is essentially over and that things can go back to normal aren’t selling. The emperor not only is stark naked, he has nowhere to hide.

What happened this weekend was supposed to be a point where Trump turned the narrative back in his favor and moved the attention away from the activists and change that have controlled the news cycle for months. But what really happened was instead of taking the attention away from the K-Pop teens for his failures, those things all combined to add one more line to an endless line of failures that we can only hope will keep going until November.

(via Washington Post, image: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

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Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.