Onscreen, the Trump Campaign Ramps Up, and Down

When he took the stage Saturday night in Tulsa, Okla., it had been more than three months since President Trump had held one of his treasured campaign rallies. But they say giving a rally speech is like walking down a gently inclined ramp: It’s incredibly treacherous and harrowing, but after what seems like an endless amount of time, you eventually reach bottom.

The rally capped a week that began with a shaky appearance at West Point and also included a Father’s Day-themed interview with the president’s oldest son, intended to tell the trouble-beset president’s base that daddy was coming home.

But the welcome wagon was underpopulated. The sea of red hats in the lower reaches of the arena was crested by a blue wave of empty seats in the upper deck. Outside, workers dutifully cleared an empty stage for an “overflow rally” that had no overflow to rally.

The president aimed to fill the empty space, and spur a sometimes listless crowd, with provocations and racist imagery. He pushed blame for the coronavirus’s ravages on China, using the nickname “Kung Flu.” He called police-brutality protesters “thugs” and painted a picture of a “tough hombre” climbing through a young woman’s window. He said that he told his staff, “Slow the testing down, please!” in response to the number of Covid-19 cases reported. (A White House official contended that the president was joking, about a pandemic that had killed almost 120,000 Americans.)

The bizarre crescendo of the speech was a nearly 15-minute stand-up monologue, complete with re-enactments, of the much-dissected incident at a West Point commencement ceremony when the president had difficulty walking down a modest ramp and needed two hands to drink a glass of water.

In Mr. Trump’s epic retelling, walking at a slight downward angle became an ordeal to rival the D-Day invasion scene in “Saving Private Ryan.” The ramp was like a medieval death trap — solid steel, without a handrail, “like an ice-skating rink!” The sun (remember, it is a molten ball of flame ignited by nuclear fusion!) beat down on him mercilessly. The commencement dragged on for hours. He saluted hundreds of cadets, in defiance of the natural limitations on the human arm.

Then he valorously shuffled down the incline (Mr. Trump mimed the walk for the Tulsa crowd), staying upright and denying a fall, and thus a victory, to the true enemy, the fake news media.

At the end of the bit, Mr. Trump raised a glass of water — a substance so dense and heavy that human bodies can float on it unsupported — and lifted it to his lip using a single hand, as the crowd chanted, “Four more years!”

You take your wins where you can get them. Fox News, which carried the president’s speech in full, offered an assist with chyrons like “Trump Debunks West Point Ramp Fake News.” (The conservative One America News Network, Fox’s rival for the president’s affections, carried the vice president’s speech as well.)

But there were undeniable stretches of, as someone might put it, low energy. Despite Mr. Trump’s prodding, the crowd couldn’t work up the bloodlust for his opponent, Joseph R. Biden Jr., that his throngs reliably did (and still do) for Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump gave his speech a merely “average” grade midway through. And even Fox couldn’t keep the empty seats entirely out of frame, though its host Jesse Watters described the arena as “packed.”

Mr. Trump’s defenders might say that focusing on the empty seats is one more example of the fake news doing anything to tear the president down. But the campaign had touted its attendance expectations, possibly inflated by online protesters flooding the campaign with spoof registrations. And the video junkie and former “Apprentice” star is nothing if not a televisual thinker. (At one point in the speech he marveled at the number of TVs on Air Force One.)

Those rafters were supposed to be jammed, and it was supposed to be on TV, and that was supposed to say something. It would say his people were back; that he was back. That neither a protest movement nor a virus could stop the MAGA. That Mr. Trump had said that it was safe to get together again amid the pandemic (despite the liability waiver his campaign had attendees sign), and Team Trump listened.

Instead the conspicuous absences sent the visual message that some portion of his base, when it came time to actually trust-walk across the hot coals, was not entirely buying the panacea he was selling.

For a president who has rarely tried to expand beyond that aggrieved fan base — the “our” in his line “they’re trying to take down our statues” — the sale must go on. Mr. Trump extended his video outreach Thursday by pivoting toward his original base — his family — and appearing on his son Donald Trump Jr.’s YouTube show, “Triggered.”

The Trump child who has most vigorously embraced partisan politics, Donald Trump Jr. has carved out a niche as a less-subtle version, if that were possible, of his culture-warring father. His media persona — baiting, trolling, meme-sharing — could roughly be described as a human “laughing while crying” emoji.

That extends especially to “Triggered,” right down to its title, shared with a book by the younger Mr. Trump: a catchphrase of the extremely-online right, celebrating the idea that honesty and righteousness can be measured by how much you make people unhappy.

“Triggered,” whose credits normally include images of a melting snowflake and cheering MAGA fans, shifted to black-and-white stills, a “West Wing”-like musical theme and the show title blazing across the image of president and son, along with what I suppose qualifies, by “Triggered” standards, as a tasteful fireball.

It was the Trump aesthetic in perfect miniature: part luxury-hotel ad, part ’80s action-movie explosion.

The interview was light on policy, fitting Trump Jr.’s interest in cultural proxy wars. He asked the president about the New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees’ “cowering to the mob” by apologizing for calling police-brutality protests before N.F.L. games “disrespectful.” (“I think he hurt himself very badly,” said the president, who inflamed the argument when he cursed out kneeling football players at a rally in 2017.)

There’s a theme, in Trump-campaign content, of presenting the presidency to superfans as a kind of reality-TV family business — a White House “Duck Dynasty,” with favorite supporting characters to choose from. (The president’s daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, also hosts a show on the campaign’s online platform; his son Eric appeared at the Tulsa rally, where he referred to protesters as “animals literally taking over our cities.”)

So the “Triggered” episode was billed as “a Father’s Day special.” But the attempts to keep the interview light and fun created some of the most awkward filial moments since Kendall Roy rapped “L to the OG” to his father, Logan, on HBO’s “Succession.” The younger Mr. Trump introduced the first question — “Which is your favorite Trump child, and why is it Ivanka?”—with an apologetic preamble: “We want to show a little bit of humor.”

Perhaps he didn’t want his guest to be triggered. The president endured the attempts at playfulness like the guest at a surprise party he did not want. Mr. Trump’s lip-sync impersonator, Sarah Cooper, captured the pathos of the sit-down on Twitter:

Whereas in Tulsa, for all the disjointedness and disappointments, Mr. Trump seemed more comfortable with his surrogate MAGA family — even in an arena half-filled with strangers, where he briefly entertained the possibility of losing the November election — than with his actual eldest son. Be it ever more humble than in 2016, there’s no place like home.