With more than 50,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 1,400 deaths, Arizona has become the newest hot spot for the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
But inside the Dream City Church in Phoenix, where thousands of young conservatives packed shoulder to shoulder on Tuesday afternoon for President Donald Trump’s second in-person rally since March, the message from the president and his supporters on the pandemic could not have been more triumphant.
“The long, slow surrender is over,” Trump told the cheering crowd of roughly 2,900 supporters, most of them college-aged. “We are going to be stronger than ever before, and it’s gonna be soon.”
In the president’s two-hour remarks at the “Students for Trump” event and those of the Republican politicians and officials who introduced him—and in the mood of those assembled with nary a mask to be seen—the threat of the novel coronavirus that has claimed more than 120,000 American lives was downplayed both explicitly and implicitly, when it was even mentioned at all.
“It’s the red states leading the way!” crowed Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), arguing that the pandemic had set Democrats into “totalitarian mode” and that the disastrous reopening of states like Florida had actually led to “great results.”
“The bias in the media and the vast disservice that they do to the public” is the real threat, argued Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, home of a cluster of coronavirus outbreaks in meat plants that have infected hundreds of workers. Noem was introduced by Students for Trump co-founder Ryan Fournier as someone who “wasn’t gonna trample on the liberty” in the name of public health.
Trump avoided mentioning the pandemic almost entirely in his address, only making glancing references to the state of the nation’s economy “before the plague set in.”
“We were doing the greatest… the greatest of everything,” Trump said, adding that Democrats are “trying to do their best to keep the country shut down and closed.”
Otherwise, the pandemic was noted only in relation to other policy priorities, from immigration to limiting access to mail-in ballots for the November general election. At the end of a long aside about the success of his newly autographed wall along the U.S. southern border, for example, Trump noted that the barrier would keep out “immigrants with COVID”—or, he added to cheers, whatever you might want to call the virus.
“Wuhan. Coronavirus. Kung Flu,” Trump said, repeating his use of a racial slur that White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway called “highly offensive” in March. “Some people call it the Chinese Flu. The China Flu.”
Trump later returned to the pandemic a few more times during the address—once to accuse journalists of using the nation’s record number of infections “to make us look bad,” and again to to undermine efforts to expand mail-in voting in the name of public health—but each time ended with promises that the crisis was very nearly over.
“Your selfless sacrifice has saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Trump told the maskless crowd, promising that while a vaccine for the coronavirus was coming “very soon,” governors in affected states have “gotta get it open. People need it. You know, people get sick from the other, also.”
But judging by the dearth of face masks in the Dream City Church—the pastors of which falsely claimed earlier this week that they had installed a COVID-19-killing air filtration system—that era of selfless sacrifice was over, even as Arizona reported a record 3,591 new cases on Tuesday, its highest one-day total yet.
Although the Phoenix City Council ordered that a citywide mask order go into immediate effect, the city’s Democratic mayor announced that she would not enforce the policy during the rally, leaving it up to Trump to encourage his supporters to wear face coverings while in a confined public space.
“The best spokesman would be the president,” Mayor Kate Gallego said on CNN on Sunday. “If he told everyone at that rally it was important to wear masks, I believe they would do it.”
The president, who has expressed a personal distaste for the masks recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did no such thing, and only a smattering of attendees could be seen wearing any kind of face covering.
State Democrats, as well as Trump’s general election opponent, slammed Trump’s in-person visit to one of the worst-hit states a public health nightmare in the making.
“No true leader puts a re-election campaign above saving Americans’ lives,” said Arizona Democratic Party Chair Felecia Rotellini, who pointed out that the number of young Arizonans being diagnosed with COVID-19 has spiked dramatically. “Trump’s visit today is just the latest reminder that he has repeatedly failed Arizonans and our country, creating more crises and solving none of the problems he promised to fix.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently polling neck-and-neck in Arizona against Trump, called Trump’s decision to hold a rally in the midst of a major statewide outbreak “reckless and irresponsible.”
“This disease is rearing its head in Arizona again and families are hurting,” Biden said in comments before Trump’s speech. “Arizonans deserve a president who will rise to the moment amid the challenges we face today.”