President Donald Trump's push to resume big rallies despite concern he's putting the public's health at risk is part of a broader reelection campaign effort to turn the national debate about the coronavirus into a political fight that he frames as "US vs. THEM."
"They hate me. They hate you. They hate rallies and it's all because they hate the idea of MAKING AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!" Trump said in a recent fundraising email.
Those who raise concerns about the health risks of packing in tens of thousands for his Saturday rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Trump says, are trying to "COVID-SHAME" his supporters for events that will draw fewer people than the throngs that turned out for outdoor protests after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Trump went so far as to complain in a Wall Street Journal interview this week that some Americans wore facial coverings not as a preventive measure but as a way to signal disapproval of him.
The president appears to be calculating that he can ignite resentment toward "the other" and inspire his base to turn out for him in November, said Christopher Borick, director of the nonpartisan Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
"The frame of us-versus-them -- the other -- has been a consummate rhetorical tool for the president throughout his time in office and before as a candidate," Borick said.
He cited earlier Trump attacks against people living in the country illegally and against "American carnage" in U.S. cities as examples of divisive language from the presidential bully pulpit.
"It's the tried-and-true device that he repeatedly goes back to." White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway on Thursday resurrected a divisive 2016 campaign line - Democrat Hillary Clinton's dismissive reference to some Trump supporters as a "basket of deplorables" that underscored the Trump team's effort to turn mask-wearing into a political issue.
"We can't pick and choose who can be where, wearing a mask or not, based on our politics, based on whether some people think that folks are irredeemable and deplorable," she told Fox News.
"They have the same rights as anybody else to peacefully assemble ... under our Constitution." Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor and Trump supporter, said it was disheartening that the virus has turned into a "Red team vs. Blue team" issue.
But he said that Trump is clear-eyed that if the economy isn't "roaring by October," his reelection hopes are dim. The president's push to get back to normal, including campaigning, reflects that political reality.
But the reality of the threat from the pandemic is quite different. Epidemiologists are increasingly concerned about spikes in infections that suggest the virus is still spreading.
Arizona, Florida, California, South Carolina and Texas all reported record-high single-day increases in coronavirus cases on Thursday.
Oklahoma on Wednesday recorded its highest number of new COVID-19 cases for a single day with 259 cases. Tulsa County, where Trump will hold his rally at a 19,000 seat arena, has displaced Oklahoma County as the state's leading COVID-19 hot spot with 1,825 cases.
Administration officials have echoed the president, pillorying Democratic critics and the media as alarmist.
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany complained that the media have set a double standard. She said little concern was raised about the spread of COVID-19 as demonstrators took to the streets to demand changes in policing.
Economic adviser Larry Kudlow said the spikes in some states were "small bumps" and he argued that increased testing had accounted for the surge in positive cases.
Vice President Mike Pence, who early in the crisis took a decidedly more cautious tone as Trump chafed against public health expert recommendations, dismissed concerns about a second wave of the virus as "overblown."
Nadia Abuelezam, a Boston College epidemiologist, said she worried that rhetoric that turns mask-wearing into a politically fraught action could lead to more deaths and infections.
"When we're talking about empowering people to protect themselves and to protect others, incorporating politics muddles the education piece at a time when some people might not fully understand why masks work in the first place," Abuelezam said.