JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – Mike McMullen showed up here last week for his third Donald Trump “Make America Great Again” rally of the year in what he called his “build the wall suit.”
The tan brick pattern, complete with mortar lines separating the bricks, adorned every part of his outfit, from his jacket and pants to his tie. He said he had worn the suit to every rally, and it had gotten him the attention he’d sought, even from the man for whom he’s worn it.
“I wore the build the wall suit and [Trump] was the one that pointed me out, saying to stand up,” said McMullen of Pittsburgh. “When everybody turns around and looks at you, you know you’re doing something right.”
The atmosphere at the Trump rally at John Murtha Johnstown—Cambria County Airport in western Pennsylvania, 72 miles east of Pittsburgh, on this unseasonably warm and sunny fall day, sizzled with crowds of mask-less people like McMullen. Many drove long distances, some even flew in, and seemingly everyone was willing to come no matter the distance to stand in line for hours to see the president.
A child dressed in a Trump costume, including a full, dark suit, long red tie, and golden wig, sat on the shoulders of his mother who danced around the rally to show off her ingenuity.
Glittery red white and blue vests and hats flashed through the crowd while others wore Trump flags as capes. All articles of clothing one can imagine, from ear warmers and leggings to cowboy hats, wig visors and even yarmulkes, were printed with the MAGA slogan.
There were baseball caps: “Hunters for Trump” and “Women for Trump.” There were T-shirts: “No More Bullshit” and “I Have PTSD … Pretty Tired of Stupid Democrats.” There were buttons: “Veterans for Trump” and “Lawyers for Trump.”
There was one other curious piece of apparel present –Trump masks, an obvious acknowledgment to the COVID-19 pandemic, although maybe only a third of the people were wearing them. (Everyone who passed through the entrance gate had to have his or her temperature taken.)
As McMullen, the wall-suited guy said, “This is what the fake news doesn’t talk about. You go to a Biden rally and there are 30 people there and they are social distanced. Do you see any people here wearing masks? Hell no.”
The scene was electric – a combination of football tailgate, evangelical service and pep rally, with friendly people and lots of smiles.
Unofficial crowd estimates ranged from 3,000 to 10,000, with people saying they showed up to rally for issues they believed in. Some supported Trump’s anti-abortion agenda and his kept campaign promise to nominate conservative judges to the bench. Others said his economic policies would revive the country. Some were there to support gun rights, and others wanted to show their anti-Washington and anti-left leanings.
Most of all, people were there to participate in the energy of the rally, with many describing it as “patriotic” and “exhilarating.”
Even six hours before the official 7 p.m. start, a giant screen blared pro-Trump ads and interviews. Roars of “Four more years!” erupted.
When a pickup truck with a large Joe Biden sign in its bed drove by to taunt the crowd, there were boos and occasional middle fingers.
There were babies who could barely walk to the elderly in wheelchairs who could no longer walk.
When Air Force One landed shortly after the appointed starting time, the packed-in spectators, immediately broke into cheers. People tossed their kids up in the air and put them on their shoulders, others waved their signs frantically, and phone cameras started to flash. Beefy security guards yelled at supporters to stop standing on their chairs, but no one seemed to care as they chanted “U-S-A! U-S-A!” to greet Trump.
The president emerged from the plane, walked to the podium in front of bleachers, and within the first 10 minutes of his speech, unleashed an assortment of issues that pleased the crowd – China, how he doesn’t “play by the rules of Washington,” left-wing extremists, Amy Coney Barrett, and Biden’s mental health.
“He has no idea what he’s saying,” Trump said of his Democratic opponent. “How the hell do you lose to a guy like this? Is this possible?”
He talked about the “fake news media” – to which the crowd burst into an angry “CNN sucks!” chant.
Trump spoke for an hour without looking at notes, just staring ahead at the audience in front of him and occasionally turning around to the crowds in the bleachers behind him.
He used the same topics over and over, such as fracking, a huge issue in this part of the state, which produces jobs and paychecks. He brought up Amy Coney Barrett again – his nominee for the Supreme Court. He criticized Biden and Nancy Pelosi and others with whom he’s feuded.
Trump’s speech might have seemed disjointed, but he delivered what the people were looking for. It was clear from the whoops of support that punctuated the evening.
About four minutes of closing remarks included his plan to send an astronaut to Mars, and his suggestion that there were people who want to take down George Washington’s statue. He praised the hard workers of Pennsylvania, and he denounced Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor, Tom Wolf.
And, of course, he concluded his remarks with a booming promise to “Make America Great Again!” –and then danced to the song “YMCA” to end the night.
While polls would indicate that many in America are questioning Trump’s handling of the presidency, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic, it was impossible to find anyone who would blame Trump in this crowd.
Dee Hoffman from nearby Windber, like many others, put the blame on Democratic governors.
“When people say that he let COVID go rampant, I don’t believe that,” Hoffman said. “It’s been down to the governors who have made poor decisions, not him.”
In the midst of a pandemic-led economic recession, which has resulted in millions of job losses and business shutdowns, the crowd here said Trump has done nothing but improve the economy.
Jesse Ickes, a small business owner from Altoona, was particularly enthused about Trump’s tax cuts, which he said, cut corporate tax rates and also lowered individual rates for most middle-class Americans.
“If you want people to achieve financial success in America, there has to be a system that allows business and enterprise, that when they do make money, that they’re not pounded and beaten over the head for … doing that,” Ickes said
Many supporters carried anti-abortion signs. Tom Venditti was dressed in a white gown that had a picture of the Virgin Mary on the front. He stood next to a 5-foot tall poster of Jesus that read “Confirm Amy, Abortion Kills His Children,” greeting people at the entrance to the rally.
Venditti said he has been to 20 Trump rallies in the last few years and is extremely excited about Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court.
“Women need a voice, and she is everything we admire in women,” Venditti said. “And even though there are all these horrible circumstances that people find themselves in, there are other alternatives than abortion.”
In other interviews, many people brought up foreign policy as an important issue. Supporters defended Russia while condemning China.
One curious group made up of over 100 people were particularly heated about China. They weren’t even U.S. citizens. They came from Japan, carrying signs that said “Japanese for Trump.” Hardly anyone in the group spoke English. A few who did said they flew to Pennsylvania within a week before the rally to support Trump.
Daichi Kubo, who flew in from Japan the day before the rally, said, “The Chinese are invading Japan,” and “only Trump can win the Chinese government.”
And while Kubo said he doesn’t live here and cannot vote, he added, “We want the Second Amendment and we need guns.”
Thirty years ago, Johnstown was a Democratic city in the heart of a Democratic region of coal mines and steel mills, which even locals described as “deep, deep blue.” But Trump won Cambria County in 2016 by an overwhelming majority, 67% to 30%. Almost every single house on roads leading to the Murtha airport had different versions of Trump signs on their front lawns.
As she was waiting in line to enter the rally, Johnstown resident Lindsay Carpenter sat on a blanket with a friend and three kids, keeping busy with a card game. She said the rally wasn’t going to change their votes because they already know what Trump is about from the past four years.
She cited her deep religious faith as a reason not to worry about the future.
“We know who’s in control – Jesus,” she said. “That’s our lord and savior and we know whatever happens is in his hand.”
Carpenter said she brought the kids for the experience, but her daughter Bella admitted that she had something a little different in mind.
“I wanted to come to play with Maya and Alexa,” she said about her friends.
And then, after a pause, she added, “And to see Trump.”