With the Village People’s “YMCA” blasting, President Donald Trump pumped his fist, danced a bit, and waved to a big crowd of red-clad backers at the Johnstown airport.
The Tuesday night show was impressive indeed, with a gathering of thousands – Trump’s folks could not say exactly how many, but estimates were as high as 10,000 – against the backdrop of Air Force One in what could only be compared to a football pep rally with a rival game on the schedule.
Which, I suppose, this was.
As an editor friend of mine from the South said: Most politicians have supporters, but Trump has fans.
After seeing a much more subdued gathering featuring Democratic challenger Joe Biden at the Johnstown Train Station two weeks earlier, some observations:
• Trump is winning the optics battle. His campaign stops are well orchestrated shows, with people lining up for hours to join the party.
• The Republicans seem to be leading in passion, as well.
An enthusiastic bunch, their energetic gatherings offer a range of emotions from anger to euphoria.
They chanted “Four more years!” and then “CNN sucks!”
All that was missing was an elephant mascot doing push-ups – well, and few thousand protective masks.
The Biden campaign has been taking a more somber approach, citing concerns about the pandemic – even before Trump, his family and half of his White House staff tested positive for COVID-19.
You’ll recall that Biden rally-goers arrived by car in small groups – not crammed into Galleria shuttle buses like their Republican counterparts. They remained socially distant during the former vice president’s speech, sitting on their vehicles or huddled nearby.
Indeed, for the Biden campaign, rhetoric about the coronavirus is the key to this election – above the economy, law enforcement and race relations, Trump’s taxes, Biden’s son’s dealings in Ukraine, the president’s cozy relationship with North Korea and Russia, Biden’s dodgeball game concerning expanding the Supreme Court and anything else.
Every time Trump says he feels great – that he’s “immune” to COVID-19 – the Biden folks pull on their masks and recount the statistics: more than 215,000 Americans dead.
That’s despite the president’s assertions on Tuesday that his team is “delivering a safe vaccine and a rapid recovery,” and that he personally feels fit as a fiddle.
Of course, it was another divisive leader – Roman Emperor Nero – who fiddled while his own country burned.
• • •
In addition to the pomp and circumstance, Trump’s rallies feature an ironic mix of pop music designed to fire up the crowd – as long as you don’t really pay attention to the lyrics.
On Tuesday, guests were treated several times to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” – a salute to the benefits of wealth as the poor get shipped off to war. (What are they thinking?)
The titles “Beat It” and “Bye, Bye, Bye” might prompt unintended interpretations, as could the theme from the movie “Titanic” – all of which were blasted at the airport.
Trump proclaimed that his campaign is not a sinking ship, despite slumping in the polls (remember how wrong the polls were in 2016.).
An alert reader pointed out the next day that a national media outlet mistakenly said Trump was speaking in “Jonestown.”
I wasn’t offered any Kool-Aid on Tuesday. I just stuck with bottled water.
But the scene was reminiscent of a gathering at the War Memorial arena in October 2016, when presidential contender Trump – down in the ratings and written off by many – addressed another big, enthusiastic Johnstown crowd with his well-rehearsed name-calling, big-promises, “fake news” schtick.
The optics that night told me not to bet the farm on his opponent, despite the polls. A few weeks later, Trump was elected president.
Surely that couldn’t happen again, in the middle of a relentless deadly pandemic?