SALFORDVILLE, Pennsylvania — The look of President Donald Trump’s campaign trail is changing.
Goodbye, stadium-sized rallies (for now). There’s a pandemic, and the president just isn’t into half-filled venues where people are forced to social-distance because of the coronavirus.
“Oh, that’ll look great,” Trump said on Fox Sports this week about speaking in an arena with empty seats. ”You know, you have one person and everything’s fake empty around them. Can’t do that.”
Instead, the president’s son Eric Trump and his daughter-in-law Lara Trump are leading their own crusade of surrogates on nationwide tours in big luxury buses — one red, the other pink.
The tour, first launched in July, comes after Trump was widely criticized for trying to relaunch his large-scale rallies in Tulsa, Oklahoma. At the time, thousands of unmasked supporters gathered at the BOK Center during a pandemic when the state was experiencing an uptick in cases despite local health officials having warned against holding the rally. He hasn't held another rally since, after an aborted attempt in New Hampshire.
BuzzFeed News caught up with the pink Women for Trump bus Monday in the parking lot of the Upper Salford Volunteer Fire Company, which rented out the space despite a disclaimer on Facebook that said “the fire company does not support or condone” the campaign event.
A big pink bus was parked as the backdrop of a stand-alone podium flanked by the American and Pennsylvania flags. Before it, rows of seats were set up just inches apart from one another, while No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” and the Rolling Stones’s “Sympathy for the Devil” blasted in the background.
The event started just before 2:30 p.m., after a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Even with a small crowd, the president’s supporters came draped in Trump gear, wearing anything from “TRUMP 2020” masks to rhinestone brooches that said “I 🖤TRUMP.”
The event brought more than 100 people to Salfordville, a small township in southeast Pennsylvania where “nothing ever happens,” according to Greg Wagner, a Trump supporter who lives nearby and told BuzzFeed News, “This is the biggest thing ever.”
It’s a sign of the times: Locals gathering in their hometown to hear the messaging for the next four years, instead of packing into more distant stadiums to see Trump himself. It’s a kind of throwback to what things used to look like before mega convention-level stumping. Only this time, the scene was punctuated with middle-age and senior masked supporters who sometimes forgot to lift their face-coverings above their chins.
The crowd of mostly women gathered in 90-degree heat to get a glimpse of the celebrities associated with Trump and his entourage. At one point, the emcee referred to the three surrogates — Lara Trump and senior campaign advisers Katrina Pierson and Mercedes Schlapp, who are headlining the 85-day Women for Trump bus tour — as “stars.”
“I follow Lara Trump on social media and I think she just seems really great, so I wanted to see her,” one Trump supporter at the event told BuzzFeed News.
While the president isn’t on the tour, his stand-ins are pushing his policy and persona.
“Remember, everyone used to love Donald Trump,” Lara Trump reminded the audience. “The star of The Apprentice, he was a businessman, truly an entrepreneur — truly, really the embodiment of the American dream.”
“I think he knew he was the only person that could do what needed to be done to save this country,” Lara Trump said to a cheering audience. “That’s why he ran for president.”
There was also the usual framing denigrating the “fake news” media, referencing Joe Biden’s basement, and even the “perfectly acceptable phone call” with the Ukrainian president that led to Trump’s impeachment. All of it served as a precursor to the central messaging of “keep America America,” which seemed to resonate with the audience.
“The speakers were right to the point and they really spoke about what we were interested in, which was the economy and bringing our nation back to its foundations, you know, back to God,” Joanne Kunz, a Trump supporter, told BuzzFeed News.
Kunz joined her two sisters, all of whom are from the area. Each of them had positive feedback about the new world of campaigning during a pandemic. Although, one sister, Carolyn Stenger, thought that it was “a little extreme” that the campaign was mandating mask-wearing outdoors, especially for seniors.
“I thought it was really unsafe because you have older people, too, that can’t stand the heat,” she said. “Other than that it was great.”
For Irene Matlock, there was no question she’d come to show her support. After all, she said the president is “saving us,” and to her, Trump represents “optimism and hope.” The North Hampton resident said she is using the same positive approach in dealing with the coronavirus.
“As I tell everyone I know: Fear not. Trust God. Wash your hands. Don't lick doorknobs. We're gonna be fine. All is well. God bless. Have a good day.”
Matlock’s only point of contention was the Trump campaign sign vandalism she’s experienced in her hometown about an hour away. “If you think stealing a sign is going to change my vote...I don't get it.”
Salfordville is the kind of area the Trump campaign is trying to mobilize to secure Pennsylvania by at least the slim victory he had in the state in 2016. The president has been courting suburban communities for weeks and recently overturned an Obama-era rule intended to curb housing discrimination, but has instead been repackaged by the White House, which claims that Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Act would lead to the “destruction” of the suburbs.
Suburban women are a key voting bloc especially in this election, made clear by the location of the bus tour stops, recent executive orders, and occasional Twitter shoutouts from the president to “suburban housewives.”
The smaller crowd did not, however, deter protesters. Before the event started, a handful of protesters that lined the entranceway of the firehouse grew to about two dozen. Cars along Old Skippack Road showed their support for either Trump supporters or the protesters by honking or giving a thumbs down.
One protester drove by, stopped short, and just pointed to four or five Trump supporters. It was unclear on what side she leaned but for the sign affixed, with clear tape, to her back window that read “Grandmothers SAY NO (to TRUMP).”
It was an unusual amount of attention for the small town, which became obvious when the local sheriff’s office showed up to ask attendees to avoid stepping on people’s lawns. Trump supporters waved big flags but were dwarfed by the number of protesters, most of whom carried the usual anti-Trump signage, criticizing his response to the coronavirus. Some marked the occasion specifically with signs that read “Lara, Blink Twice for Help.”
There was less fanfare around the next destination, seemingly by design. For the next stop in Lancaster, only one local media outlet, which had been previously granted an exclusive interview, was on site. The stop was not listed on the campaign’s advisory, and BuzzFeed News was not allowed into the Republican Committee of Lancaster County’s headquarters, where the surrogates were scheduled to meet with phone bankers.
BuzzFeed News was able to talk to Schlapp on her way in about what it looks like to campaign during a pandemic.
“For us, we’re obviously following the COVID guidelines,” she told BuzzFeed News. “But we want to be able to talk to these volunteers and these people who are sacrificing their time and making sure that the president gets reelected.
“Virtual events won’t get you too far,” she added. “Being in person is critical.”