HERSHEY, Pennsylvania — In the brutal cold outside Giant Center, a line wraps around the stadium, thousands of people long. It’s Dec. 15, and 15 degrees out, so cold that mothers are wrapping scarves and blankets around their children’s heads, and babies are being swaddled tight. People bunch together in line for body heat, and bounce up and down on their frozen feet to stay moving. A man nearby mutters just loud enough for a few to hear, “Sure would love some of that global warming they’re talking about.” Everyone laughs, one woman nearly toppling over at the hilarity of it.
It’s only 4 p.m., and President-elect Donald Trump is set to take the stage around 7 p.m. for the latest stop in his national Thank You Tour. Pennsylvania had been a Democratic stronghold for decades, until Trump won the state with just over 48% of the vote in November’s election. (Hillary Clinton, however, ended up winning in Hershey’s Dauphin County.) But you wouldn’t know that, judging by the 9,000 or so people willing to wait an hour and a half in the cold to see their new president-elect.
Most of the people in attendance are, somewhat predictably, white, and most of them claim that nearly their entire families and towns vote Republican routinely. (In 2016, just over 86,000 registered Democrats in Pennsylvania switched to Republican.) Trump voters in Hershey know that they’re unhappy with the current state of the country, and they know that Trump will fix it for them, but during my interviews that day, both before and after Trump spoke, it was hard to find a Trump supporter who could nail down the specifics of when the President-elect plans on doing something, and how it might happen. What they knew for sure was that he’s the man to trust.
More millennial and Gen-X Americans are eligible to vote than ever before, and while this doesn’t necessarily mean that more of them are voting, it does suggest that these generations could turn the tide of future elections — if they want. This rally, at the very least, is filled with teenage girls attending with their parents, groups of high school friends who’ve skipped a day in the 12th grade to see Trump, and young twentysomething men who feel like, finally, they’ve been heard.
Two teenage girls here with their mother brush off his “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment. “That was 11 years ago,” says 15-year-old Alex.
There are some families here who traveled together because the child in their family is engaged in politics and wanted to catch a glimpse of the president-elect. Two teenage girls here with their mother brush off his “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment. “That was 11 years ago,” says 15-year-old Alex, the one who asked her mother to bring them. Casey, 14, adds that the Clinton family have been far worse to women. Above all, Trump makes them feel “safe.”
But most of the young people at the rally seem to get their opinions from their parents, Trump voters themselves, or from the small towns they’ve driven in from across Pennsylvania. Middle-class millennials I talk to seem focused on topics like political correctness, ISIS, and taxes. Working-class millennials are worried about immigrants taking their jobs, abusing the health care system, and Obamacare taking money out of their paychecks.
Take Jedell, Jacob, Ryan, and Colby, four teenage boys from Selinsgrove, about an hour away from Hershey. They’re too young to have voted in November, but came to hear from Trump. Before his speech begins, they’re sitting together eating chicken fingers and fries. All their parents voted for Trump, and if they could have voted, they would have too. They’re all wearing Trump gear — 16-year-old Jacob has a button that says “Hillary sucks but not like Monica” — and are victorious and excited, as if they’re waiting for the main act of a band they really love.
Raising the minimum wage is a big deal for these four, since a few of them are hourly workers in the food-service industry. All the more reason, they say, to keep non-tax-paying immigrants who are a drain on the welfare system out of the country. Trump’s just the man to do that, they suggest, though the details on how are foggy.
“He’s a businessman, so he’s obviously been successful,” says Jedell, who works at Pizza Hut and is the eldest of the four boys, at 17. “So, the economy, like money-wise, he’ll be good. He might be able to give back to China and make the deficit go down.” (He seems to be talking about giving money back to China in order to reduce the national debt.) Jedell also thinks that Trump will subdue ISIS to “a very mellow point” and that his grandmother and great-grandmother, both Puerto Ricans, voted for Trump because they believe “Mexicans should be in Mexico and Americans should be in America.”
The boys are young, and non-voters, so it’s forgivable that their views are a little muddled. But this seems to be the case for a lot of Trump voters here: They have spent years unhappy with the current system, they know what they want to change, but can’t seem to articulate how. That’s not shocking, given that Trump himself can’t seem to, either. At no point during the campaign — or since the election — has he been clear on how he plans to make policy changes or where the money will come from or who will implement the change. The reasoning for their support is no more specific now that the election is over than it was before.
Michael, a 31-year-old white man from Gettysburg with dreadlocks to his mid-chest, seems mostly concerned about border security and immigration. He thinks Trump will be much tougher on refugees coming to the US in ways that Obama hasn’t been. “I don’t think he’s vetting them properly. There’s been reports that there are terrorists coming from the Middle East and they’re acting as refugees to get through.” Michael cites the Syrian refugees recently brought into the United States, some of whom he believes are radicalized via the internet and are joining ISIS after they move. He can’t pinpoint any refugees who have become terrorists after entering the US, but he knows it’s happening. (This is a report often touted by fake news sources and picked up by Trump supporters as fact.) “Obama is letting in thousands and thousands. They want to kill all the ‘infidels,’” he said, gesturing air quotes around "infidel."
Talking to teenagers or 20-somethings at this rally is sometimes like speaking to what is clearly a version of their parents’ beliefs.
Another theme that emerged from the young people I talked to was a heavy distrust of the media. Michael thinks that the media has pushed an unfair narrative against Trump supporters, and if you’d just take a second to talk to them, you’d know they aren’t like that. (He also cites Clinton ads as “the media,” not necessarily news outlets or reporters.) “The media frames it that way,” he begins, but he’s interrupted by a man behind him. The man taps on my notebook, which has a BuzzFeed News heading at the top, and tells him to watch what he says. “You’re constantly putting out stuff that white people are evil. I read your website, I’m all over it. You’re trash. You guys all push the same narrative. You guys have BuzzFeed for women, BuzzFeed for bisexuals. The whole thing across the board has been anti-Trump.”
The notebook tapper is a 26-year-old landscaper from Bucks County, named Joe, who voted for Obama in the last election. Trump’s immigration policy was what convinced him to vote Republican. “When you have a high influx of low-wage workers, that’s going to bring the wages down for the native population,” he says. He adds that he doesn’t care about gay marriage or abortion rights, two wedge issues that don’t affect him, but he says immigrants are affecting the kind of money he can make. “I work with these people and most of them are not bad people, but a lot of them are bad people. I see these guys looking at 13-year-old girls coming off the school bus every day. I’ve worked with probably 100 immigrants. Mexican, Ecuadorian, El Salvadorian.”
Before Joe says goodbye, he apologizes for calling me trash, and then follows me on Twitter. His bio: “im that gorilla dick niqqa, i make dike pussy wet.” Later, he direct messages me, “Everything I assumed about you in that food line was true. People like you pushed … People like me to the AltRight.” He unfollows me, too.
Talking to teenagers or twentysomethings at this rally is sometimes like speaking to what is clearly a version of their parents’ beliefs. “You hear about taxes a lot from your parents. My dad owns a bakery and he’s always complaining about how much he has to pay and the regulations,” says an 18-year-old from Philadelphia who drove here with his friend, both of them Trump voters.
“Especially Obamacare,” adds his friend. “That’s all my dad talks about.”
After the rally ends and most of the attendees have left Giant Center, two young women are still sitting in the stands watching the clean-up. Ashley, 17, in a baby pink MAGA cap and lavender frosted lips, and Sophia, 18, in a multi-colored Patagonia fleece, are from Williamsport, a two-hour drive they skipped school for. (Neither voted in the election — Sophia missed the registration deadline.) They believe Planned Parenthood should be defunded entirely and they’re over political correctness; they think it just breeds more hatred and mistrust. They also don’t think "illegal immigrants" should get free health coverage. (Undocumented immigrants are not actually able to get health care under the Affordable Care Act.)
“He’s going to make stricter policies,” Sophia says about Trump’s immigration stance. “He’s going to have stronger vetting.”
Ashley cites job security and safety as the reasons why she supports him. “It’s making history. This is us as young women, adults, that first time getting a chance to see a president,” she says. “[He’s] bringing jobs back into America instead of sending everyone overseas.” But when asked what policies he might put in place, she says she doesn’t know, instead turning to her friend, and asking, “Do you know how he could do that?”
At the end of the rally, while people are filing out, a man stands with his young son near the door. “See?” his dad says. “Now, when you go to school and some liberal says something, you set them straight. That’s what you do. You got to hear the president.” His son nods and smiles.