WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. — The blue and red banners flapped in a late-spring morning breeze along U.S. Highway 15 here, greeting passersby with a simple but unmistakable message: “President Trump is coming.” It is a message Pennsylvanians are likely to see a lot of before the 2020 election, as the Keystone State becomes one of the campaign’s centers of gravity.
Hours before Air Force One touched down at Williamsport International Airport in neighboring Montoursville, Terri Bruner of Geneva, Ohio, had set up her traveling roadside merchandise stand at the Ridgemont Motel. She was peddling the usual “Make America Great Again” gear, complete with one T-shirt depicting a Trump supporter urinating on the CNN logo and an assortment of pink Trump gear ostensibly aimed at women.
Bruner, a lifelong Democrat who says she switched to team Trump once “I saw how one-half of the media treats him,” was particularly proud of ball caps ready for Donald Trump’s sixth Pennsylvania rally since taking office: “No More Bullshit” read the bright white letters on the red hat.
Trump has been describing the Justice Department’s special counsel investigation into his 2016 campaign and questions of whether he obstructed justice, as well as House Democrats’ ongoing probes into all things Trump, in scatologically bovine terms during recent campaign stops and even official White House events.
“He says it like it is. He isn’t afraid to tell the truth,” Bruner said under a gray sky that soon gave way to bright sunshine reflecting off the small peaks that surround the towns and villages in the north-central part of the Keystone State. Then she said something that would become a theme among many interviewed for this story: “He ain’t afraid to say things like we say things. He’s not like the real politicians.”
About a mile away, in downtown Williamsport, Robert Callahan was holding his baby granddaughter in a boutique clothing store for little ones.
“I think he’s doing a great job,” said Callahan, who ticked off a list of issues on which he gives Trump high marks: “The economy, jobs are coming back, and frankly, our military.”
“He’s getting the country back to the way things should be. The old ways,” he said. When pressed to define what constitutes a phrase that has been used by Trump supporters since he launched his campaign four years ago, he added: “Look at abortion. I think it should be curbed for certain things [like rape cases]. He’s really moving us toward where the country needs to be.”
Several states, including Alabama, have recently enacted laws to basically outlaw abortion. Those legislatures and governments sense an opportunity to drastically curb access to abortions or even overturn the Roe v. Wade case since Trump got two justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, confirmed to the Supreme Court.
While most professional political prognosticators see Trump in a dogfight with whomever emerges from the crowded Democratic primary, Callahan is bullish about Republicans’ chances — for a while.
“I see Trump winning the next election and [Vice President Mike] Pence winning the following election [in 2024],” he said. Why? “More and more people around here — Democrats, who didn’t support the president last time — are seeing what he’s all about. And they like what he’s doing.”
In part, Trump was in heavily Republican Lycoming County to stump for GOP state Rep. Fred Keller, who is expected on Tuesday to easily defeat Democrat Marc Friedenberg in a special election for a House seat vacated this year Republican Rep. Tom Marino. But he’s also here to shore up support in a state he narrowly won in 2016 over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Trump won the county going away in 2016, 69.6 percent to Clinton’s 25.4 percent. His appearance here comes amid a trade war with China that even some GOP officials like Sen. Pat Toomey say is hurting Keystone State businesses and residents. And his campaign announced the event shortly after former Vice President and Pennsylvania-born Joe Biden announced he would officially kick off his campaign in Philadelphia on May 18.
A local news radio station played an ad in which Lara Trump, the president’s daughter-in-law and a senior 2020 campaign official, tells Pennsylvanians that the 45th president is personally responsible for creating thousands of manufacturing jobs in their state alone.
Outside a block of downtown here, 86-year-old Carl Nolan also said Trump is “doing great” because, in part, “people around here are getting jobs again.”
“We had a lot of energy jobs. Then companies started shutting down. Well, they’re coming back now,” said Nolan, who replied an emphatic “absolutely, I do” and playfully tapped a reporter on the arm with his black-and-white striped cane with a laugh when asked if Trump is personally responsible for those firms returning.
But some folks working or visiting here have some reservations.
One visiting Rochester, New York, man in a golf shirt and khakis with white hair asked to be quoted anonymously because “everyone is one on side or the other anymore.”
“There’s no other logic to anything he does,” the man said about the president. “He doesn’t think about things. He just reacts. … That’s really dangerous.”
Then there was Kimberly Young, who said she supports the president for his handling of the economy and his hardline policies. “I agree with him that immigrants shouldn’t be allowed in,” she said. “And I agree that we need to build that wall.”
But she grimaced a little when she brought up Trump’s blunt demeanor.
“I don’t like his mouth,” Young said. “I think there’s just a better way to do it.”
Regardless, Young and other people in Pennsylvania are likely to hear a lot from that mouth for the next year and a half.