JOHNSTOWN, PA — Less than two weeks after his COVID-19 diagnosis, 1968 Wharton graduate and President Donald Trump hosted thousands of largely unmasked supporters for a rally at John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport, less than 300 miles from Penn’s campus.
Over 2,000 Trump supporters packed into close-quartered seating arrangements in the semi-outdoor area to see the president. Many college students who attended said they were fervent supporters of the president due to his abortion and Supreme Court stances, but also said they feared expressing such views at their universities.
While they did not dominate the crowd, around 500 Generation Z Trump supporters made the trek to the secluded Pennsylvania airport for the rally. Hailing from a number of nearby colleges including University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, and University of Maryland, many students said coming to the rally was for "the Trump experience" more than anything else.
Dimitri Fotopoulos, a University of Maryland senior, said the Johnstown rally is the third Trump event he has attended. Fotopoulos said being a Trump supporter at a largely liberal university has been difficult for him, as he fears being treated poorly by professors and peers for holding his specific political views.
He said he was "100% certain" he would vote for Trump in the upcoming election, citing Trump's stances on the economy, abortion, and COVID-19.
"COVID-19 definitely exists but it's very blown out of proportion and has a lot of behind the scenes, political aspects of it," Fotopoulos said. "Trump got it so it's clearly real but he's fine now as we can see."
Although the crowd included people of all ages, it was primarily made up of middle-aged white men. Many had been waiting for 12 hours before the president began speaking at 7 p.m. Trump pandered to his base during the approximately hour-long speech, warning the crowd that former Vice President and Penn Presidential Professor of Practice Joe Biden is too old to lead, and that as president he would take away their guns and prioritize Chinese interests over that of the American people. Despite his recent COVID-19 diagnoses, he did not wear a mask throughout the event.
"If Biden wins, China wins. All these other countries win," he told the crowd. "We get ripped off by everybody. If we win, you win, Pennsylvania wins, and America wins. Very simple."
University of Pittsburgh first-year Dom Fasolo said he had voted for Trump via absentee ballot earlier in the day on Tuesday. He said Trump's stance on abortion was the main reason for supporting him over Biden.
"I don't love everything Trump says, but the alternative is another extreme that I just do not agree with," he said.
Biden released a statement prior to the event, accusing Trump’s economic and health policies of benefiting the wealthy at the expense of the working class.
“As president, I will fight for the workers and families in Johnstown who are tired of President Trump’s broken promises and failed leadership,” Biden wrote in the statement. “I will bring good-paying union jobs to communities like Johnstown, raise wages, and create economic opportunity for all Pennsylvanians.”
As Trump continues to hold large, in-person rallies and travel across the United States, Biden has taken an alternative route by speaking at smaller, socially distanced events. After the second presidential debate was canceled due to Trump's diagnosis, Biden announced he will instead participate in a town hall hosted by ABC News and moderated by George Stephanopoulos in Philadelphia on Thursday.
For other Generation Z members at the rally — including Fotopoulos and Eli Lingenfelter, a junior at a local high school — Trump's policies motivate their support of the 1968 Wharton graduate. Lingenfelter said Trump's pro-life stance, and his nomination of Justice Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court vacancy, is one of the main reasons he supports the president.
Lingenfelter said he is not able to vote in this election but hopes that he can convince his friends to vote for Trump. He said the vast majority of his friends do support the president but he hopes he can convince the few to vote for "someone who cares about our rights" as opposed to Biden.
While the vast majority of the rally's attendees made it overwhelmingly clear where their political allegiances stood — whether it be with apparel, signs, or costumes — a few voters, including University of Pittsburgh first-year Antonio Caporossi, came to the rally undecided about their vote choice.
Caporossi said he was unsure whether he would vote for Trump and Biden and has been attempting to "gain as much knowledge before Nov. 3 as possible."
"I came to observe what Trump and his supporters stand for," he said. "I support wearing a mask and I have not seen a lot of mask-wearing so far which is a little concerning."
He said he wishes that more young people would listen to both sides of political thought before making their decision.
"Young people need to watch where they are getting their information from and diversify it," Caporossi said. "Don't just watch Fox. Don't just watch CNN. Don't just watch to those two, watch multiple different sources, and actually listen."