Donald Trump is up on stage brandishing a magazine with his picture on the cover and rattling off poll numbers. “Gravis 41 . . . NBC 38 . . . Fox News, just way out ahead, 35 per cent,” he says. The billionaire and would-be Republican nominee for president can hardly be bothered to mention the names of the opponents he’s wiping the floor with. “People say, ‘Why does he always talk about polls?’ These are people who are No. 9, or 12,” Trump taunts, as his audience laughs. “If I was Jeb Bush I wouldn’t talk about polls. He spent $69 million, and he’s nowhere. What a waste . . . I spend nothing, and I’m on top.”
It’s a frigid Tuesday night in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and several hundred people have gathered to warm themselves by Trump’s anger. The crowd doesn’t quite measure up to others he cites in his non-stop, not-so-humble brag—20,000 in Dallas, 35,000 in Mobile, Ala., another 20,000 in Oklahoma. To be fair, the local fire marshals have turned away hundreds more for fear that the ﬂoor of the venue—a dilapidated, 1920s-vintage wrestling gym at the University of Northern Iowa—might collapse. Even if fewer in number, this crowd’s ardour for Trump is no less intense. They wave placards, cheer or boo on cue, and add their own insults to the injuries he inflicts from the podium.
“I’m 900 per cent for Donald,” declares Larry Wilcox. “We’ve got to take this country back.” The veteran employee of the John Deere factory in neighbouring Waterloo has used a magic marker to scrawl “Hillary 4 Prison 2016” on the bottom of his sign that reads, “The silent majority stands with Trump.” He expresses his disdain for Barack Obama, making a point of emphasizing the President’s middle name, Hussein. No one, not ISIS, nor the Chinese, nor Wall Street fat cats will walk over Trump, says Wilcox. “We’re going to build a wall across the border with Mexico’s pesos!”
There are no Teleprompters, and the candidate doesn’t use notes, but there’s a certain, manic familiarity to the evening’s proceedings. It’s as if Trump is broadcasting his own talk-radio monologue. He free-associates, touching on Iran, terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the “tremendous” success of his website, ethanol subsidies, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, all in just the first 10 minutes. At times, it’s like listening to your grandmother talk about something she’s seen on the news. “Cologne. Have you heard about Cologne? Nice clean place,” he says. “They never had a problem. Now, New Year’s Eve. Rapes. Robberies. Have you heard about Cologne?”
The media and political class have been predicting the imminent collapse of Trump’s candidacy ever since he entered the Republican race last June. But with less than two weeks remaining until the beginning of party primaries on Feb. 1, he remains the man to beat. The path he’s forging to the nomination has no precedent and follows no logic. He insults women, labels Mexican immigrants as rapists, vows to ban all Muslims from entering the United States—and only becomes more popular. He refuses to campaign in the traditional sense, and has almost no organization, yet steadily drains support from even his best-funded rivals. In the space of six months, Trump has gone from being a joke to a terrifying possibility, and now enjoys the aura of a likely victor. America can’t get enough of him. The rest of the world can’t turn away from a train wreck in progress.
As if to prove the point that he can do anything he wants, on this night Trump chooses to spend several minutes reciting the lyrics of an obscure 1968 soul song. The Snake, sung by Al Wilson, tells the tale of a “tender-hearted woman” who takes in a near-frozen reptile, only to be bitten in the end. It never really comes clear where the candidate is going with it, although it seems to have something to do with refugees. Or immigrants. Or maybe he just really likes the tune.
The bragging gives way to some now-standard jibes. He singles out the press, penned into an enclosure on the centre of the gym floor, as the “worst, most dishonest people I’ve ever met in my life.” The crowd turns and jeers. He professes sincere concern for Ted Cruz’s “big problem” of having been born in Canada to an American mother and Cuban father. “Is he allowed to run for president? I really don’t know,” says Trump. “I hope it works out. I really do.”
Every once in a while he stops mid-stream to acknowledge someone in the crowd with a “hello, darling,” or a pointed finger: “This guy, he gets it!” The university wrestling team, seated up in the back row, get three separate shoutouts. The effect is more Vegas than Washington.
It takes half an hour, but Trump finally gets around to making his pitch. The sell is simple: America is in deep decline, and he’s the guy who can turn it around. “When was the last time we won? We don’t have victories anymore,” he laments. “Other countries, they’re much more cunning than our politicians.” Under president Trump, the United States will be feared and respected, he promises. The military will be stronger, ISIS eradicated, health care made better, and foreign trade fairer, all through his strength of purpose. “We’re going to win so much that you guys are going to get sick of it!” he says. “It’s going to be a beautiful thing to see.”
Trump throws the magazine into the crowd, thrusts his arms in the air, and walks off stage to the strains of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger, the theme from Rocky III, a 34-year-old film. He’s provided no specifics and hasn’t mentioned a single policy or planned initiative. It doesn’t matter. His fans rush forward, straining against the metal barriers in search of a selfie, handshake or autograph. Donald Trump is rich and famous. For many Americans, that is qualification enough.
It’s easy to forget how long “the Donald” has been around, and just how deeply imbedded is his place in U.S. culture. The Apprentice, the reality television series that cast him as a mercurial fairy godboss, ran for 14 seasons on NBC, but he was already a household brand well before its debut in 2004. His 1987 autobiography, The Art of the Deal—the first of 18 books bearing his name—spent 51 weeks at the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list. The 69-year-old’s list of TV and film cameos includes The Jeffersons (1981), Home Alone 2 (1992), Sex and the City (1999) and Zoolander (2001). His marital meltdowns and catty lawsuits—he once tried to sue an author for $5 billion for purportedly lowballing his net worth—are legendary. Trump was awarded a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 2007, and inducted into the “celebrity wing” of the World Wrestling Entertainment’s Hall of Fame in 2013. His name is attached to condos, hotels, restaurants and golf resorts around the world. There are Donald J. Trump lines of housewares, clothing and accessories as well as two signature fragrances—Empire (peppermint, spicy chai and a hint of apple) and Success (ginger, geranium and tonka bean). Polls taken when Trump entered the Republican race suggested only six per cent of Americans didn’t already know who he was. They must have been living off the grid.
The billionaire’s natural advantage in a crowded Republican field—a dozen candidates, nine of them polling in single digits—has only been enhanced by the press’s obsession with him. The three major U.S. network newscasts devoted a total of 327 minutes to Trump’s presidential aspirations in 2015, according to the Tyndall Report, a media monitoring service. The Islamic State received 220 minutes, the war in Syria 136. One hundred and twenty-one minutes were spent on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and just 20 on that of Bernie Sanders. Between May and the end of December, Fox News broadcast 24 hours of interviews with Trump—free airtime that the non-partisan Media Matters website calculated was worth US$29.7 million.
None of this, however, explains why Trump’s numbers refuse to come back down to Earth, despite his insults, gaffes, vagaries and back-of-the-napkin platform. “I don’t have any idea and neither does anybody else,” says David Brady, a professor of political economy at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.
For the last few months, Brady and his colleagues have been tapping into the attitudes of more than 5,000 likely Republican voters with the help of the online polling firm YouGov. They’ve found that Trump’s supporters tend to be less educated, older and earn less than those of other candidates. They are also more likely to be generally “pissed” about immigration and the state of the economy, but have few specific concerns. (Unemployment stands at five per cent, the lowest rate in seven years. Wage growth, however, has been negligible.) Yet Trump also shows surprising strength among the non-angry—70 per cent of his supporters have no Tea Party ties, and more than half are women. “He does better with women than any other candidate. It’s quite astounding,” says Brady. “I have a wife and three daughters, and they’d rather die than vote for him.”
Trump fans tend to identify themselves as “conservative” (65 per cent) or “very conservative” (13 per cent.) They share a pathological dislike of Obama, with 66 per cent telling a different pollster, PPP, that he is a Muslim, and 61 per cent echoing their candidate’s past “birther” claims that the President was born abroad. Yet Trump’s support cuts across America’s hardened party lines. Civis Analytics, a firm with strong Obama ties, has interviewed more than 11,000 voters since August; it concludes that Trump does best among registered Democrats who are leaning toward the Republicans, followed by independents. They could find no demographic in which he didn’t equal or surpass the appeal of the other 11 candidates. He even holds a slim lead among Hispanic Republicans.
Geographically, Trump is strongest in the South, and along the Appalachian mountain corridor, stretching all the way through the northeast and his home state of New York. These are the areas where Obama was weakest in the 2008 Democratic primaries, and as the New York Times recently reported, they neatly mirror the national hotspots for Google searches of racial slurs and racist jokes.
There have been serious academic and editorial-page debates about whether Trump—with his off-the-cuff proposals to build border walls, and turn away entire religions at the airport—deserves to be labelled a fascist. The slightly more polite term that many have instead settled on is “nativist,” meaning someone who seeks to protect the interests of the native-born at the expense of immigrants. It is a philosophy that can be traced through American political history, and past attempts to stop Catholics, Germans, Chinese, Jews and other groups from settling in.
Trump’s charged rhetoric on Hispanics, Muslims and other groups he deems to be at odds with American rules and values—“We can’t be the stupid country anymore,” he declared during the Fox Business network debate last week—has clearly struck a chord. At the rally in Cedar Falls, concerns about immigration are top of mind for many of his supporters. “I’m just fed up. I’m done with the political correctness crap,” says Janet Nives, a deeply tanned woman who might have been the closest thing in the room to a visible minority. “Everybody is prejudiced. Anyone who says different isn’t telling the truth.”
“I’m pissed,” says Scott Van Gundy, a union member for more than 35 years. “About illegal immigration, ISIS, Iran, foreign policy, Obamacare, the economy—you name it. I don’t have any trust in the current system.”
Oddly, what Trump believers do have faith in is the idea that a real estate developer who claims a net worth of $10 billion, the very personification of Gordon Gekko, greed-is-good ’80s excess, a man whose companies have gone through four major bankruptcies, is the guy who will make America fairer. “He’ll pay his own way. He won’t be hostage to special interests,” says Van Gundy. Matt Gockel, a construction foreman, says there’s a burning need for radical change at the top. “We need somebody who is the furthest thing from being a career politician.” The 48-year-old could see himself having beers over lunch, or playing a round of golf with Trump. “He might have a couple more bucks, but he’s just the same as me.”
Gockel better hope that his choice for president is paying. Memberships at the 11 courses Trump owns in the U.S. run about $25,000 a year, in addition to a one-time $250,000 “initiation fee.” The Trump National in Los Angeles, one of his few courses that are open to the public, charges $280 for a prime tee-off time. Valet parking is included.
The gigantic American flag has been perfectly positioned in the background, the white folding chairs lined up in neat rows, and two water bottles—labels carefully peeled away—are sitting atop the wooden stool. Young Republicans, festooned with exclamation points, are gamely trying to find takers for their “Jeb! 2016” literature, signs and buttons, while campaign staffers, dressed in Brooks Brothers casual, patrol the edges of the media pool. It all seems so professional—until the moment the DJ chooses to play ELO’s Don’t Bring Me Down.
Jeb Bush doesn’t need reminders that he’s polling at four per cent in Iowa, and averaging just 4.8 per cent nationally. Heading into this primary season, he was generally considered the front-runner for the Republican nomination. Now, given the margins of error, it’s mathematically possible that he has no supporters at all. He has raised in excess of $133 million, and he and his super PAC supporters have spent more than double than any other candidate on TV and radio ads— $38.1 million in 2015 alone. (Trump spent $217,000, all of it his own money.) And it’s all for nought.
This noon-hour stop in a gleaming gun factory in Grinnell, Iowa, is Bush’s second of three scheduled town-hall meetings on the day. About 100 locals and workers stand to recite the Pledge of Allegiance with a retired four-star Navy admiral, then politely applaud the arrival of the 43rd governor of Florida. Bush is far more articulate than his father or brother. He uses words like “orthodoxy” and “opined,” and lays out detailed policy positions on the war in Syria, green technology and agriculture. His profession that “all life is sacred,” in response to a question on abortion, seems somewhat at odds with the setting and a promise to extend new rights to gun owners. But it doesn’t really matter. No one is taking him seriously anymore.
Barring a Lazarus-style miracle in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, Jeb’s efforts to extend the Bush family dynasty will soon draw to a whimpering close. His donors are ready to write cheques to anyone else who might be able to derail Trump and bring the Republican party back under the control of its usual power brokers. Even the far right-wing are getting worried about what might lie ahead in 2016. Earlier this month, Charles Koch gave an interview to the Financial Times in which he suggested his fellow billionaire’s proposed ban on Muslims could well “destroy our free society.” Koch, who along with his brother David had pledged to spend $889 million on the Republican cause in this election cycle, also lamented how little attention the other candidates are paying to his concerns. “You’d think we could have more influence.”
After trailing Ted Cruz in Iowa for months, the latest polls hand Trump a slight edge. But if he were to win the presidential caucus—small group meetings across 99 counties that usually draw 120,000 or so participants—it would be a surprise. Cruz has campaigned hard in the state, assiduously courting evangelicals—the kind of people who get off the couch and vote on a cold winter’s night. Trump has just jetted in and out. (He has boasted about sleeping in his own New York City bed every night of the campaign so far.) “History says you have to do the small-time events: eat pastries, go to diners, have a deep-fried thing on a stick at the State Fair,” says Chris Larimer, a professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. “Trump has broken those rules. And he’s got no ground game.”
Given that the last two Republican winners in Iowa were Mike Huckabee (2008) and Rick Santorum (2012), losing might be the better strategy. New Hampshire, where Trump enjoys a 17-point lead, holds its primary Feb. 9. South Carolina, where he’s 14 points ahead, is Feb. 20. By Super Tuesday—14 primaries on March 1—the Trump express could have some fearful momentum. At this point, only Cruz and Marco Rubio appear to have support broad enough to even make it a race.
Related: Is Marco Rubio the real deal?
It’s not inevitable that Trump will be the Republican nominee. A narrowed field of candidates will bring sharper attacks and could dull his lustre. His supporters—many with no real ties to the party—might not come and vote. People could start caring about all the offensive things he’s been saying.
Winning the White House would be an even stiffer challenge, as Trump’s appeal has obvious limits. In a December YouGov survey, 58 per cent of self-described moderates, and 51 per cent of independents—the two largest electoral blocks—said they “would never vote” for the Donald. Head-to-head polls pitting Trump against Clinton or Sanders tend to suggest the billionaire would lose—badly. There’s a reason why Obama peppered his final State of the Union address with so many winking references to Trump: the Democrats would love to run against him.
Yet Trump has already surprised, and could do so again, pivoting toward the centre after securing the nomination. Or maybe outside events, like a terrorist attack or foiled plot, will make his tough talk and insularity all the more appealing.
The U.S. Border Protection agent at the airport perks right up when I mention Trump. “I like him. He’s honest. He says what he thinks and he’ll do what he says.” I ask whether he likes Trump’s stance on immigration. He smiles and waves me through.