The Iowa State Fair
‘Donnnaaallldd!!! Donnnaaaaallldd!!!’ Donald Trump was surrounded by fans. He looked happy. He took a bite out of a pork chop on a stick — eating one is a campaign ritual for every politician visiting the Iowa State Fair — and raised his arm in salute. ‘We love you,’ a woman shouted. Someone else yelled: ‘Save our country! Save America!’ No other Republican candidate visiting the fair — no candidate from either party — has generated such crowds and such excitement. ‘I touched him,’ said one woman running over to her friends. ‘I got a selfie.’
Nothing of substance was being discussed in the eye of this storm, marked by Trump’s red baseball cap embroidered with the words ‘Make America Great Again’. This was as much like the visit of a TV celebrity — which Trump is — as that of a politician running for office. But on the fringe of the crowd, a knot of men were having a debate. ‘I’m a Trump supporter,’ said 68-year-old John Wood, bow-legged in his shorts. ‘I spent 27 months in Vietnam and I hate what’s goin’ on in this country… he says things that maybe aren’t popular but we’ve been in trouble for a long time by tryin’ to be politically correct. We need to say: that’s the way it is, plain and simple.’ I asked the group what they liked most about Trump’s platform. ‘The wall,’ said one: ‘Keep out the Mexicans and al-Qaeda.’
The Donald, as the billionaire property magnate is known, had descended in a helicopter a couple of hours earlier. Two dozen supporters were waiting to see him land. I asked them about the incendiary language he used about women and about immigrants. After the Republican primary debate, Mr Trump famously declared that his questioner, Fox’s Megyn Kelly, had ‘blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her, wherever’. People I spoke to generally hoped he would tone it down when he got the Oval Office. But on his main issue, immigration, they agreed with him that those coming to the US illegally from Mexico were predominantly ‘criminals, drug dealers, rapists’.
‘I want to feel safe in my own country,’ said Patty Davies, waiting to give her twin daughters a ride on the helicopter, ‘and the way things are going, it’s getting less and less safe.’ Jeb Brien, an athletic 61-year-old in a ‘Team Trump’ T-shirt, said: ‘Mexico’s smart. They’re sending the people they don’t want up to here and we’re takin’ ’em.’ For Mr Brien, as for others, the other big issue was the economy: high taxes, the national debt, and the export of American jobs overseas. ‘I was raised as a Democrat, worked two jobs. You know we were stable. People worked. People were proud of Iowa. I’ve got kids… the thing that scares me, we’re not going to have a country for them, or their kids.’
Mr Trump stepped down from his helicopter in cream slacks, a blue blazer and white golf shoes. He gave a press conference. Apart from agreeing that he was prepared to spend a billion dollars of his own money to get elected, there was nothing new. The answers were nearly identical to those in the previous three or four appearances I’d seen online. But he took question after question, while the children he was giving helicopter rides to waited in the blistering heat. He seemed to crave attention more than any professional politician I’ve seen. Trump has been diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder by one author (in all seriousness, not as a term of political abuse). He has a habit of dropping little boasts into the middle of whatever argument he happens to be making. From this press conference alone, we had: ‘I understand psychology’ [on Jeb Bush’s relationship with his brother]; ‘Nobody played the game better than I did.’ [lobbying]; ‘Nobody has more experience dealing with politicians than I’; ‘Trump builds walls. I build walls’; ‘I’ve had great relationships’ [with foreign leaders]; ‘I’m leading in every poll: the little ones, the big ones’ [true]; ‘I’m all over the world. I’m building in China’; ‘I have some of the great assets, Turnberry in Scotland, Doral in Miami [both hotels]. Trump Tower, 57th and Fifth [in New York]’; and ‘I make $400 million a year.’
His opponents say his presidential bid is an extension of his reality TV career, which he must know will not last. But Trump is building a serious ground game in Iowa (the state that is first to choose the delegates who nominate presidential candidates). The co-chair of his Iowa campaign is Tana Goertz, a finalist in his TV show The Apprentice ten years ago. She was getting ‘400 emails a day’ from people who wanted to volunteer in the campaign, she said. ‘I’m doing Apprentice-like challenges to find out who’s the best of the best of these volunteers.’
Tana was the No. 1 saleswoman for Mary Kay cosmetics out of a staff of 6,000. She won her place on The Apprentice with an audition tape showing her cold-calling men working in car showrooms and selling them gift baskets of make-up. ‘I’m using my business skills, my marketing skills, my promotional skills to market the product, which is Donald Trump,’ she told me. ‘I’m selling him as a brilliant man, as a leader, as a businessman, as a negotiator. People love his toughness, his strength.’
Some of those I met wearing Trump T-shirts confessed, when asked, that they hadn’t really made up their minds which way they would vote. They were just there for the spectacle. But The Donald has tapped into a deep well of anger about Washington, distrust of conventional politicians, and fear about the future. His poll lead seems incredibly durable. As Republicans know, the Democratic party won the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. If the Republicans are going to win this time, they need a Hispanic strategy and a strategy for women. The question is whether either of those can be viable if the Donald show continues much longer.
Paul Wood is a BBC correspondent.