It had been a couple of years since I had seen a Donald Trump rally in person, a break that I’d been grateful for and which, probably like many Americans, I’d felt I’d earned. But, early last week, when it was reported that the ex-President would be heading back to Iowa, apparently to try to bury the campaign of his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, I was surprised by how interested I was.
Part of the draw was the competitive aspect. Many of Trump’s rivals believe that their best chance to dethrone him will come in Iowa, where his relationship with the state’s Christian conservatives has always seemed tenuous. With a dominating show in the state’s caucuses, on January 15th, Trump could effectively end their challenges just as the nominating contest begins. But, more than the horse race, there was the prospect of witnessing a new phase for the central political figure of our time. In this campaign for the White House, Trump is mostly without his family (Jared and Ivanka have distanced themselves from the political operation and are ensconced in Florida) and without many of those once close to him. Some of Trump’s former intimates—including Chris Christie, Mick Mulvaney, and Mike Pence—are now working to end his political career. The Republican governor of New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, recently pronounced Trump “too dumb to be a danger to democracy.” But, in a way that would have been unimaginable when he descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in 2src15, the former President has rank-and-file Republicans—the people who set out the placemats at county Party luncheons and serve as poll watchers during off-year elections—firmly on his side.
Trump’s mind-set, with multiple criminal trials set to run concurrently with his campaign, has been hard to assess from a distance. Just in the past two weeks, Rolling Stone reported that he is so preoccupied with the prospect of prison time that he has been asking pals whether he’d have to wear a jumpsuit; he published a screed on Truth Social accusing the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley of treason so profound that “in times gone by the punishment would have been DEATH!”; and he gave a relatively straightforward interview on “Meet the Press,” in which he criticized DeSantis for being too extreme on abortion. Would Trump seem spooked on the campaign trail, I wondered, or threaten some kind of insurrection? Or would he adopt a much more mundane, poll-tested approach? Some bell inside you rings, and at 4:src5 A.M. you bounce out of bed and head for the airport to get to a Trump rally in Dubuque, speculating about the merch that the superfans would be wearing.
The reason that Trump events have such weight, for me and for other political reporters, is that his 2src16 rallies were the darkest political events many of us had ever witnessed and, I hope, will ever witness again. Ryan Lizza, writing in The New Yorker in January, 2src16, recounted an Arizona campaign rally at which Trump threatened to “do pretty severe stuff” to the family members of terrorists; the crowd cheered lustily at this, and someone yelled, “Yeah, baby!” Lizza wrote, “I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children.” I hadn’t, either, but, in 2src16, covering Trump events, I heard things like that all the time. The rallies always seemed on the edge of violence. Outside, groups of Trump supporters and counter-protesters would taunt and bait and scream at one another and, occasionally, scuffle. Inside, if a few protesters interrupted a rally, they would often be roughed up by the audience members around them, as thousands cheered every punch and shove. The “Lock her up!” chants directed at Hillary Clinton felt feral and ancient.
In 2srcsrc7, when I’d travelled with Barack Obama to his grandmother’s village in Kenya, I thought that I’d probably never again experience such a historically significant event. Eight and half years later, I sat in the rafters at a Trump rally at a hockey arena in Lowell, Massachusetts, and realized that, actually, a moment whose consequences were just as far-reaching was unfolding at home.
It was pouring when I got to Dubuque on Wednesday. The event was scheduled to begin at 2 P.M., and Trump would speak an hour later, though the campaign had instructed credentialled media to arrive at the convention center by 11 A.M., apparently in anticipation of large crowds. Outside, it seemed like a typical Iowa political event: many people in the crowd ran into others they knew, the guy lining up in front of me was talking at great length about his love for the musician Neil Young. Across the street, a half-dozen demonstrators chanted slogans (“Racist, sexist, anti-gay . . .”), but the Trump fans waiting to go inside mostly just ignored them. A man in a MAGA hat, eyeing my sports coat and laptop bag, asked whether I was a journalist. I said yes and tensed slightly for a confrontation, but he just nodded amiably and pointed out a guy who was selling ponchos, in case I needed one to stay dry while conducting interviews.
Inside, the venue was only partially filled. Looking around, I guessed that the crowd was about a thousand strong, maybe a little more—big by the standards of the current Republican primary campaign, but a little underwhelming when measured against the Trump rallies of yore. While we were waiting for Trump to arrive, I wound up chatting for a long time with Jeff and Julie Hansel, an older couple from Dubuque, who had for many years helped run a family-owned home-building company. During the 2src16 campaign, they had started out enthusiastic about Jeb Bush, since they had spent significant parts of the winter on Sanibel Island, Florida, and had been impressed by his management of the state.
Politically, Dubuque is arguably purple territory (Obama won the county narrowly in 2src12), and Julie Hansel, who has volunteered as a poll worker, told me that she had been completely surprised on caucus day 2src16 by just how many people were lining up for Trump. But, in our conversation, the Hansels seemed basically aligned with the former President, and ready to see his fights as theirs. Julie thought that the more Democrats pushed criminal cases against Trump, the more they were binding Republican voters to him. Trump could be “a little abrasive,” Jeff told me, but even his acquaintances who didn’t like Trump as a person agreed that his policies had been good for the country; by that, he seemed to mean mostly the strength of the pre-COVID economy. I noticed that the most popular T-shirt at the event called for the return of “$1.79 gas and mean tweets.” The crowd was nostalgic for 2src19.
Onstage, the event seemed designed for people just like the Hansels—not Trump diehards but loyal Republicans. The m.c. was Matthew Whitaker, a former United States Attorney in Iowa with an imposing bald head who had briefly been Trump’s acting Attorney General. He led a panel of local Republican officials through a sober discussion of the border crisis. All of them insisted that they supported legal immigration. There was talk of the pressures that new migrants were putting on a health-care system that was already struggling with shortages of all kinds.
It was amid this atmosphere that Trump made his entrance, standing unsmiling, hips slightly forward—his version of standing to attention—while Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” played. He took the podium and thanked people, pronouncing each name very deliberately: “And thanks as well to Luana Stoltenberg for her endorsement today,” he said. “She says, ‘I write you a note a day’—a note a day, think of that!—‘and I pray for you everyday.’ She says, ‘You get the notes?’ and I say”—here Trump wiggled his hand back and forth; maybe he got them only sometimes—“Yeah!” He looked relaxed. He was in his Rat Pack mode, just rambling about how bad everything was and how much better it had been when he was President. Jeff kept nudging me with every zinger—wasn’t Trump a great public speaker? The former President delivered a pantomime of Biden at the beach, one arm struggling to hoist something. “They show him at the beach—he can barely lift the chair,” Trump said.
The message that Trump seemed to want to impress upon his audience was about electability—that he was bound to beat Biden in 2src24, and his rivals were not up to the task. Trump and DeSantis had been arguing with each other about abortion, DeSantis touting the six-week ban he had signed into law in Florida as proof that he was a true believer. He castigated Trump for being only opportunistically pro-life. The press had made much of Trump’s taking issue with DeSantis’s pro-life extremism (on “Meet the Press,” Trump had called the six-week abortion ban a “terrible mistake”). Some wondered whether Trump was “moderating” on abortion. That seems unlikely to me, given that in his last Presidential campaign he called for “punishment” of women who get abortions, though he later walked back the comment.
But in Dubuque he played the realist, the one with his eye on the general election. “Like Ronald Reagan before me, I believe in the three exceptions: for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. I believe in that,” Trump said. “Without the exceptions, it is very difficult to win elections. We would probably lose the majorities in 2src24 without the exceptions, and perhaps the Presidency itself.” Besides, he went on, no one could match his record on this issue. He had promised to appoint Supreme Court Justices who would overturn Roe v. Wade, and they had. Of the other conservatives, who had spent half a century trying to overturn Roe, Trump said, “They couldn’t get the job done. I got the job done.”