Four hours at a Donald Trump rally

Tuesday, January 26, 2016 - 6:43pm

During the past weekend, Michigan Daily journalists spent three days in Iowa covering candidates from both parties as they compete for their party's nomination in the 2016 presidential election. Look for continuing coverage from the Daily in the lead-up to the Iowa caucuses, the first in the nation, on Feb 1.

MUSCATINE, Iowa — The first thing you notice is the line. On Sunday, it stretched from the front doors of Muscatine High School down a sidewalk that hugged the building’s front side. Like a lot of people who attend campaign rallies, many of the people in line arrived here clad in logoed shirts and hats. Some held signs. They clutched paper tickets printed on white computer paper and moved forward as the Secret Service funneled them through a bank of metal detectors set up in the lobby. For a campaign rally, this was all pretty normal. But only once you look past the line, and absorb the full spectacle that surrounds it, do you begin to comprehend all that is a rally for GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.

Alongside the line Sunday, vendors hawked buttons, T-shirts and Trump dolls. On a table with “Make America Great Again” hats for sale, a watercolor drawing of Trump rested next to a poster depicting Adolf Hitler holding a health care bill and saying, “Obama, you’ve gone too far.” In between the two, a foam finger touting the Second Amendment has a thumb drawn to look like a semi-automatic weapon. Buttons for sale displayed sayings like, “Jail Hillary” and “BOMB the SHIT out of ISIS.” Another button trumpeted Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Andrew Jackson as “the original right wing extremists.”

When Trump told the country in June he planned to run for president, a number of pundits deemed his candidacy a grab for the spotlight. And with rhetoric as brash and controversial as Trump’s has been, he certainly got it. But now, as he leads the polls in Iowa amid a crowded field of Republican candidates, it’s clear not only that Trump is playing to win but that for many, the message he has spent the last six months peddling has resonated in a huge way. Trump has consistently painted himself as the only candidate willing to say what others will not — the only person with the business acumen and, more importantly, the balls to take on everything a sizable chunk of voters find scary — immigrants, radical Islamic terrorism, China, Iran, you name it.

A handful of protesters on Muscatine High’s front lawn were trying to counter that narrative when I arrived. They, too, held signs. “Donald’s economy is no good for working Iowans,” one read. Another: “Love Trumps Hate.” When cars drove by on their way to the parking area, the group chanted, “What do we want? No hate. When do we want it? Now.” A five-year-old girl in a Hello Kitty hat and pink gloves held a “Dump Trump” sign, clearly written in her own shaky script. Two cars on the way to the rally slowed long enough to roll down their windows and brandish middle fingers.

Others, clearly not Trump supporters but apparently interested in seeing the Trump show for themselves, obliged a sign asking rally-goers to honk if they condemned the candidate’s rhetoric. On the way in, another woman told me she wasn’t a supporter, but wanted to see the guy in person.

Jean Clark, a retired teacher who taught for 30 years at Muscatine High, was on the lawn with a “Fear + Hate = Trump” sign. She said Trump’s language would not have been tolerated in her classroom, let alone in a presidential campaign.

“We want a president that our students and our young can children can look up to, and I don’t think this is it,” she said. “I think people oftentimes do vote their fears, and that’s why people vote for extremes, but I think my message would be that this kind of fear, intolerance, hatred really isn’t acceptable and it doesn’t represent our country.”

Inside the school’s yellow gymnasium, where a crowd of about 1,000 people stood bunched around a stage set up below a large “Muskies” logo painted on the wall, I wandered around the gym floor with the aim of asking supporters why exactly they’re in Trump’s camp. Some told me they were only leaning toward Trump, while others, like Judith Knuthson and Rod Treimer, said they were committed to caucusing for Trump. Knuthson, a 72-year-old who owns a real estate business in Muscatine, explained it this way: “I think he is the only one that can save the country at this moment.”

Treimer had just met Knuthson a few minutes before and was chatting with her about Trump when I interrupted.

“He is big on everything,” Treimer told me. “He says it like it is. I believe in the borders. I believe in the security. I don’t believe in lying to people. I’d rather have him say something bluntly and that’s the way it is, not lie. I don’t want him to be two-faced. I think Obama has done a terrible, terrible job.”

Knuthson agreed with that assessment, noting she has been forced to work 72-hour weeks to make ends meet. I asked her which of the president’s policies have posed the greatest challenges for her business. She told me I shouldn’t really be asking her that. However, she did agree that Trump’s business experience could not be matched by anyone else in the Republican field.

For Treimer, a corn farmer who told me I probably eat his corn if I eat Cap’n Crunch cereal, national security was his biggest priority, especially in light of ISIS’s rise and what he deemed a bad Obama administration deal with Iran. So I asked: Why Trump, the guy with virtually no traditional background in foreign affairs?

“He’s got so much security and national background,” Treimer told me, raising his voice slightly and speaking more quickly. “Look at all his businesses. He has to have security in all his buildings he’s built, he oversees business he does, the contacts he’s got, he has more than all the other politicians together. He knows more people, he knows how business works in the world, world economics, everything about the monetary, on the Wall Street, how they manipulate the currencies across the world.”

Derek Wolfe, a columnist for The Michigan Daily who accompanied me to Iowa, asked about Trump’s stance on immigration. Did they support his proposal to ban the entry of all Muslims into the United States? Treimer said he would go further.

“Our founding fathers got separation of church and state because they knew how Islam religion would not work in this country,” he said, as Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” played in the background. “That’s why we have separation of church and state as much as we can possibly get it. Anyone who says they want Islam in the United States, they need to get out.”

Both Knuthson and Treimer said they plan to caucus on Monday. Treimer said his goal is to get as many supporters of U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who is currently polling second in Iowa, to switch over to Trump. That’s because in a caucus, part of the process entails supporters trying to convert caucus-goers to their camp before the official numbers are tallied.

“I had never been to a caucus,” Knuthson told me. “I vote, but I have never been to a caucus, and I would never dream of not going to that caucus (this year). I would never vote for any candidate beside Trump, and if he doesn’t make it, I will write his name in. He is the only one that can pull us out of this mess.”

When Donald Trump took the stage, he told the crowd he had just come from church. The sermon, he said, focused on humility.

“I don’t know if that was aimed at me — perhaps — but the church I don’t think knew I was coming, so maybe it was just by luck,” he said.   

The crowd loved it.

Trump wasted little time before ticking off his poll numbers. According to an aggregate from Real Clear Politics, Trump is leading Cruz, widely seen as the anti-establishment alternative to Trump, by 16.9 points nationally and 5.7 points in Iowa. Trump and Cruz have ramped up the intensity of their attacks against one another in the last week as both try to secure a first-place finish in Iowa. Over the weekend, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), currently polling in third place in Iowa and vying for the state’s comparatively moderate Republican voters, secured the endorsement of the Des Moines Register. Trump has not shied away from sparring directly with the opposition, and spent much of the early portion of his stump bashing other contenders — both Democrat and Republican.

“We’ll talk about individual candidates for a while,” Trump began. “Should we do that?”

The crowd responded with cheers.

“I thought so.”

Trump started in. He hit U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the Democratic candidate who has also tapped into populist fervor and is consistently hammering a message centered on the economics of income and wealth inequality. Trump said his attacks on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who by the way, as Trump told the crowd, might be in jail by the time she takes office, were solely responsible for Sander’s surge in the polls.

“This guy Bernie Sanders, give me a break, how does he figure into this whole thing?” he said, adding that the Vermont senator is probably a communist. “I could hit him so hard, he’s too easy, he’s really too easy.”

The insults kept rolling from there: former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (“It’s time to give up, Jeb.”), Cruz (“He has no principles.”) and Obama (“Just a bad guy.”) all received their share of the Trump treatment. As he finished the introductory takedowns, which as it turns out, never really end in a Trump speech, he began to roll out a vision for America that largely relied on projecting his own strength in making deals and standing up for the country in the face of China, Mexico and even interests like big oil. He told the crowd he would be “the greatest jobs president God ever created” and that he is “the most militaristic person.” At one point, he explained that his previous interactions with Chinese firms provide proof of his aptitude for winning.

“I do great with China,” he said. “Where I win, I win, that’s how I got them. I beat China.”

At this point, chants of “We love Trump” roared through the gym.

“We’ve got to have wins,” Trump said. “We got to have wins. Our country doesn’t win anymore.”

Trump kept emphasizing that he would help the country win again, particularly in the context of the only concrete policy proposal he presented during the course of his speech: approving the Keystone oil pipeline.

“I want 25 percent of the deal for the United States,” he said. “When they do this pipeline, it’s going to be a very profitable thing … I want the developers of the pipeline to give the United States a big, big chunk of the profits or even ownership rights like I do in business. That’s what I do. That’s what I do … They will give us a lot… I don’t want to be too greedy, but if I’m greedy, I’m greedy for the country. I want to be greedy for the country. I want a piece of the deal? Doesn’t that make sense?”

And to the crowd gathered here in Muscatine, it totally did. Sometime after a Sikh protester wearing a red turban and unfolding a cloth “Stop Hate” banner was escorted out by security staff and the wild applause of the gymnasium, he lamented what he said were the media’s continued efforts to downplay the size of his rallies.

At one point, he told the thousand or more people gathered in the gym to turn toward the “sleazebags” in the media risers as he explained the press would likely misrepresent the one empty portion of the bleachers closed for safety concerns as evidence that the rally was really not that widely attended.

“What sleaze, what sleaze, they’re disgusting,” he said.

In doing so, Trump was driving home a message articulated by Jeff Kaufmann, the Iowa Republican Party chair, when he introduced Trump at the beginning of the event. And it’s a message that’s been internalized by so many of the people who had come to see Trump in Muscatine. Every day, Kaufmann said he wakes up to headlines trumpeting civil war in the Republican Party. That’s not so, he told the crowd.

“We’re having a vigorous debate because the last eight years has made us mad, made us angry,” he said, voice cracking as he spoke, talking about his short meeting with Trump prior to the event. “Most of our conversation was about how to give voices again to the people that don’t believe they have a voice. I can’t think of anything more Republican than that.”

Campaign observers say Trump has capitalized on some of the same kind of feelings that Bernie Sanders has tapped into — frustration with the political system, a desire for political revolution.

“I’m angry and the American people are angry,” Sanders said at a Saturday rally in Clinton, about an hour away. “What Trump is doing with the anger he sees, is he is using it to scapegoat minorities. What he is doing is trying to divide us up. And what we are saying, which is profoundly different, is that when we stand together as a people, Black and Latino and Asian American, when we stand together, gay and straight, male and female, people born in this country and people who have come from another country, when we stand together there is nothing that we cannot accomplish.”

“This is a movement folks,” Trump said on Sunday. “This is not like a normal situation. There’s never been anything like this. They’re going to study it … Our country is divided, and it’s divided very badly. And we have to bring it back. And if we don’t bring it back, we’re going to have a problem. But we’re going to bring it back. I’m going to bring it back.”

As Trump shook hands and posed for pictures after the speech, I asked people still standing around in the gym what policies of Trump’s they supported. Most referred abstractly to his business experience or his willingness to tell it like it is, his ability to keep the country safe or create new jobs, but very few could pinpoint a specific, tangible policy item.

I thought about what Knuthson told me earlier in the afternoon when I asked her whether the people she knows are as angry and fearful as many pundits say.

“Oh they’re scared, period,” she said. “Everywhere.”