DES MOINES, Iowa—There is something kind of ominous about the Iowa State Fairgrounds in winter. The 450-acre expanse of seasonally abandoned carnival rides and empty concession stands looks like a place where you might run into a serial killer with a taste for the theatrical, or, at least on the evening in question, Donald Trump.
At 4:30 p.m. last Friday, early but already dark, the Varied Industries Building was set up in traditional town hall style: a lone stool sat on a platform surrounded by chairs and bleachers on four sides. Maybe owing to the size of the event, or maybe because of Trump's uniquely brawling political style, the cordoned off area where he would address the crowd looked a whole lot like a wrestling ring.
Two women with sensible haircuts chatted about their podiatrists and bobbed rhythmically while waiting for him to take the stage. Kids wearing oversized Trump buttons looked bored and shifted in their seats. A man in a sturdy work jacket embellished with an American flag surveyed the venue, absently mouthing the words to Elton John's “Tiny Dancer” as it played for the second time that night.
Piano man he makes his stand
In the auditorium
“They play the same songs at every event,” John, a soft-spoken 19-year old-who was sitting to my left, said approvingly. He had watched a few other Trump rallies on YouTube to get a sense of how things typically went down. “Trump’s going to come out to ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’ He does that every time.”
When I asked him why he was there, John, blonde and Midwestern polite, declined to call himself a Trump supporter. He had driven in from Ames, he said, largely to check out the scene.
And really, it's as good a reason as any.
The current Republican frontrunner, who has been polling at around 30% of his party’s voters for the last five months, would spend most of the night doing what he does at every other event: speaking in awkward and grandiose terms about vacant bullshit. How Iowa is "amazing," how he is going to do a "great job" as president, how he will repeal the Affordable Care Act like "boom" and replace it with something "so good."
Time not spent on nonsense or repetitive self-flattery was filled with either explicitly racist pronouncements (a Trump administration would ban Muslims from entering the country, would build a big, beautiful wall along the U.S.-Mexico border) or vaguely populist ones (“bring back jobs,” “make America rich again").
You don’t go to a Trump event to hear the man elaborate on policy. You go to feel like you’re part of a moment that has engrossed the entire country. You go to check out the scene.
It’s the Trump show, and, in one way or another, we’re all the supporting cast.
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John had come with a few friends from school, but he split off after a member of the campaign staff invited them to sit on stage. His three classmates were seated directly behind Trump’s empty stool, along with a few dozen other people of semi-diverse ages and ethnicities that in no way reflected the mostly older, almost entirely white crowd staring back at them.
“I think people should do their own thing,” he said. “And my own thing is not being on national TV.”
It's a hard thing to avoid.
Coverage of the campaign has only increased in the months since Trump introduced his candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, and at this particular event—just days after he announced the Muslim ban—the press took up an entire bleacher toward the back.
Adele played on the sound system while journalists circled the periphery, scanning the venue for people to interview. Others in the crowd took out their phones to shoot video of the camera crews shooting video.
Those sitting in the aisle seats had the most interaction with the press because talking to them didn’t require climbing over other chairs. Four teenagers, notably younger than the rest of the people in their section, were interviewed by three different outlets in the span of 45 minutes.
“Yeah I’m mad,” one of them told a reporter who couldn’t have been much older than he was. “The Republican party is broken.” He would repeat some version of the same sentiment when another journalist asked the same questions a few minutes later.
Behind him, a stylish reporter introduced a segment on the town hall. She smiled, and spoke directly into the camera: “We’re here to find out about the Trump voter. Who are they? Why are they here?”
There was some activity behind the curtain near the stage. The audience, curious, cameras lifted, got to their feet to cheer while "Skyfall" played out.
This is the end
Hold your breath and count to ten
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Trump’s playlist is a mix of classic rock and, if I counted correctly, exactly three Adele songs. It also features “Brown Sugar,” a Rolling Stones song about white slavers raping black women. It played twice.
The whole thing is a relatively short loop of songs to play over the three-hour gap between when most of us arrived—early, as instructed by the tickets—and when the candidate finally emerged from behind a curtained-off area near the stage.
So like Trump himself, the songs tend to repeat. At one point, “Rocket Man” led into “Rolling in the Deep” which led into “Jumpin' Jack Flash” and then right back into “Rocket Man.”
“Isn’t this what they were doing to people in Guantanamo?” John asked, laughing.
Relief came, temporarily, in the form of an announcement. A voice of God-style statement—it was hard to tell if it was live or pre-recorded—about what to do if a protester attempted to disrupt the rally:
This is a private event paid for by Mr. Trump. We have provided a safe protest area outside the venue for all protesters. If a protester starts demonstrating anywhere around you, please, do not touch or harm the protester. This is a peaceful rally. In order to alert law enforcement officers of the location of the protester, please hold a rally sign over your head and start chanting, ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’ and ask the people around you to do likewise until the officer removes the protester.
The announcement ended, the crowd laughed and erupted into applause. Two days later, at a campaign event in Las Vegas, some supporters went off the Trump chant script and started shouting “shoot his ass” and sieg heiling as security dragged protesters out of the arena.
Then there was more Adele. “Rolling in the Deep” started up for the third time.
I can't help feeling
We could have had it all
(You're gonna wish you never had met me)
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Pieces exploring the political and emotional lives of Trump supporters have become something of a well-defined genre in the last few months. (I’ve certainly done it.) And the questions are inevitably the same every time, because how could they not be?
Do you believe that Muslims should be banned from entering the United States? Do you agree that the process for vetting refugees entering the United States is “broken”? Do you agree that surveilling mosques is a good idea? They are questions that, like Trump’s pronouncements, are devoid of any critical context.
And with that proliferation in coverage comes a kind of self-awareness about being observed. By the third interview, the teens to my right—who had seemed sheepish about accepting the first request—had grown excitable.
They talked animatedly about Trump’s political savvy. Their frustration with the establishment, how they admired that their candidate staked out extreme positions in order to bring others closer to his side. Like Trump's talking points, this, too, begins to feel like part of a scripted news cycle that gets repeated whether you're in Des Moines, Las Vegas, or Manchester.
All campaigns are repetitive, and every candidate is pushing a message to be repeated back by supporters. But the outsized attention Trump has received make his lines—about building a "big, beautiful" border wall, about Syrian refugees ("If I'm president, they're out")—feel ubiquitous in a different way, familiar somewhere deep in your bones.
Finally, after more than two hours of idle pre-show and a tour through the Rolling Stones' catalog through 1978, a former contestant on The Apprentice who is now working as part of Trump’s Des Moines staff came out to talk to the crowd, setting the actual event into motion.
Tana Goertz, who made it to the show's semifinales but was ultimately fired, would be the warm-up to the warm-up. She was a classic hype woman, telling us that we were aboard the “Trump train,” which was “going places, and going places fast.” It was also “steamrolling" anyone who might get in our way.
The crowd cheered, ready to steamroll. Two men sitting in front of me whooped loudly, "Yeah, Trump!" then laughed at themselves. "Sit back, relax, and enjoy yourselves," Goertz told us. The first half of the script had run its course, and the next part of the show was about to begin. We were ready for it.