“Lock her up! Lock her up!” the crowd gathered Friday afternoon in Des Moines chants. Gov. Terry Branstad appears to begin nodding and then freezes, as if thinking better of it, standing in awkward silence behind the convention hall lectern for 20 seconds as he waits for the commotion to die down. Many high-profile Republicans have distanced themselves from Donald Trump, some going so far as to publicly denounce him or even endorse his Democratic rival, but in Iowa, for the most part, the GOP is still aboard the #TrumpTrain. Branstad has provoked the chant, now a common refrain at Trump rallies across the country, by telling the crowd, in a staccato yell more animated than what’s typical for the low-key, mustachioed chief executive, “No matter how much she denies it, we know Hillary Clinton can’t be trusted!”
Just over an hour earlier I enter the Iowa Events Center’s Hy-Vee Hall, where Trump is scheduled to deliver a swing-state speech before heading out to a rally in Green Bay, Wisconsin, with the free ticket I was emailed for RSVP’ing to the event, saving myself the likely hassle of being denied a press pass. The Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” plays on the speakers. It’s the same song that played Trump off — much to the band’s chagrin — after his marathon address last month at the Republican National Convention, seemingly to mock the establishment conservatives and Ted Cruz backers who bitterly oppose their party’s presidential nominee.
“They were like, ‘Oh, Trump is just so anti-women and he says all these derogatory things.’ And I said, ‘You know what? No he doesn’t. Just grow up.’”
There are about 600 people here now, maybe a third of the eventual audience, and they’re characteristically colorful. An older man wears a T-shirt with an image on its back depicting Trump as a biker headed for the White House. Clinton is flying off the chopper’s passenger seat, revealing words on the back of Trump’s vest: “IF YOU CAN READ THIS, THE BITCH FELL OFF.” Several people walk around with tees reading “HILLARY SUCKS BUT NOT LIKE MONICA” or “HILLARY FOR PRISON” and, on the back, “TRUMP THAT BITCH!” One who sports the former is 30-year-old David Bryant, born and raised in Des Moines, who chats with me as I glance over at a curly-haired young man wearing a shirt that says “TRUMP 2016: FUCK YOUR FEELINGS.”
Bryant was an undecided voter during the Iowa caucuses. He wasn’t opposed to Bernie Sanders, either; he just wanted to see an anti-establishment candidate put an end to politics as usual and now, with Sanders out, Trump stands in clear contrast to Clinton, who epitomizes the status quo. Like Clinton, however, Trump comes with baggage, and he’s taken a beating in polls recently after his widely condemned spat with the parents of Humayun Khan, a Muslim American soldier killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq, among other trademark impulsive outbursts.
I ask Bryant if the poll numbers concern him. They don’t. “He’s probably dropped in the polls because Hillary Clinton’s already spent money on the smear campaigns, trying to make him look bad,” he posits. “Wait until his campaign commercials come out about her record, and then we’ll see the numbers flip back around.” What’s the best ammunition Trump has for that? “Just bring up any statement that she’s made to the press, the FBI, or Congress. Everything that she says is a lie, so I think if he uses that against her in the debate she’ll lose her cool, and then the United States of America will see her for what she really is.” Bryant proceeds to list off scandals, real and imagined, that he wants to see Trump take advantage of: “the emails, Solyndra, Uranium One, the Clinton Foundation, the 47 people that wind up dead under weird circumstances around the Clintons. It’s a lot to handle.”
Unlike Bryant, Ann Knauss, a 67-year-old Madrid resident who says she’s related to Trump’s wife Melania (née Knauss), has backed Trump since mid-January, before the Feb. 1 Iowa caucuses in which the New York real estate mogul placed second behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. (The big takeaway from Friday’s rally in the local paper is that Trump, who in January vowed to preserve the state’s first-in-the-nation caucus status if he won here, says he’ll keep the “amazing place” first anyway if elected president.) Like Bryant, Knauss supports Trump because “he’s not your normal establishment politician.” Her husband caucused for Cruz, a politician also at odds with the party’s ruling class but one she denounces as a RINO (Republican in name only) as evidenced by his snub of the GOP nominee at the RNC. Knauss says her husband has since boarded the #TrumpTrain.
The previous evening, Knauss was at a gathering with a group of people including several women who were political independents. “They were like, ‘Oh, Trump is just so anti-women and he says all these derogatory things,’” she recalls. “And I said, ‘You know what? No he doesn’t. Just grow up.’ I said, ‘Get some thick skin.’” A minute later, she admits that “he does say some things once in a while” but that “I love him for that,” and chalks up most of the controversy surrounding the candidate to the liberal press. “The media absolutely sucks,” she tells me. “I don’t like them. I don’t respect them.” I thank her for talking to me anyway.
Before much longer, Trump’s Iowa campaign co-chair and former Apprentice contestant Tana Goertz takes the stage before the crowd gets too restless and introduces Jamie Johnson, a Des Moines talk radio host and ordained minister who’d initially backed former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Branstad ally, for president. Johnson asks the crowd to remove their hats “in honor of the Lord” (red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” caps are peppered on heads throughout the hall) before praying that God grant Trump the wisdom of King Solomon, a Biblical figure also known for his extraordinary wealth and 1,000 wives and concubines who led him astray from God (Trump, by comparison, claims to be a billionaire and that the Bible is his favorite book, and once discussed with shock jock Howard Stern his risky “personal Vietnam” of avoiding STDs while sleeping around). “With your wisdom, o Lord, the next president of the United States will be able to lead this ship of state toward calm and tranquil waters. We ask your hand to rest upon Donald Trump … and we pray that you would grant to him what you granted Solomon, the wisdom to lead a nation into paths of righteousness and justice.”
Johnson exits the stage and, lest anyone forget that Trump loves the country (“I love my business … but I love the country more,” he told Iowa media aboard his personal Boeing 757 in the spring of 2015 before launching his campaign), the next guest leads the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance before another sings the national anthem.
“She’s lying about so many things. If it were anybody else, they’d probably be in prison right now.”
Then it’s former Congressman Greg Ganske’s turn. A relative moderate who served Iowa’s then-4th District from 1995 through the early aughts, Ganske is a Republican who one might reasonably assume would belong to the party’s #NeverTrump contingent. Not so. “Some people, some friends, even some family members say, ‘Okay, Greg, why are you supporting Donald Trump?’” he explains. “And here’s the message I want you to remember. It’s real easy. It’s six words.” He pauses for effect before each pair. “Economy, jobs. Secure borders. And Supreme Court.” Next up is Kim Reynolds, the state’s eternally overcaffeinated lieutenant governor, followed by Branstad, whose son Eric serves as Trump’s Iowa campaign director. The governor spends most of his time on stage warning that Clinton will usher in the next farm crisis by replacing the Renewable Fuel Standard with something modeled after California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard under pressure from “her billionaire contributor, environmental extremist Tom Steyer.” Branstad also criticizes Steyer for financing attack ads in 2014 against Sen. Joni Ernst, who, like Trump, is a climate change denier.
I’m more interested in Branstad’s reaction to the chant of “lock her up!” that interrupted him, and as everyone’s waiting for Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s vice presidential pick, and then Trump himself to arrive, I spot the Iowa governor in the audience. Branstad tells me he thought the crowd reaction to his speech was “great.” But what about the “lock her up!” chant — a reference to the FBI investigation into classified emails stored on the former secretary of state’s personal email server, which rather unsurprisingly resulted in no charges being filed — following his remark about Clinton? “Well,” he says, “she’s lying about so many things. If it were anybody else, they’d probably be in prison right now.” (Trump himself has called for Clinton to be jailed; an adviser for veterans’ issues, Al Baldasaro, went even further, arguing she should be executed for treason.)
Branstad’s comment is striking. Not only are we in the same place as several people wearing the “TRUMP THAT BITCH!” shirts that call for Clinton to be sent to prison on their fronts, but the governor’s embrace of the rhetoric is a telling example of how far Iowa GOP leaders have been willing to go to stick with their party’s nominee as other big-name Republicans, including most of the Bush family, previous nominee Mitt Romney, and several members of the U.S. House and Senate have refused to endorse him. (HP CEO Meg Whitman, the former finance chair for presidential candidate-turned-Trump lackey Chris Christie, is even supporting Clinton.) The timing of Branstad’s comment is also noteworthy: Just the previous Saturday, at a 100th anniversary parade celebrating the fire department of Arcadia, a town of about 500 people in western Iowa’s Carroll County, children were encouraged to throw water balloons at a man dressed in an orange jumpsuit and a Clinton mask who was inside a cage with a “Hillary for Prison 2016” sign attached to it. The controversial spectacle made state and national headlines.
Iowa Republicans aren’t uniformly aboard the #TrumpTrain. In June, David Johnson, a state senator from Ocheyedan, made even bigger headlines when he became the first elected Republican in the country to leave the party in protest of Trump, likening him to Hitler when he told the Guardian that the candidate had gained popular support “by reducing his campaign to reality TV and large crowds and divisive language and all the trappings of a good show for those who like that kind of approach, and that’s what happened in the 1930s in Germany.” And today, freshman Congressman David Young, who’s locked in a tight re-election battle against Iraq war vet Jim Mowrer for the 3rd District that includes Des Moines, chose to hold a campaign event elsewhere instead of appearing here with Trump, who many in the party fear is a liability for their down-ballot odds. Chuck Grassley, the Senate Judiciary Committee chair responsible for blocking President Obama’s nominee for the vacant Supreme Court seat, isn’t here either (he’s introduced Trump in the past), although his staffers are to distribute campaign lit and bumper stickers, and he’s still behind Trump despite facing some scathing criticism and his toughest election since besting incumbent John Culver in 1980.
As Branstad tells me why he’s hopeful Trump will defeat Clinton in November, his words are drowned out by the cheers of the crowd; his handler, anxious to end our conversation, taps him on the shoulder and says, “Pence is speaking.” The would-be veep dishes out 10 minutes of platitudes, imagining a scene of a press corps in cahoots with Clinton: “They keep thinking they’ve done it again, something else comes up and they say, ‘Now we’ve got ‘em, right?’” “Tell ‘em, Pence!” someone shouts. “Then they turn on the television the next morning and DONALD TRUMP IS STILL STANDING, STRONGER THAN EVER BEFORE!” The crowd roars.
Finally, Trump emerges, his famous orange face basking in the stage spotlights. As if to bait those who dare question his fitness for office, he immediately launches a broadside against “the Queen of Corruption,” his Democratic rival. “I can tell you this,” he warns, “that if Hillary Clinton becomes president, you will have terrorism, you will have problems, you will have, really, in my opinion, the destruction of our country from within.” In an ominous tone, he repeats himself: “The destruction of our country from within.” Soon, the crowd’s chanting “lock her up!” again, and Trump keeps at it. “She’s, really, pretty close to unhinged, and you’ve seen it. You’ve seen it a couple of times, but people in the background know it. The people that know her know it, and she’s like an unbalanced person.” “Amen,” a woman behind me says.
“In the words of a Secret Service agent — and you know, the Secret Service agent wrote a book. I hope they didn’t write a book about me like that,” Trump continues, eliciting laughter. “But the press hasn’t covered the book very well. In fact, they’ve almost not covered it at all. But they do cover me, so I’ll say basically what he’s saying in a nutshell, but it gets a lot worse than this. ‘She simply’ — this is a quote. ‘She simply lacks the integrity and temperament to serve in the office. From the bottom of my soul’ — I hear he’s a very good person — ‘I know this to be true.’” “Amen,” the woman behind me says.
“Republicans are looking to elect a bigot, and that’s not okay.”
During the remainder of his stump speech, Trump reiterates his plans to make Mexico pay for a border wall and to “knock the hell out of ISIS,” says he’ll establish “safe zones” in Syria instead of allowing refugees into the U.S. (“we’re going to help pay for it, but we’re going to use other people’s money”), and slams Obama for being insufficiently pro-Israel. He jokes that he’ll blame Iowa if he loses the election. He also criticizes the media for falsely reporting that he ejected a mother and her crying baby from a recent rally — the woman, according to a reporter who witnessed the incident, left on her own accord — quipping that the baby “could have been Pavarotti.” About an hour later, when he manages to offer concluding thoughts without trailing off on yet another tangent about his love for babies, Trump departs as the crowd chants his name and, once again, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is piped in over the convention hall speakers.
All told, the event is more subdued than a lot of Trump rallies, which have earned a reputation for breaking out in physical violence, and as I, like state Sen. David Johnson, have begun to view them more as dystopian reality TV productions than campaign events, in a twisted, cynical way that’s almost a letdown. I hear none of the racial or ethnic slurs commonly shouted at Trump rallies, which the New York Times recently compiled examples of from events its reporters have attended since the candidate entered the race last year (however, another observer did later report hearing people in the crowd yell “treasonous bitch!” and “kill her!” in reaction to remarks Trump made about — who else? — “Crooked Hillary”). Nor does Trump direct security to remove any protesters, something I assumed would be a given when I arrived based on my past experiences — aside from the many shouts from his supporters that he occasionally responds to, there aren’t any interruptions during his speech.
That’s not to say there aren’t any protesters with tickets to the event. I track one of them down on my way out of Hy-Vee Hall as he’s leaving with a couple others who are holding “Veterans for Trump” signs (as are many other attendees — Trump staffers were handing them out to anyone, regardless of whether they served or, apparently, whether they even support the candidate). He’s wearing a black shirt with a red heart outlining the words “Kids Are Watching.” His name is Tyler Stewart, 24, an eighth grade teacher who lives in central Iowa. “Republicans are looking to elect a bigot, and that’s not okay,” he tells me.
He lists off the various groups he says Trump has disparaged: Muslims, Latinos, women, the LGBT community. He mentions the disabled reporter Trump mocked at a campaign rally, and the housing discrimination lawsuits he’s faced in the past (the first time Trump’s name appeared in the New York Times was in 1973, under the headline “Major Landlord Accused Of Antiblack Bias in City”). “We preach to our kids all the time, constantly, treat others the way you want to be treated,” Stewart says. “If he’s elected president and that’s the way he’s going to be as president, I have no basis to tell my kids that they can’t do it, because they can just come right back and say, ‘Well, our president picks on people. Our president’s a bully.’”
Of course, not everyone here agrees that Trump’s a bigot, nor does everyone fit the stereotype of the angry, white male voter demographic his campaign has attracted. Leaving the rally, I also spot a woman wearing a T-shirt with the words “Chinese Americans for Trump” across its front. Her name is Yuyan Vernon, a 37-year-old corn and soybean producer who traveled two hours from Omaha with her husband, 51-year-old Tim, and one of her two young boys to join a group of about 10 Chinese Americans for Trump from other cities who met online. “We want to show the people that it is not just white people who support Trump, but minorities just like us,” Yuyan says. “There are a lot of Asian people, Chinese Americans who support Trump.” She doesn’t believe the U.S. economy is as strong as the media portrays it to be and likes Trump’s positions on trade. She also likes his tough talk on terror. “Right now, we are afraid to go to a theater … right now I just don’t feel as safe as 10 years ago,” she says. “Something’s got to change.”
Outside the convention hall, a man stands in silence at the bottom of the steps to the main doors. He holds a sign that reads “Love Trumps Hate” and “Black Lives Matter.” Behind him, a row of protesters hold similar signs, offering blank sheets of paper and markers to people who’d like to make a sign of their own and join in.
“We came here to rock. I really don’t give a fuck [about Trump].”
To their right, four men are selling the same “TRUMP THAT BITCH!” T-shirts that I saw when I first arrived. “How ‘bout it, guys? Hillary sucks but not like Monica,” one casually asks the passing crowd as two young girls lean against an Iowa Events Center sign directly behind one of his partners. “Trump that bitch on the back, guys.” A woman walks by and shakes her head. “That’s too gross for me.” The shirts are produced by Street Talk Tees; one of the peddlers tells me he’s not affiliated with the Trump campaign. “Nah, I’m just selling these.”
By coincidence, the Des Moines heavy metal group Slipknot is headlining a tour with Marilyn Manson and Of Mice and Men, and tonight’s the night they’re scheduled to play Wells Fargo Arena, which is located directly across the street from the Trump rally at Hy-Vee Hall.
Last December, Slipknot frontman Corey Taylor spoke out against what he called Trump’s “base, ugly bigotry and racism” in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I may have bullshitted myself into thinking we were a little further ahead when it comes to race, but what we’re seeing right now is a lot of the far right fringe coming out of the woodwork and wearing their hatred right on their sleeves,” he told the iconic counterculture magazine. “That cannot be what our legacy is. Too many people died during the Civil War, during the Civil Rights Movement. We should not be asking, ‘Jesus Christ, what decade is this? How is this OK?’”
I’m curious to see if any Maggots, as Slipknot endearingly calls its fans, have political views similar to Taylor’s. I wait at a crosswalk for a police officer to halt traffic, and when he does, one of the shirt peddlers also crosses. He immediately spots two guys headed to the concert and one bursts out laughing when he sees his products. Both impulsively reach for their wallets; one buys the Monica shirt and the other opts for Hillary behind bars.
Meanwhile, I notice a young woman in a Slipknot tee walking down the street and ask her about Trump. “I don’t really have an opinion,” she says, declining an interview but pointing me in the direction of the line forming around the corner at the door to the show. A few dozen people are already waiting there. I approach a group near the front but they’re not interested in presidential politics, either. “We came here to rock,” a guy in a Slipknot shirt tells me. “I really don’t give a fuck.”
Farther back in the line, I meet TeJayy Sullivan-Donahue, an 18-year-old from Des Moines. She asks if she needs to be a Trump supporter for me to interview her. I say no, and she approves. “Slipknot 2016!” she replies with a grin. She’s standing in line next to Andrew Haage, 27, who’s from Oskaloosa and is eager to share his thoughts on Trump. “I want to take a shit on his bus,” he tells me. “Shit. On. His. Bus.” My curiosity is piqued. Does this mean I’ve finally found a Maggot with strong feelings about the GOP nominee? “I could care less either way,” he clarifies. “I just want to shit on his bus. It would be the most expensive thing I’ve ever shit on.”