Donald Trump’s Campaign Against Reality in Iowa

President Trump in Des Moines, Iowa, on Thursday.
Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Even though Donald Trump’s victory in Iowa’s Republican caucuses on Monday is a forgone conclusion, the president’s campaign is moving forward with so much organizational manpower and theatrics in the state that you’d be forgiven for thinking Bill Weld or Joe Walsh, the president’s only remaining challengers, were polling much higher than three percent nationally.

In the week leading up to the caucuses, Iowa has been the setting for events with Vice-President Mike Pence aimed at Evangelicals (who, in 2016, were responsible for Trump’s loss to Ted Cruz), President Trump himself, and visits from high-profile members of the administration, like Kellyanne Conway on Saturday. On Caucus Night, according to the New York Times, dozens of Cabinet secretaries, officials, and Trump-friendly members of Congress will be present at caucus sites, where they hope to generate excitement for the incumbent. In a private Facebook group for Trump supporters in the state, a campaign volunteer wrote, “we have been called to help in a BIG way.” He said the campaign was in need of “100 drivers for surrogates that will be on the ground all day Monday.”

In a statement to New York, Brad Parscale, the Trump 2020 campaign manager, said, “Our Caucus Day operation is just a preview of what’s to come.” He promised that the campaign would be “the strongest, best funded, and most organized presidential campaign in history.”

Though if the campaign’s logistical planning of the Thursday night Des Moines rally was any preview, “most organized” is probably a stretch. Pre-credentialed media was forced to wait outside for over an hour in the 30-degree chill, with staffers periodically emerging from the venue to yell at those waiting to get in, until, without explanation, Secret Service closed off entrance to site altogether.

But Trump’s speech — which, having been turned away from the rally, I watched from the lobby of the Marriott, the hub for many campaigns and news organizations ahead of the caucuses — felt, even more than usual, as though it was geared toward reminding his fans of the 2016 election. There were references to “Crooked Hillary” and “deplorables” and also to his earliest political speeches, with lines cribbed almost directly from his 2015 announcement speech.

This was the scene in a decidedly uncompetitive patch of the heartland as lawmakers in Washington weighed impeachment. The Trump campaign has staged their counter-programming, moving forward as if the president’s legal team isn’t in the Senate chamber, attempting to defend him against charges that he improperly sought interference from the Ukrainian government to take out the Democratic front-runner in the upcoming general election. It’s also a do-over: during the last election, Iowa was Trump’s first test with voters, and he failed, however narrowly.

“Look, you know, I can make this speech really short,” Trump said, “All I have to do is say, hello, Iowa. You have no choice. You have to vote for me. Otherwise, everything that you’ve built in your entire life will be gone. Goodbye, Iowa. Have a good time. Instead, I worked my ass off up here, OK. True. Do you think this is easy? It’s a little hot in this room. This room wasn’t designed for this many people.”

Jeff Kaufmann, the Iowa GOP chairman, told me, “Their presence here is ten times what it was in 2016.” As the president spoke during the rally, Kaufmann looked on from the VIP section. The president called to him from the stage: “Great job!” he said.

In fact, the event I was locked out of in Des Moines wasn’t even Trump’s first rally of the week. In Waukee, Iowa, a suburban stretch a few minutes from the state capitol in Des Moines, I attended a “MAGA Rally Watch Party” on Tuesday night, some 1,200 miles from the site of the president’s Wildwood, New Jersey, event. The host was Tana Goertz, a former contestant on The Apprentice who is now a campaign surrogate best known for comparing Trump to Mother Teresa.

The TVs in the back of Jethro’s BBQ & Jambalaya were set to Fox News and Fox Business so that the men and women could look up from their beers and plates of onion rings to watch the president speak, although they were more often watching Fox Hosts—like Tucker Carlson—as the rally aired in a small box in the corner of the screen.

As Goertz paced the room with Dance Mom purpose, passing around a sign-in sheet and offering goodie bags with rhinestone TRUMP pins, the Bikers for Trump rolled in, wheeling a container of Make America Great Again hats and assorted banners which they quickly arrayed on tables and pinned to the walls.

A woman, dressed in a camo MAGA hat and a rather busy vest stamped with a bald eagle and the Bikers for Trump decal (a badge of gold and red, white, and blue), and a man, in an American flag–print cowboy hat and American flag–print suspenders, unfurled the banners beneath glowing signs for Budweiser and Bud Light. WHERE’S HUNTER? TRUMP 2020 read one. ONLY YOU CAN PREVENT SOCIALISM read another.

Photo: Courtesy of Olivia Nuzzi

Goertz introduced a man named Randall to the room whom she said she met in Iowa in 2016 and who impressed her with his dedication to Trump. She asked those listening to compare themselves to Randall. “How far are you willing to go for our president?” she said. “Are you willing to sleep outside in 25 degrees, 48 hours before the rally?” People laughed. One man screamed, “Save me a spot, Randall!”

It’s easy to justify the lack of commitment — Trump supporters have little cause for concern ahead of Monday night. The president, who enjoys close to 90 percent approval among Republicans, has failed to attract a competitive challenger for the nomination, and many state parties across the country have responded by canceling their nominating contests altogether.

Kaufmann stressed that, as the chair of the party, it was his decision, whether or not to hold the caucus. He went forward, he told me, primarily as a strategic move to preserve the state’s first-in-the-nation status. “We can’t take an election cycle off,” Kaufmann said. “We have to continually show the rest of the country and the states and the Republican National Committee that Iowa is the place where we wanna start the presidential process.”

But Joe Walsh and Bill Weld — and Mark Sanford, the former governor and congressman from South Carolina who briefly campaigned against Trump last year — say that there is little distinction between the Iowa GOP and Trump’s reelection campaign, and that the coordination goes beyond what was considered normal in previous cycles.

Sanford told me that, in general, “the folks in leadership wouldn’t even return a phone call. I made a number of calls to folks, from the chairman on down, and I couldn’t get a call back.” The experience, he said, was crippling.

After an event in Polk City, Walsh described a similar experience. “They’ve made it very difficult. They’ve closed doors on us left and right,” a feeling I understood as my hands and feet thawed in the Marriott lobby. Walsh said he reached out to the party repeatedly and he was “pretty sure” he got “no response.”

Walsh was critical of Weld, who by comparison hasn’t campaigned in Iowa at all. “Weld came and had a piece of chicken at the state fair,” he said.

For his part, Weld told me, “I felt like a two-headed cow at the Iowa State Fair — everyone wanted to come and see me! Partly it was curiosity: somebody with two arms and legs standing against Donald J. Trump.” He said that he’s made no effort at all with the Iowa GOP. “None of the state parties are welcoming, because they’re all the Trump organization,” he said. “I wouldn’t be barking up that tree. That would be a vain act.”

“They’re under orders to make sure that I don’t get to meet anybody, and if I show up to an organizational meeting at some city or town, they’re supposed to adjourn immediately so I can’t have a conversation with them,” Weld said, adding that he’d “seen” memos ordering such things, but then clarified that he’d merely been told about such memos by “people in New Hampshire” associated with the Republican Party there.

Kaufmann was enraged by the accusation. “That is absolutely, one-hundred percent false!” he told me. “Not one time, as the state chairman, were we told anything about Bill Weld or the Joe fella, I can’t think of his last name. That is patently false and I would know about it if that went out. That would go right past my desk. They are lying. That is a lie made up for why they didn’t show up in the state.”

Photo: Courtesy of Olivia Nuzzi

But who cares about this infighting among bit players anyway? The president has responded to impeachment the way he’s responded to every other threat to his presidency: by pretending it’s irrelevant even as he stages events in which he spends half the time complaining that he’s unfairly under siege. If that sounds a lot like the 2016 campaign, you’re right. And even as everything is technically different now, very little — including this hotel lobby — feels like it’s changed at all.

As he concluded his remarks, Trump talked about “good old Cambridge,” a town of less than 1,000 half an hour away from Des Moines, before rattling off a list of other Iowa towns: Council Bluffs, Cedar Rapids, Melbourne, Moorhead, Davenport.

“We stand on the shoulders of true, red-blooded American heroes,” he said, “This great state was founded by tough, tough frontier men. These are tough people. Let’s see how tough. They’re tough. Anybody like to join ICE?”

Then he appeared to return to the script: “And strong pioneer women,” he said, “who defied the dangers to carve out a life and a beautiful home with great families and great neighbors. They tamed the wilderness, braved the elements, tilled the soil, planted the fields, and helped make this the greatest nation to ever exist on the face of the earth,” he said. “And we are making it greater and greater every single day.”