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A little more than halfway into his speech in Waterloo, Iowa, last night, former President Donald Trump returned to his new favorite line.
“They’re destroying the blood of our country,” Trump said, complaining that immigrants are arriving from Africa, Asia, South America, and “all over the world.” He said that unnamed individuals (presumably his advisers) do not like it when he uses these sorts of phrases. During this section of his speech, the packed crowd inside the Waterloo Convention Center was pin-drop silent. He suddenly assured everybody that he’s never read Mein Kampf. “They said, ‘Oh, Hitler said that,’” he explained, adding, “in a much different way.” Then he was right back to it. “They could bring in disease that’s going to catch on in our country,” Trump warned. “They’re destroying the blood of our country; they’re destroying the fabric of our country.”
Trump has enjoyed a double-digit lead in the polls for months. “We could put this to bed after Iowa, if you want to know the truth,” he said of the GOP-primary race. His first-place finish in the caucus less than four weeks from now seems all but certain. He continues to trounce Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, whose campaign has become something like a balloon expelling air, chaotically fluttering in its descent. And although former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley has continued to rise in the polls, she remains a long shot in Iowa, and only slightly less of a long shot in New Hampshire. Congressional Republicans are coalescing around their leader. Over the weekend, Representatives Lee Zeldin of New York, Wesley Hunt of Texas, and Matt Gaetz of Florida were all stumping for Trump in Iowa. The former president smells it in the air. Last night, he seemed animated, as if taking a preemptive victory lap.
As Trump’s position in the race has improved, his rhetoric has become more extreme. Speaking to the overwhelmingly white crowd in Waterloo, he spent even more time than usual demonizing nonwhite people. Immigrants, Trump said, are dumped on our borders, pouring into our country, bringing in crime. He said they were coming from other nations’ prisons and mental institutions, that they were “emptying out the insane asylums.” Later, he went after the kids. “You have children going to school, speaking languages that nobody even knows what the language is,” Trump said, adding that “there’s no room for our students in the classrooms”—emphasis on the “our.” He once again promised that, if reelected, he’ll carry out the largest deportation operation in American history.
Two weeks ago, Trump said he would be a dictator “on day one.” Last night, he praised the “great gentleman” Viktor Orbán of Hungary. “He’s the leader, he’s the boss, he’s everything you want to call him,” Trump said of the autocratic Orbán. He cautioned that our planet is on the brink of World War III, and that he, Donald Trump, is the only one who can prevent it. (He bragged about how he personally made sure our nuclear stockpile was “all tippy-top.”) Trump scoffed at his indictments, particularly the classified-documents case against him: “I have total protection. I’m allowed to do it.” He vowed to “take over our horribly run Washington, D.C.” and give indemnification to any police officer who “gets in trouble” for pursuing a criminal. I’ve watched Trump speak live in several different settings over the past several months. I’ve never seen him more bombastic this year than he seemed last night; he sounded like an unmoored strongman.
Trump’s pageant of darkness unfolded against a backdrop of Christmas cheer. The former president was flanked by two Christmas trees, each topped with a red MAGA hat. Prop presents in Trump-branded wrapping paper dotted the stage. Red, green, and white lights glowed down from the ceiling. Trump opened with a long monologue from his earlier days: how we’re all saying “Merry Christmas” again. (His campaign volunteers handed out signs plastered with the phrase.) Even the press laminates were decorated with a string of cartoon Christmas lights.
One of Trump’s warm-up speakers, Iowa Attorney General Brenna Bird, asked the audience, “What do you give the man who has everything as a Christmas present?” This was a slightly confusing setup for a joke about how Christmas is going to come late for Trump this year, when he wins the Iowa caucus in mid-January. People sort of got it.
Before Trump took the stage, I spotted Santa Claus leaning against a brick wall outside the assembly hall and asked for an interview. He wavered, then reluctantly agreed. The back of his red suit said MAGA CLAUS in gold block letters. Santa, it turns out, is a man in his mid-20s named Alex. He said he lives in Northern Virginia and works for Public Advocate of the United States, a conservative nonprofit group. He told me he plays all sorts of characters, such as Cupid and an evil doctor/mad scientist who forces people to take a COVID vaccine. He told me he had showed up at the Loudoun County school protests dressed as Uncle Sam. Two of his organization’s signs hung outside the venue’s entryway: Make the Family Great Again! and There are only TWO genders: Male & Female. Merry Christmas.
Sitting at a nearby table was 81-year-old Susan Holland and her husband, Buzz. Both welcomed me with a nod as I pulled up a chair next to them. Holland, wearing a bedazzled Trump hat and an American-flag sweater with flag earrings, told me she had seen Trump in person about 10 times over the years. “We can hardly wait ’til he’s sworn in again,” she said. I asked her where she gets her news. “We watch Fox News,” she said. “We watch the regular news too.”
Over the past several months, I’ve asked dozens of Trump supporters if there is anything the former president could do or say that would make them withdraw their support. Mike Benson, a 62-year-old retired carpenter from Waterloo, was posted up a few blocks away from the venue at the Broken Record Bar earlier in the afternoon, wearing a red TRUMP 2024 hat, nursing a Bud. He told me about being out of step with his union buddies, who all staunchly vote Democratic. (He said he cast his first presidential vote for Ronald Reagan and has supported the GOP ever since.) I brought up that Trump had been praising people like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Orbán, and asked if he thought Trump himself would end up a dictator.
“Not a chance,” Benson said. “People confuse Trump’s praise for them. He’s not praising them; he’s acknowledging that they’re smart people. They’re smart enough to manipulate their population, and Trump is acknowledging that,” he said. “The devil is smart,” he added.
I asked him if he thinks Trump manipulates our population.
“No,” he said. “He puts what he believes is true out there, and if you believe that too, all you have to do is follow him. He’s not strong-arming people around. He’s not manipulating facts. He’s not militarizing government departments to go after opponents. He’s not doing any of that.”
Less than an hour before Trump took the stage last night, the Colorado Supreme Court had ruled that the former president was disqualified from appearing on the state’s ballot under the Fourteenth Amendment because of his actions leading up to the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. His campaign has already said that it will appeal the decision, and the case appears destined to wind up before the Supreme Court.
In Waterloo, Trump didn’t mention the Colorado ruling. Instead, he focused on Biden, the swamp, and the “deep state.” “We’re going to bring our country back from hell; our country’s gone to hell,” Trump said. By Christmas 2024, he countered, the economy will be roaring back and energy prices will be plummeting. He claimed responsibility for the presently high stock market—arguing that returns are up because people believe he is returning to office.
“Crooked Joe Biden” is “a low-IQ individual” and “the most incompetent, most corrupt president in the history of our country,” Trump said. “Other than that, I think quite a bit of him.” Later, Trump mocked Biden’s slow speech at a recent news conference.
Throughout the night, Trump pandered to Iowa voters, attacking electric cars, talking about persecution of Christians, and praising those who “still till that soil.” He fired off some strange ad-libs: “Does everybody in this room love their children? Does anybody in this room not love their children? Raise your hand. Oh, that guy in the blue jacket raised his hand!”
But his grotesque anti-immigrant rhetoric kept returning—a messier, ganglier version of “Build the Wall.”
As attendees filtered into the convention center, a 69-year-old man stood outside in the frigid cold and wind holding a handwritten sign. It read: EVERY TIME YOU EAT A PORK CHOP OR RIBEYE STEAK THANK AN IMMIGRANT. The man, Paul, had driven from his home in Manchester, about 50 miles east. He told me he used to work alongside many immigrants at a seed-corn plant. He said he was dismayed by all the slurs he had been hearing about foreigners. “I decided I was gonna come, I was gonna hold the sign,” and offer a message that was “at least halfway positive,” he said. I didn’t see any members of Trump’s flock stopping to consider it.