It was a melancholy farewell. Three years ago this week, Donald Trump departed on Air Force One for the last time as Frank Sinatra’s My Way blared from loudspeakers. The outgoing US president was defeated, disgraced and seemingly down and out.
Amid the snowy plains of Iowa, however, Trump is set to pull off one of the most improbable of all political comebacks. On Sunday, he held a campaign rally more akin to a victory lap in a state where Republican caucus-goers look certain to back him for a swift return to the White House.
Despite freezing temperatures and icy roads, the event at a college campus in Indianola drew more than 500 supporters in heavy winter coats and hats, filling the room to capacity and forcing some to watch on a big screen in an overspill auditorium. Some had driven from more than a hundred miles away.
“You didn’t need a plug-in to get energised in there,” said Gary Leffler, 62, wearing a white cap with “Trump caucus captain” sewn in gold lettering. “I mean, it was electric. It was powerful. People were ramped up. We’re ready to rumble.
“Everyone is asking, hey, are Iowans going to get out and caucus tomorrow night? Well, I’m telling you what, it was -48 windchill factor and look at the crowd. The room was full. People couldn’t get in. They had overflow. I’m telling you, that is the energy, that is the magnetism that Trump has.”
The rally dwarfed those of Trump’s Republican rivals. He looks set to win Iowa’s first-in-nation vote in the Republican presidential nomination race by a record margin on Monday night. A final poll by renowned Iowa pollster Ann Selzer shows Trump with the support of 48% of likely caucus-goers, followed by Nikki Haley at 20%, Ron DeSantis at 16% and Vivek Ramaswamy at 8%.
Such figures suggest that commentators were too quick to write Trump’s political obituary in 2021, underestimating the deep reservoirs of support he enjoys in socially conservative states such as Iowa. Not even the deadly January 6 insurrection, four sprawling criminal investigations and mediocre results for Republicans in midterm elections have been able to loosen his grip on the party.
Some speak wistfully of Trump’s first term and regard him an antidote to a perceived malaise under Joe Biden on issues such as rising prices and border security. They reject the notion that Trump is an aspiring dictator and threat to democracy.
Robyn Copeland, 68, a librarian wearing a red Trump sweater, said: “He was so successful in his first term that we need him back again. He knows how to govern and lead. Biden does not. Biden is failing and ailing. so we need strength and we need integrity. I think Trump’s all that, even though people keep throwing him under the bus with all these fraudulent lawsuits and charges.”
Like many here, Copeland is untroubled by Trump’s status as the first former US president to face criminal charges. “They’ve been smearing him, trying to ruin him for the last four, six years now but I’ve always liked him and that’s not going to change.
“I don’t care about his personality. I like his credentials. He’s a businessman. We need to run the country like a business and we need to know our, deficits and credits and all those good things. He knows how to negotiate with the world, by the way, which is really important because we’ve got a lot of enemies out there.”
Trump, 77, delivered a typically meandering, disjointed and falsehood-laced speech for an hour and a half, ranging from the proximity of a third world war to lambasting Washington as “a rat-infested, graffiti-infested shithole”. He welcomed the presence of rightwing extremists Laura Loomer and Nigel Farage and lavished praise on both.
At a crucial moment in a White House campaign fuelled by retribution and vengeance, he told the crowd in Iowa: “These caucuses are your personal chance to score the ultimate victory over all of the liars, cheaters, thugs, perverts, frauds, crooks, freaks, creeps and other quite nice people.”
Trump took swipes at “crooked” Joe Biden and Barack “Hussein” Obama as well as his Republican primary rivals. “Unlike Ron and Nikki, we will always protect Medicare and social security for our great seniors. We are not going to hurt our seniors,” he said.
He accused DeSantis of disloyalty for challenging him after Trump had endorsed DeSantis for governor of Florida. He claimed that Haley is working for “people that don’t necessarily love our country”, adding: “She’s got some really bad money behind her.”
Trump also unveiled two endorsements: Wisconsin congressman Derrick Van Orden and North Dakota governor Doug Burgum, who dropped out of the Republican primary race last month. Burgum told the crowd: “Under President Trump, America was safe and prosperous.” For some there were echoes of 2016, when Republican rivals toppled like dominoes in backing Trump.
The rally was briefly disrupted by young protesters shouting “You’ve taken millions! and “Trump, climate criminal”. One held a black-and-yellow banner before being quickly hustled from the room by guards. Trump supporters responded with loud shouts of “Trump! Trump!” and “USA, USA!”
The former president, who has long questioned the scientific consensus on climate change, told one of the protesters to “go home to mommy” as she was being escorted out and describing her as “young and immature”. He told the crowd: “They’re fighting oil. They’re basically saying let’s close up on our country.”
Trump, who claimed that the stock market is only performing well because he is leading in opinion polls, urged his supporters to turn out despite what is expected to be the coldest night in the history of the Iowa caucuses. “You can’t sit at home,” he said. “If you’re sick as a dog … Even if you vote and then pass away.”
People at the rally expressed determination to beat the weather and send Trump on his way to the Republican nomination. Cathy Kurtinitis, 69, wearing a caucus captain cap, said: “I believe that he has done great things for America. I believe he deserves a second chance and that he will be the biggest fighter for America and give us strong foreign policy and make America great again.”
Asked for her views on Biden, Kurtinitis replied: “Corrupt, corrupt, corrupt, making money from China and his son making money from Burisma, and that’s not a problem but Donald Trump said something wrong, supposedly a quid pro quo on a telephone call, and the whole world goes crazy. No, there’s such a double standard. Joe Biden’s family is very corrupt.” (Republican congressional members so far have no evidence on the Burisma issue.)
Mike Schultz, 74, retired from agricultural business, dismissed the 91 criminal charges that hang over Trump’s head and threaten to disrupt his campaign schedule. “They’re bogus. Everything they’ve tried to accuse him of the entire time he was president turned out to be false. They’re bogus because the radical opposition is so afraid of him getting back into power, they’ll do anything they can to stop him.”
A common view among the base is that Biden’s America is not working for them and only Trump can fix it. David Burnell, 32, a millwright in the construction trade, said: “I liked the first go round we had with him so I’d like to see the second go round with him.
“Have you seen our border? Have you seen inflation? We’ve got 3 million people a year coming across the border illegally. Inflation is outrageous. Interest rates are through the roof. The stock market might be decent right now, but what’s it matter when inflation is so high? I’m making more money I’ve ever made my life, I’m broker than I’ve ever been. It’s just the way it is.”