He does the talking.

Photographer: Joshua Lott/Getty Images

Trump Channels a Silent Rage

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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I could have been in Saxony, the birthplace of the German anti-immigrant movement Pegida: People with German last names were trying to convince me that immigrants were hogging the benefits in their almost all-white state. But I was in Muscatine, Iowa, in a high school gym where a Donald Trump rally was about to begin.

"I worked with them at Allsteel," said Pat Treiburger, 63. Allsteel, an office furniture manufacturer, is a big employer in the town of 23,000. "They made no secret that they were coming for the benefits. They talked about bringing their girlfriends and tons of children to feed off the system. I was working my butt off, and they were laughing in my face."

Muscatine County's population is more than 90 percent white, and the state of Iowa has an immigrant population of less than 150,000, or 4.8 percent of the total -- one of the smallest percentages in the U.S. (immigrants account for 3 percent of Saxony's population). And yet people said that Iowa was a major hub for Mexican immigration and that Trump was the man to stem the tide. 

I have heard and read all kinds of explanations for Trump's front-runner status among Republicans in Iowa and many other states, ranging from his charisma to the authoritarian leanings of his backers, but I reserved judgment until I saw Trump campaign. On Sunday, I waited in line with perhaps 2,000 of his supporters in Muscatine. It was freezing, and I suspect some people bought Trump campaign hats just to keep their ears warm. Merchandise hawkers plied the line, offering badges inscribed with "Blue Lives Matter" (a reference to the police) and "Hillary for Prison."

The people in line gave a bewildering variety of answers to the question of why they supported Trump. "The national debt needs taking care of," said Matt Zaehringer, 32, a truck driver. How would Trump do that? "Like he takes care of his bank account." Trump's wealth and supposed business acumen were a talisman; "He's a businessman, not a politician," Matt Nichols, 37, said. "I am a small-business owner, so that's important to me."

I didn't get the impression that these people wanted an authoritarian leader, someone who would take care of them. They appeared to be drawn to aspects of Trump's personality and political stances.

Then Trump came on stage and it became clear that his political skills weren't the reason for his appeal. I'm from Moscow, and my standards for political charisma and technique are pretty low. This was one of the worst political speeches I have heard. Trump rambled for more than an hour without completing a sentence. He went off on unexpected tangents. One such aside involved eminent domain -- the power of governments to take over private property for development. It's not a hot campaign issue in Iowa: It was the theme of a an anti-Trump attack by Cruz in a campaign ad that few in that gym had seen. 

As the speech meandered, Trump supporters started milling about and talking to one another. The other candidates I've seen in Iowa  -- the Democratic front-runners, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders -- had kept their audiences riveted. Sometimes, the billionaire appeared to remember why he was there and hit his talking points: Support for police and the military, the Second Amendment, America's greatness on the international stage. He got some applause.

But the crowd really went wild when two protesters appeared in the bleachers, bearing a sign that said "Love Always! Trump Hates." They were escorted out to chants of "Trump! Trump!" 

The crowd roared again when Trump boasted that he drew bigger audiences than Sanders and complained that television networks refused to  acknowledge his popularity. And they made noise when he said "stupid" was a better word for the government than "incompetent."

I began to wonder whether the people around me were really buying Trump's promises to build a wall to keep out immigrants, lower the public debt, make the military stronger or be "the best jobs president in history." They shouted "Trump," pumped their fists in the air as if they were defying all the bosses who had wronged them and all the politicians who had ever tried to sweet-talk them.

"He is the only one who can represent me in a honest way," said Rick Sharp, 64, a defense contractor. "He doesn't owe anyone anything, and he can say what he thinks."

With his lack of restraint in insulting powerful people, his financial independence and his unfocused anger at the perceived stupidity of the political elite, Trump has become a Sanders for people who don't believe in a redistributive state. He personifies their dream of making a lot of money and telling the boss to take a hike.

Trump -- as he seldom misses an opportunity to remind his audience -- is smart, and he knows that this, and not any campaign promise, is why people support him. At rallies, his volunteers distribute placards saying "The Silent Majority Stands with Trump." He says what most of his supporters think, but dare not say. The wave he rides is purely negative, and the lack of specific proposals is no problem. 

Trump, however, may not have this silent majority figured out. On my way back from the rally, I drove through Moscow, a community of about 250 just north of Muscatine. I saw a man driving up to a shed with a truckload of firewood, and I stopped, unable to pass up a chance to talk to a fellow Muscovite. Had he heard about the Trump rally in Muscatine? "Yeah," he said. "Keep'em away. I don't even pick up the phone these days because it's always these politicians calling. It's a running joke with us, 'Who is it today, Hillary or maybe Barack or somebody else?' We're gonna get what we're gonna get, is what I say."

He wouldn't give his name. I guess he preferred to remain silent.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net