The Trump Campaign Is Business as Usual on the Lip of History

A view from the Donald's caucus eve rally, another day at the office in one of the strangest campaigns in American politics.

Donald Trump speaks on stage with Jerry Falwell Jr. during a campaign rally at the Gerald W. Kirn Middle School in Council Bluffs, Iowa, on Jan. 31, 2016.

Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Five months ago, Donald Trump descended, somewhat inexplicably, upon Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Alabama, and promptly took over American politics. We were all so bewildered by Trump then, and his organization, such as it was, was ramshackle. He simply decided, for reasons no one quite understood, to do a sudden pop-in to a college football stadium in the deep South on a Friday night in a state few had even thought to campaign in. We all mocked Trump, but we were fascinated by him. The flameout, when it inevitably came, would be glorious.

Mostly, though, we were fascinated by the voters. They waited in a line a quarter-mile deep that Friday, in the sticky Alabama sun, just to see him, to get close. We saw those lines, those who found this television personality and dubious real estate magnate their political savior, and wondered: Who are these people? 

Five months later, we are wondering no more. On the eve of the Iowa caucus, the nation’s first casting of votes and an event that might just catapult him on an unstoppable trajectory to the Republican presidential nomination, Trump is speaking to his people, and we know exactly who they are. The Trump contingent has gone from a bizarre, confusing beast to the largest, most powerful movement in American politics since Barack Obama. And Trump has upgraded locales as well. From that shaggy, beaten-up old football stadium to Sioux City’s glorious, staggering Orpheum Theater, an old-school auditorium that shimmers and gleams, classy in a way Trump would approve of and understated in a way he wouldn’t. (Mexico should build the whole wall out of what this place is built out of.) Trump no longer has to make a case that he can change the way politics are run because he already has. He can just stand and wave, and his crowds will do the rest.

Not that he does much standing on Sunday night. The strangest thing about Trump’s event is how, well, low-energy he is. There is a school of thought that the real reason Trump skipped out on the debate last week was because he’s getting tired—the same reason he tends to fade halfway through debates—and Sunday provided some evidence for that theory. Rather than uncork another stemwinder of his rambling, oddly hypnotic speeches, Trump sat in a chair for 34 minutes next to Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University who has endorsed him and is trying to help him with the evangelical vote. (It is worth noting that Falwell’s enthusiastic endorsement of Trump is hotly controversial among the Christian community.) Falwell is a quiet, almost sleepy talker, but Trump, other than a few obligatory cut-ins and interruptions, was content to let Falwell drive the car for the night. Trump looked a little more wan than usual, as much as he can ever be referred to as wan. If it hadn’t been for all the American flags, you could have confused it with a sleepy talk at The Learning Annex.

It was unquestionably the most low-key of Trump’s events in Iowa this week, or really any other, and Trump wrapped it up in less time than it took to watch an episode of The Apprentice. This was the eve of perhaps the biggest night in Trump’s life, the culmination of this ridiculous journey, that mad lunatic upending of everything we thought we knew about politics, and celebrity, and acceptable public discourse, and America, really. Mobile was an introduction for Trump, but this was his coronation. The crowd waited two hours to embrace him, to carry him to the finish line. Eight years ago, Obama, leader of the last political movement to take the country like this, spent his final night before the caucus unleashing one of his best speeches, trying to harness all the momentum he could in the last few hours.

Trump’s event was nothing like that. Frankly, Trump—23 years older than Obama was back then—could have been asleep on his plane by 8:30. One would think this would be an odd way to wrap up this Iowa journey, a muted elegy rather than the s--t-kicking storm of chaos we have grown accustomed to. But since when has anything Trump done in this campaign made sense? And since when has any of that made a lick of difference in his results? Trump has said that he could shoot people on Fifth Avenue and his numbers would go up. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but I’m sure there are bewildered pollsters who would be legitimately curious to find out if he’s right.

The real takeaway from Trump’s night, particularly compared to the scene in Mobile, was how normalized this all has become. Mobile was rowdier, bawdier, a little crazy. Sioux City was…normal. It was well-behaved, and Iowa nice, a regular political rally. There were children running in the aisles and elderly women knitting and the Pledge of Allegiance and volunteers handing out guides to where you could find your caucus on Monday night. It’s amazing how quickly the absurd—“Phantom of the Opera” blaring over the loudspeakers! Long digressions how about Trump wants to build an extravagant ballroom in the White House!—can become accepted, even become the usual. There’s a greatest hits quality to Trump’s appearances now. He says, “Who’s gonna build the wall?” and the crowd screams “Mexico!” and everybody laughs and applauds like they just saw Neil Diamond dutifully plow through “Sweet Caroline” again. We all know how this works now. It’s not so weird to go to a Trump rally anymore. Now it’s just Trump being Trump. We have come toward him far more than he has come to us.

Trump didn’t bring anything special on his last big evening before voters—those Iowa voters, the ones who are always insisting they take this process more seriously than the rest of us, the ones claiming they are who can be most trusted with this sacred task of filtering through the men and women who most want to become the most powerful person in the world and discarding the unworthy—at last make their voices heard. He stood up a couple of times, spoke briefly, then got on his plane and went home. Maybe he didn’t need to. The world is different because of what he has accomplished in the last five months. His work may already be done. Or maybe he’s just getting started.

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