DES MOINES — Outside Donald Trump’s rally at Drake University, a Featherlite utility trailer was parked in the grass. On its roof, a jumbo-sized screen projected a live feed of Trump’s performance for the hundreds of people who were unable to fit inside the auditorium to see him in the flesh.
“My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy,” Trump said, his voice booming across the campus. “But now I wanna be greedy for the United States.”
Thursday’s event was designed to rival Fox News’ Republican debate, held simultaneously just a few minutes down the road in downtown Des Moines. Trump refused to attend the debate after a petty fight with the network’s star anchor, Megyn Kelly, ballooned into an elementary war with its CEO, Roger Ailes. With just three days to go before the Iowa caucuses, Trump seemed to be inviting the media to call the bluff of his campaign: He leads the polls in the state by 6.8 points on average and he claims he’ll win “big league,” but many of his supporters have not voted in caucuses before, meaning it remains to be seen if his high poll numbers will result in people actually coming out to pull the lever for him.
But like all of Trump’s rallies, this one turned out to be the wrong place to answer existential questions about the Trump campaign.
They are unlike any other political event, not only in size, but in organization. People wait in line in the freezing cold for hours, like they might do for the new iPhone or a Cronut, and then pass through TSA-like security to get inside. There are no campaign volunteers taking down their information or encouraging them to caucus. Even the vendors selling “Make America Great Again!” hats and buttons tend to be unaffiliated with the Trump organization. And for every attendee there to express their undying devotion, there are more than a few who are only rubbernecking. After all, if the freak show came to your town, you’d be remiss not to go see it.
Helen Giallombardo, 55, stood just a few feet from the trailer, staring up at Trump’s face on the screen in a trance-like state. Her curly blond hair was bathed in its reddish glow. If she got any closer, she would be touching it. At her feet lay a Trump placard, an American flag, and a tape recorder.
She said she’d made the five-hour drive from Chicago because she wanted to hear “the whole speech uninterrupted by the press,” who too frequently pepper his monologues with their commentary on television, or condense or characterize his quotes in print in a way she deems distorting.
Giallombardo described herself as a “small-business person” who runs a music publishing company (she declined to disclose the company’s name). She said she’s concerned primarily with the economy and foreign policy, though she thinks social issues are important. But mostly she seemed preoccupied with getting as much of Trump as she possibly could, even if he was two-dimensional.
“I think he’s the best thing we’ve got to basically save this country from further demise,” she told me. “I see my kids’ generation being sold out with this huge national debt, and he’s such a good businessman.”
I asked to take her picture. “Let me get my flag!” she said. She held up the flag, and her Trump sign, which read, “TRUMP DonaldTrumpForVets.com,” and she smiled.
Trump advertised the event as a fundraiser for veterans, but as The Daily Beast reported Thursday, the money will not go straight to them, but to The Donald J. Trump Foundation. In total, Trump claimed, in a press release, to have raised $6 million for 22 individual organizations, including $1 million he said he personally donated. He didn’t disclose where the other $5 million came from. Tickets to the event were free.
And the campaign doled out thousands of tickets to the show, despite being aware that their venue, the university’s Sheslow Auditorium, could hold just 775 people. It’s a classic political optics trick—an overstuffed rally looks better on TV than one with empty chairs—but some people who stood in line for hours in the 32-degree chill seemed frustrated.
“How was your Donald Trump experience?” a father sarcastically asked his teenage daughter as they filed out of the area after being turned away.
Inside, Trump was joined onstage by Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum. “Look at the cameras. This is like the Academy Awards!” he said. “We’re actually told that we have more cameras than they do by quite a bit, and you know what, that’s really in honor of our vets.”
Meanwhile, three Drake students responded to the spectacle with one of their own. Noah Espeseth, Ed Kakenmaster, and Ben Cole showed up to the rally dressed as Evel Knievel, Uncle Sam, and Donald Trump, respectively.
Uncle Sam thought Trump’s event was a great idea, but not for a reason the candidate would like. “Honestly, I’m excited ’cause I don’t like Trump,” he said. “So I think it’ll give the other candidates the chance to actually talk about real issues instead of just having Trump be in there with one-line zingers.”