Wearing a shirt festooned with countless images of Donald Trump, Leverne Martin was looking cheerful for a man who had set off from Poplar Bluff, Missouri, at 9pm and driven through the night, arriving in Dubuque, Iowa, at 5.30am. When did he intend to sleep?
“As soon as President Trump is back in the White House,” the 55-year-old handyman replied without missing a beat. “If we don’t get him back in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where he belongs, we’re in a mess, man. That’s why I’m voting for President Trump. That’s why I drove nine hours.”
On a grey, rainy day, Martin was near the head of a long and winding queue outside a cavernous conference centre overlooking the Mississippi River. Like so many fans in so many towns and cities over nearly a decade, an overwhelmingly white crowd had come to cheer on Trump, elected US president in 2016, beaten by Joe Biden in 2020 and clear frontrunner for the Republican nomination in 2024.
What is striking about the traveling circus is not what has changed over that time but what has stayed the same. Hawkers still move up and down the line selling Trump calendars, keychains and other regalia with captions such as “Gun rights matter”, “Fight for Trump”, “Jesus is my savior, Trump is my president”, “No more bullshit”, “Trumpinator: I’ll be back” and “Fuck Biden and fuck you for voting for him”.
Trump, 77, still puts on a show unlike anyone else in politics. Twentieth-century music from Abba, Celine Dion, Elvis Presley and Whitney Houston booms from loudspeakers. Video clips of allies such as the broadcaster Tucker Carlson and Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán and foes such as Biden and the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis, elicit boos and jeers.
The former reality TV star still enters to thunderous cheers and chants of “USA! USA!”. People wave signs bearing his name and snap photos on their phones; one stood on a chair wearing an “I love Trump” T-shirt. Trump still plays the parts of demagogue, divider and standup comic, serving red meat to supporters who revel in shared grievance and the thrill of transgression.
The slogan then is the slogan now: “Make America great again” (Maga), emblazoned on a blue backdrop to the stage where Trump spoke for 80 minutes. But for his supporters that phrase has taken on added meaning: Maga is now imbued with nostalgia for the Trump presidency when, as they perceive it, borders were strong and fuel prices were low.
Mathew Willis, 41, wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” T-shirt alluding to an anti-Biden meme, said: “He showed what he can do for this country. The economy seemed the best that it had been, in my lifetime at least.
“I just feel like he did a good job when he was in office. I want to see him do it again, especially after the last two and a half years of BS we’ve had. The economy’s in the toilet. Gas prices are up. We’re sending billions to other countries. We can’t even fix our own backyard. It’s sad.”
The sentiment was echoed by Greg Erickson, 63, a retired insurance agent who blames the media for not giving the ex-president the credit he deserves. “I know to the deepest depths of my heart that Trump loves this country,” the army veteran said. “When he served four years as president, he was competent. Trump had inflation very low.
He had gas prices low and the highest employment rate for all minorities, for Blacks and women, which he doesn’t get credit for
“He had gas prices low and the highest employment rate for all minorities, for Blacks and women, which he doesn’t get credit for. He got rid of the bad guys; he killed two terrorists. He honored our military, which is very near and dear to me. He did a lot of great things for the country and that’s why I’m here.”
When he rode down a New York escalator in June 2015, Trump demonised immigrants as criminals, drug dealers and rapists and made the building of a wall on the US-Mexico border his signature issue. Eight years later, the essential point remains the same and the incendiary rhetoric has only intensified.
In Dubuque, many Trump supporters interviewed by the Guardian identified the border, which receives hours of coverage on Fox News, as their top priority – one that Democrats ignore at their peril. The candidate duly devoted the first half-hour of his speech to it, repeatedly drawing a contrast between his own presidency and that of Biden.
“Under my leadership we had the most secure border in US history, acknowledged by everybody; now we have the worst border probably in the history of the world,” he said. “Just think of what we achieved under the Trump administration: I ended the human, economic and national security calamity known as catch-and-release.”
Trump made the wildly exaggerated claim that mobs of unscreened, unvetted illegal alien migrants were “stampeding” across the southern border “by the millions and millions”. He continued: “This is an invasion and I’m the one candidate who from day one knows exactly how to stop it.”
As in 2016, he recited The Snake, based on a song in which a “tenderhearted woman” finds a half-frozen snake on a path and rescues it, only to be bitten – supposedly a parable about the dangers of being soft on immigration. As in 2016, he mocked the “fake news” media and hurled nicknames at his political rivals, even repurposing “Crooked” Hillary Clinton as “Crooked” Joe Biden.
But if there is a difference, a second Trump term is set to be even harsher and more extreme than the first. He vowed to move thousands of troops currently stationed overseas to the border and deploy the navy to impose a “fentanyl blockade”, arguing: “Before we defend the borders of foreign countries, we must secure the border of our country.”
The former president went on: “We’ll carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history. I’ll also invoke immediately the Alien Enemies Act to remove all known or suspected gang members.” He also promised to expand on a travel ban that barred people from several countries with majority-Muslim populations during his presidency.
Trump is also known to be planning a sweeping expansion of presidential power at the expense of the administrative state if he wins re-election next year. Referring to it as “our second term”, he said: “It is the greatest movement in the history of our country and probably any country and, if we do this, it will be written about for hundreds of years. We have to do it much bigger.”
The rally came amid fresh criticism from conservatives for Trump over his refusal to commit to a national restriction on abortion and description of DeSantis’s signing of a six-week ban as a “terrible mistake”. Trump told the crowd in Dubuque that they needed to “follow their heart” but warned that Republicans needed to “learn how to talk” about legislation in a way that does not turn off voters.
Carving out exceptions in any ban for instances of rape, incest and the mother’s life was vital, he said. “Without the exceptions, it is very difficult to win elections. We would probably lose the majorities in 2024 without the exceptions and perhaps the presidency itself.”
I want the economy back to the way it was. I thought he did a good job when he was in there
Iowa’s popular governor, Kim Reynolds, has condemned Trump’s position but his followers here seemed at peace with it. Only one told the Guardian that he was “slightly” troubled by the comments. Many have been on the eight-year journey and are sticking with him through thick and thin.
Indeed, whereas for millions of Democratic and independent voters Trump’s first term and its fiery denouement are his biggest liability, an essay in American carnage, for the true believers of the Maga movement they are his biggest asset.
Dawn Ruff, 55, who went to a Trump rally in Dubuque when he first ran for president, said: “I want the economy back to the way it was. I thought he did a good job when he was in there.”
The White House quotes figures showing that inflation is in decline and unemployment at a 50-year low. But Ruff responded: “Yeah, that’s their opinion. They’re not the ones that have to worry about going to the gas pump and pumping gas that’s almost five bucks a gallon. When Trump was in there it was a dollar something.”
Laci Doyle, 19, a student nurse who will vote for the first time next year, agreed that things were better under Trump. “Our country was at its highest point when he was president. We need to get back to what it used to be, because I think our country was a lot happier and less divided when he was president.”
He obviously has a great respect for the rule of law
Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims during his four-year presidency, according to a Washington Post count. But Doyle added: “Yeah, he says some stupid stuff – the tweets and everything – but that doesn’t bother me because ultimately he’s an honest, truthful person. I like his personality. I like that he’s a businessman.”
Trump is facing 91 criminal counts in four jurisdictions but Susan Tayloe, 59, who works for a bank, said: “He obviously has a great respect for the rule of law and also just he’s shown when he was in office before that he got a lot of things accomplished for a lot of people and did a lot of good things. He got persecuted and I like him even better now because of that.”
Asked what she would like to see Trump do in second term, Tayloe replied: “I would like to see the border closed. I would like to see drilling: drill, baby, drill. We have tons of oil here. Why are we shutting down Alaska reserves? We bought Alaska for the oil. Let’s use it. More energy independence. I’d like to see less of this Green New Deal bullshit.”