Primary Colors: Live From the Iowa Caucuses, Biden, Pence and Trump

by Matthew Stevenson

This is the first part of periodic reports from the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, and perhaps beyond, should the republic last until South Carolina and Nevada.

A group of people standing in front of a crowdDescription automatically generated

Joe Biden campaigning in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

To get to Iowa, I took an indirect all-American excursion, and arrived in Council Bluffs on the banks of the Missouri River by way of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Chicago, and Nebraska, largely because I wanted to get over jet lag (I live in Europe) and because I wanted to ride trains and hear those lonesome whistles at grade crossings in the night. At least in that, I was not disappointed.

Council Bluffs is a railroad town on the eastern bank of the Missouri River. Across the river is Omaha, where in the nearby suburbs both President Gerald Ford and Warren Buffett have their roots. Buffett still owns his house on Farnam Street, although it has been a while since anyone shoveled the driveway in front of the gate; Ford’s childhood home has burned down, leaving only a memorial garden and a kiosk where you can push a recording button and hear Jerry talk about “whipping inflation now!”.

By the time I got to Council Bluffs in my rental car, the sun was setting in the warehouse sprawl that connects the town to the river.

Council Bluffs was the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railway—deemed so by the railroad lawyer in the White House, Abraham Lincoln—and it’s safe to say that the Union Pacific Railroad and E.H. Harriman got the better end of the deal than did, a hundred and fifty years later, the unemployed railway brakemen and porters for whom Council Bluffs is the end of the line.

I caught up with the Biden campaign at the event facility called the Grass Wagon. It looked more like a roller rink or warehouse than a political stage. Inside, while awaiting the candidate’s arrival (he was about a half hour late), I stood chatting with some Iowa firefighters whose union has endorsed Biden in the primary.

When I asked one of the firemen why Biden was their man, he said: “He’s been with us every step of the way,” and the way he described Joe, I got the feeling that on many dark nights in Council Bluffs, there was Biden sliding down the station fire pole and into his waiting boots.

When my questions about the Iowa caucuses became a little too technical—I was asking about how the delegates are allotted after next Monday night, when everyone in Iowa stands in the corner of the candidate of choice—one of the firemen retrieved an expert from a Washington office, and he explained how Iowa goes from 1700 precinct votes next Monday to conventions on the county, congressional, and state levels before a few Hawkeyes are sent off to the national Democratic convention (where no one cares what they say or think).

The Grass Wagon’s parking lot—mostly snow banks and patches of ice—was chock full of support trucks for C-Span and CNN. Plus there were vans and press cars parked haphazardly, as though Joe had finally caught fire inside on the small stage.

My guess is that about 200 voters were present for the event. About a third of them were firemen, who were wearing yellow t-shirts and waving Biden placards, so that the clips on the nightly news or the longer C-Span feed would convey to home viewers that Joe’s supporters arrived with semi-delirious passion.

In reality, they only started their wave when Biden came through the side entrance and walked to the center of the stage, in what was a theater in the round.

* * *

Biden was dressed in a blue blazer and slacks, and his air was that of a Vegas crooner, perhaps at the Sands Hotel. Think of that reconditioned Dean Martin look, as everything from his neck up seems to have been rebuilt—skin, hair, teeth.

Biden’s mind strikes me as slightly addled. Here and there he sounds like an older man in a retirement community, making free associations (about ISIS, health care, the cost of prescription drugs, climate change, Trump, education, terrorism, and Iraq) over cocktails on a terrace that overlooks the eighteenth hole of a golf course.

Although he’s taller than I expected and looks in good shape, at times Joe moves around the stage set tentatively. What redeems the Biden experience, at least on a small stage in Iowa, is that he establishes a deep emotional rapport with his audience—by evoking his hard-scrabble Scranton childhood, middle class values (even if he’s lived most of his life in a mansion), affection for American workers, and love of political compromise.

At times, in talking about his parents and the Depression, he could sound like those Monty Python Yorkshiremen remembering their struggles as children: “House? You were lucky to have a house! We used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of falling!” To which the other Yorkshiremen respond by saying: “Luxury… sheer luxury.”

Biden isn’t running for president because he wants to sit in the White House for the rest of his life, signing proclamations. He’s running for the same reason that professional golfers, once they hit age 50, go on the senior tour. They like the game, the hours are good, and as Woody Allen’s Virgil Starkwell liked to say of bank robbery, “You get to travel.”

Unlike other candidates that I have seen over the years, Biden seems genuinely to like the American people and, in particular, his supporters. He knew personally a number of the firemen in the audience, and he talks about issues as though you had bumped into him at Home Depot and asked him how he was fixed for dental insurance.

Biden doesn’t speak in Lincoln-Douglas complete sentences. Instead he riffs in fragments from memory (something of a risk, I am sure, to his staff) about the issues of the day while strolling around the stage with a mic in his hand—the Dr. Oz of the Iowa caucuses.

* * *

Biden’s world and emotional view seems to be stuck in 1962, when steaks were cheap, America ruled the world, gas was twenty-five cents, and you could still give a neck rub to one your supporters.

He conceives of foreign affairs as country club, where to be successful you have to know the membership committee and the board, and be nice to locker room attendants.

His road-tested soundbite in Iowa is that “character is on the ballot this fall,” and he loves to contrast his homespun Scranton-Wilmington values with Trump’s gilded cages along Fifth Avenue and Palm Beach.

To pay for his wish-list (ethanol giveaways, betters salaries for teachers and first responders, conservation trusts built on land purchased from struggling Iowa farmers…) Biden would tax capital gains the same as ordinary income and impose a minimum corporate tax of 25%.

I am not sure he would have campaigned with those same bumper stickers when running for re-election in Delaware, a state built on corporate giveaways and tax loopholes such that Russian oligarchs prefer Wilmington over Zurich for stashing their loot.

Irony: despite all of Biden’s macho lifeguard talk about “taking on” Vladimir Putin, Joe’s home state of Delaware might already have Vlad’s fortune tucked away in one of its limited liability corporations.

A typical Biden anecdote has humor and compassion, and home-spun wisdom (“as my mother would say, god bless him…”), but then after a few asides and jokes, he forgets where the sentence was going, and moves on to some other outrage (“we’re not a country that puts kids in cages…”).

A bit like Trump, Biden gets a pass for his streams of consciousness, especially as in many soliloquies he talks about his wife and daughter dying in a 1972 road accident or his struggles with stuttering as a child (which toughed him up and will help America in dealing with Russian and caliphate schoolyard bullies).

If Biden is the nominee, the challenge will be to showcase his engaging personality, and not let it get lost in Gerald Ford-like gaffs. A bit like Hubert Humphrey in 1968, he would also need to slip the bonds of the president hovering in the wings, in this case Barack Obama, and convince the electorate that he’s not riding on training wheels.

* * *

Hunter Biden is the Banquo’s ghost of the Iowa primary, hovering off stage to remind everyone about the machinations that go into the making of a president or a king.

In my drives to primary events around Iowa, I have listened non-stop to the impeachment hearings in the Senate, and nearly half of the Republican questions, hand-carried by pages to Chief Justice John Roberts, are about Hunter Biden, Burisma, and those million-dollar fees to fish or attend some Monaco board meetings.

When I spin the dial on the car radio and listen to god-fearing, corn-fed shock jocks, there Hunter is out strolling with his new 33-year-old wife while at the same time paying off his stripper baby-mama from Arkansas. Elsewhere on air there are allusions to the navy booting him out for cocaine and his affair with his dead brother’s wife.

In Joe’s campaign, however, Hunter isn’t dodging bailiffs in Arkansas or snorting coke on his watch, but is the small boy who firemen saved in the car accident with the jaws of life and the brother of someone who served in Iraq.

Is it any wonder that the Trump Republican strategy, at the moment, is to run against Hunter Biden? It’s a strategy that assumes that neither Bernie Sanders nor Elizabeth Warren are mainstream enough to defeat Trump. In this thinking, only Biden occupies a center square of the political chessboard, and for that he needs the full Willie Horton treatment that George Herbert Walker Bush gave in 1988 to Democrat Michael Dukakis (who in the ads “Allowed Murderers to Have Weekend Passes…”, the recidivist Willie among them).

To defeat Biden, so Republican thinking goes, all that is necessary is to invoke the spirit of Hunter Biden at every turn. In that sense, even the impeachment hearings serve Trump’s purposes.

And if Joe does get the nomination, he can answer Hunter questions much the way Hillary spent her entire campaign explaining away her basement server or searching for those 30,000 emails about Chelsea’s wedding (they must have ordered a lot of flowers).

* * *

I am not sure Joe’s unity vision (“I would reach across the aisle…”) will play in 2020, but it sounds good at a rally in which Trump is the 800-pound gorilla awake at 3:00 a.m. with cheeseburgers, his phone, and a few porn stars.

Same with Joe’s plaintive calls for more teachers, and the shoutouts to the valor of first responders and those serving in the military.

In his first 90 days in office, Biden would rejoin the Paris climate accord, send an immigration bill to Congress (muted applause on that one), and tell the Chinese to stop stealing our state secrets.

Fairly vanilla, and I couldn’t help but think that Biden’s dream job isn’t to be president (too many memos on your desk) but that of prime minister of some wobbly, centrist parliamentary coalition (like those that flipped back and forth in 19th century Britain between Gladstone and Disraeli).

Biden’s a creature of the Senate more than a chief executive, even though “Barack” gave him all the tough jobs (defeating ISIS, passing health insurance, helping the farmers, etc.—listening to Biden, you do wonder what Obama was doing all those years), and his local TV ads make the point that, whatever his flaws, he’s the only Democrat who can actually beat Trump in a general election.

* * *

After the event ended, I hung around on the fringes of the velvet ropes to watch Biden mix with his support group, take selfies, sign autographs, and restrain his impulse to give everyone a squeeze.

Not every politician likes to spend time with his or her supporters, but Biden’s a retail candidate, and everyone who comes into the general store gets a game of checkers and a story about taking down the caliphate.

On my way to Iowa, I had met a friend of Biden’s from the 1970s, and he asked me give Joe his phone number, in hopes that they could reconnect. I wasn’t sure if Biden’s Secret Service detail or campaign staff would warm to me handing the candidate a sticky note with a phone number. But such is my respect for my friend that I decided to give the errand a try.

It took Biden a while to work his way through the crowd of followers, but he signed every placard, stood for every selfie, and even got down on his knees to greet a physically disabled woman in a wheel chair. Hey, he’s been running for offices since 1972, and that was like lining up a two-foot putt, but at least he drained it, and patted her guide dog.

When Biden got to me, I explained the connection to my friend and handed him the note, to which he said, “God bless you,” as though I had granted him an indulgence. (There’s a lot of altar boy in Joe.) Then his staff was all over me, wanting to know what was on the folded piece of paper. It was a slightly awkward moment for everyone—me and the staff—until Joe turned around and said to the staffer: “Hey, leave him alone. He’s a good guy.”

Back in the parking lot, I decided to hang around and watch the Biden campaign bus depart. “Soul of the Nation” is emblazoned on the side.

By this point the crowd had drifted away, the C-Span truck was loading up, and Biden aides, even a few in suits, were folding up chairs that had somehow been dragged out to the parking lot.

After quite a long time—I imagine he was inside meeting with local pols—Biden walked out of the Grass Wagon and boarded his bus, which turned down a side street and vanished into the frigid Iowa night, followed by a line of chase cars containing, I am sure, aides, press, and various remittance men to the cause.

It could have been any high school team bus heading home after an away game, or maybe the circus train, after striking the tents.


Whatever you might think of Donald Trump in the newspaper—psychotic, pathological, delusional are the words that come to mind—in person he’s lightyears worse. He spoke tonight in Des Moines for 105 minutes, in that stage whisper of a madman, and the MAGA crowded devoured it, cheering on their feet every minute or so.

Even presidents Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, not exactly Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, would be appalled by such a spectacle—the fast food of American fascism, delivered with droning intensity.

For a while I thought I was lucky to get inside Drake University’s Knapp Center, as it was sold out days before and the Secret Service had the neighborhood on lockdown, although that didn’t keep the so-called deplorables (their name of pride, from Hillary) from streaming into the event, as though for pro wrestling or mixed martial arts.

Inside, I found a desk and a chair in the nose-bleeders at the top of the arena, but I still had a good view of the dictator’s dance floor below.

For a while, to kill time, the organizers sent out various warm-up bandsmen, including a state senator and the head of the reelection campaign, all of whom denounced the Democratic party as a nest of treasonous vipers and confidence men playing Three-card Monte with the American soul. Oh, and it was pointed out that Bernie had spent his honeymoon “in the Soviet Union.”

The entire evening was an exercise in dog whistling, and even in the preliminaries you got a feeling of what would set off the barking: Benghazi, abortion, guns, the Wall, Hillary (apparently, no one realizes that she isn’t running), Adam Schiff, socialism, AOC, socialized medicine, and Hunter Biden.

In the pauses between the greeters and the Royal Nonesuch (Vice Pence, followed by Trump), the sound system piped in a rock medley, including what is clearly the theme song of the Trump-Pence reelection campaign: “Macho Man”. (“Every man wants to be a macho man/To have the kind of body always in demand…”) Who knew that the Village People would be so popular with the smart set at Mar-a-Lago?

There were a number of Stones hits on the playlist, including—go figure on this one—“Brown Sugar” (“just like a young girl should…” must be an allusion to those twenty-three women Trump groped in elevators and green rooms).

* * *

From the sky press boxes, Pence looked like the Naked Gun’s Lt. Frank Drebin, and he walks and waves as did Richard Nixon, although he has the odd habit of leaping up and down short flights of stairs, as though getting in a quick game of hopscotch. But it is hard to describe accurately Mike’s refinement in the arts of sycophancy.

You name the milestone—low unemployment, dead Iranians, walled-in Mexicans, the end of ISIS, the Dow at 28,000, the cowed Chinese government, cheered-up veterans, NAFTA’s demise, the gun on your hip, or fracking wells outside elementary schools—and the responsible party for all this good news is “my friend and our great leader, Donald J. Trump….”.

Toward the end of his speech, disciple Mike seemed to be laying on hands, and he began to evoke Trump as coming out of the Obama dessert to “heal this land.”

Rather than bounce on stage after Mike departed with his thumbs in the full upright position, Trump waited a while for his entrance, giving theTrump-Pence DJ a chance to play some Michael Jackson (“Beat it..”), Bob Dylan (“Knock knock knocking on heaven’s door…”), and “YMCA”, which had some of the MAGA red caps rocking to the “place you can go… when you’re short on your dough.”

It took Trump about five minutes to moonwalk from the stage curtain to the lectern. He had to make the thumb gesture, point to the crowd (he might well have been Mussolini on his balcony saluting the fascisti), bow repeatedly (as if a head waiter in the Oak Room), and bask in the adulation of 8,000 supporters, each of whom shared the raptures that were visited on pilgrim Pence.

Why were Trump and Pence even in Iowa? In theory they are running for the Republican nomination, and the party will conduct its own caucuses next Monday night. (Check out the list of Trump retainers, including Don Jr., who will stand around Iowa school gyms in the great cause.)

Yes, there are two candidates opposing Trump in the Republican primaries—Joe Walsh, a former member of Congress and conservative radio host, and William Weld, the former governor of Massachusetts—but they are little more than Washington Generals. (At least Weld is having a Super Bowl party.)

I am assuming that Pence was here to get a head start on 2024. (Possible motto for his bus: Pence 2024 – Kiss ass and take names…) I am also sure that Trump loved the idea of flying into Iowa (where even Biden struggles to get 300 people to his events) and filling up the Knapp Center, especially as the impeachment hearings in the Senate were riveting the nation.

* * *

In person, despite his banker blue suit and that phallic red necktie, Trump resembles an aging rocker who back in the day did a little too much blow.

He’s bald on top and combs over his drummer mane, and the back of his hair is starting to flow over his shirt collar, as if he’s trying to grow a rat tail or maybe cultivate a top knot. When he speaks, he leans and rocks forward into the mic and lectern, reminding me a bit of Harvey Weinstein gripping his walker on his way into court.

I have no idea if anyone writes Trump’s speeches or whether the teleprompter just has a few high notes—Wall, Benghazi, they’re coming for your guns, Fake News, etc.—and after that Trump is on his own.

If he does have speechwriters, they are either Ceech (Cheech?) and Chong (“Dave ain’t here…”) or perhaps a Dubliner who placed seventh in a write-like-James-Joyce-in-Finegan’s Wake competition.

With his theories and breathless, wheezing delivery Trump also echoes the Wizard in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, who says to cabbie Travis Bickle:

Look at it this way. A man takes a job, you know? And that job – I mean, like that – That becomes what he is. You know, like – You do a thing and that’s what you are. Like I’ve been a cabbie for thirteen years. Ten years at night. I still don’t own my own cab. You know why? Because I don’t want to. That must be what I want. To be on the night shift drivin’ somebody else’s cab. You understand? I mean, you become – You get a job, you become the job. One guy lives in Brooklyn. One guy lives in Sutton Place. You got a lawyer. Another guy’s a doctor. Another guy dies. Another guy gets well. People are born, y’know? I envy you, your youth. Go on, get laid, get drunk. Do anything. You got no choice, anyway. I mean, we’re all fucked. More or less, ya know.

That’s what a Trump speech sounds like. (At least in response to the Wizard Bickle had the good sense to say: “That’s about the dumbest thing I ever heard.”)

* * *

Well into the fourth season of The Presidential Apprentice, most of us are used to Trump’s riffs. But this was the first time I had heard him speak in person at length, and in person his patterns of speech are those of someone who spends a lot of time in serious conversations with himself.

Trump is lucky that he’s the president and, as the cliché has it, “leader of the free world,” because if he were homeless and spoke as he did, he would spend most of his evenings in the back of a squad car, on his way to various padded holding pens.

Trump not only asks himself questions, he then modulates his voice to answer them, and he loves to refer to himself in the third person, always in glowing terms. Trump did this, Trump did that, the Chinese love Trump

At other times he stage whispers into the mic, as if confiding to the audience the kind of state secrets he normally would only divulge to his handlers in Saudi Arabia, Russia, or Israel.

To his 8,000 confidants in the Knapp Center, Trump revealed, in his falsetto, that: never before in American history have relations ever been this good with China (our rival until about two weeks ago); alter ego Trump has solved both the AIDS epidemic and the opioid crises; and diplomatic genius Trump has resolved most of the outstanding issues in the Middle East by taking out the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani.

Now it’s morning in America. “Thanks to Trump,” he said, “Michigan is booming.” He added: “This is a happy period,” to which the crowd responded with a chorus of “U-S-A, U-S-A!”

* * *

Trump is pleased with himself on many issues, but none more so than his usage of the word “Democrat” as adjective, in the same manner that Republican hatchet man Senator Bob Dole liked to speak of “Democrat wars.” (The thesis behind the insult is that Democrats have started most of the recent wars.) Trump has cottoned on to the slur, as if he invented a new joke, completely unaware that the insult dates to the 19th century, if not earlier.

Like some Vegas comedian with only a handful of jokes, Trump cannot mention a Democratic politician without adding his insults of choice, all of which by now are wearing a little thin.

Nancy Pelosi is always “Crazy Nancy,” just the way Bernie Sanders is “Crazy Bernie.” Of course Biden is “Sleepy Joe”, Hillary Clinton is “Crooked Hillary”, and Obama comes with emphasis on his middle name, “Hussein”. Michael Bloomberg is “Mini Mike,” no doubt an illusion to Dr. Evil’s son in Austin Powers. (You do wonder in the Trump White House if there’s a Department of Seventh Grade Insults.)

Elizabeth Warren is predictably “Pocahontas”, and Trump is now mocking Pete Buttigieg as “Boot Edge Edge”, while making it clear that the former mayor is, as the phrase used to have it, of foreign extraction.

I was a little surprised Trump didn’t call Buttigieg a wop or dago, but he did say that many immigrants from Central America are “stone cold rapists.” Violation is a familiar image in Trumpspeak, just it’s a familiar refrain in the legal complaints many women have lodged against the Predator in Chief.

If you’re not used to it, or even if you are, the borderline call to violence at a Trump rally is jarring. Democrats aren’t simply members of the political opposition, but “treasonous radicals” and “socialists”, bent on spreading “sick and hateful” un-American ideology. At his command, the audience would take out the press corps.

I would credit Trump with reviving McCarthyism, but since Trump (according to a new book) had no idea what happened in the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Senator Joseph McCarthy came along nine years later, it’s safe to say that the allusion would be lost on Trump, as if it were a reference to Matthew Hopkins or Roger Nowell.

From Trump’s stemwinder, I have no trouble imagining him (in a slightly altered universe) ordering the arrest of representatives Adam Schiff or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the mention of whom prompted cat calls for burning stakes.

In Trump’s worldview, Democrats stand for “crime, corruption, and chaos,” not to mention late-term abortions and coming for your guns.

I have never thought for a minute that Trump actually is a billionaire, unless in calculating his net worth he’s allowed to add in all his past-due bank loans, or the accounts payable that he walked away from during his periodic bankruptcies. (He stuck one public company with $1 billion in his unpaid personal debts.) But tonight’s performance was the first time I realized he’s an economic moron.

I listened in disbelief while Wizard Trump tried to explain tariffs to his clan, which whooped and cheered every time the president explained that China “had paid over” billions after “Trump” (“now they love me…”) put tariffs on various imports from the Far East. Lost on Trump and his followers is that American consumers took the hit on the tariffs, not the Chinese.

From his agreement with Mexico and Canada (“the biggest trade deal signed in the history of the world…”), Trump then went off on an Inspector Harry Callahan (Dirty Harry) rant about “Crazy” Nancy Pelosi and the streets of San Francisco, which, according to Trump, are filled with used syringes (“needles all over the place”).

In Trump’s imagination, the country before his arrival in the White House was a variation on the South Bronx during the Jimmy Carter years. The borders were open to felons, the economy was bankrupt, terrorists ran American foreign policy, and schools were only open to teach the virtues of abortion.

Since Trump has become president, high paying jobs have become abundant, the stock market has boomed, China and Iran have fallen into line, and the criminal justice system finally works (thanks to all those 191 new federal and conservative judges, not to mention Budweiser’s favorite justice, Brett Kavanaugh, Esq.).

* * *

It was interesting to gauge which whistles got the most applause and brought the crowd to its feet. I presume these lines have been well tested on watch dogs in the basement of some Trump Hotel.

Clearly “keeping your guns” and Right to Life played well with the crowd, but so too did rolling back the red tide of socialism (that of Sanders, Warren, and AOC) and evoking the border menace of lurking Iranians.

Not since the miracle on ice at the 1980 Lake Placid winter Olympics (during the hostage crisis) have I heard so many “U-S-A, U-S-A!” refrains, and I kept waiting for Mike Eruzione to rush the Soviet net in the third period.

The bottom line is whether Trump’s Know Nothing coalition (it was a nativist party in the 1850s that ran against immigration and was wildly popular for a brief period) can win a general election without many votes from African-Americans, Latinos, millennials, a fair number of women, and large elements of the country with professional degrees.

In terms of optics, it must say something that most Democratic candidates in Iowa struggle to fill Grange halls with supporters while Trump could easily turn out 10,000 on any given night in Des Moines.

Into the general election, I would guess that Trump will remain strong with working class voters, rural women, and a fair number of older Americans for whom the price of grain, soybeans, and mutual funds indicates how they will vote. But I do wonder how Trump’s racist rants will play in ethnically diverse swing states, such as Florida and Pennsylvania, especially after Democratic operatives have stitched together his xenophobic insults into a 60-second attack ad.

* * *

When you strip away all the hysterics that come with a Trump evening, he’s little more than the traveling salesman of gilded fascism—someone who believes in the triumph of his will and hates, in no particular order, the legacies of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, the Progressive era, civil and equal rights, Martin Luther King, and Jimmy Carter’s foreign policies based on human rights.

One of his few core beliefs, aside from standing tall with the revived Axis powers, is economic isolation; after all, if you’re an hotelier you don’t want the Chinese or Japanese building competition next to a Trump National and driving down the price of a tee time.

For the rest Trump’s a character out of the Sinclair Lewis novel, It Can’t Happen Here, which is about American democracy submitting to the paroxysms of home-grown national socialism. Lewis wrote prophetically in 1935 about a strongman coming to power in America:

The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his ‘ideas’ almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store. Certainly, there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.

At the end of 105 minutes on what felt like a Nuremberg parade ground in downtown Des Moines (although I suspect the Nazis were not selling bumper stickers, hats, and mugs in the parking lots), such were Trump’s histrionics I almost expected him to evoke “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer” or summon his party with an evocation of Volksgemeinschaft, the belief that racial and ethnic purity would bind the German state (to Hitler).

In Trump’s case, as much as he admires those strutting on the world stage in jackboots, the only thing that he really believes in is himself, a much larger and more romantic subject than any one nation or people. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote of an earlier American searching for self-love and quick profits in the American imagination and on the Great Plains:

The truth was that Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, sprang from his Platonic conception of himself. He was a son of God – a phrase which, if it means anything, means just that – and he must be about His Father’s business, the service of vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty.

No wonder that as the faithful shuffled into the cold of the Iowa night while Trump and Pence flew away on their magic carpets back to their Neverlands, the playlist coming from the eaves of the Knapp Center struck up Mick Jagger’s You can’t always get what you want.…But if you try sometimes you just might find…You get what you need… It’s the modern equivalent of “Nearer My God to Thee,” which was played on the deck of Titanic as it was going down.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.