Newton, Iowa: It’s midday in America’s Midwest and I’m in a packed community hall in Iowa, praying for Donald Trump.
A woman next to me has her head lowered, and her eyes closed as she stands in a black hoodie emblazoned with the words: “Jesus Is My Saviour; Trump is My President.”
In front of me is a tall, lean man dressed as Abraham Lincoln, his top hat, white beard and bow tie making him the spitting image of the nation’s 16th leader.
And on the stage is a local pastor, Dick Green, invoking the scriptures of the prophet Ezekiel: God looked for a man to stand in the gap, but none was found.
“God found one in Donald J Trump,” Green says, as the audience cheers ahead of the former president’s scheduled appearance. “Lord bless this rally and our time with president Trump.”
The road to the White House runs through Iowa, the agricultural state that has traditionally been the first in the US to nominate its chosen presidential candidate, kick-starting the general election.
Here, amid the rolling plains, the evangelical churches and the hog farms of America’s pork capital, bedrock issues such as faith, freedom and the economy will take centre stage on January 15 when Republican Party members take part in the all-important Iowa caucuses.
Democrats in Iowa also plan to start their caucuses on the same day as Republicans but won’t release the results until March 5.
Do well here and you’re likely to build momentum for primaries held in later states, such as New Hampshire and South Carolina. Do poorly, however, and it could be debilitating – potentially even ending a candidate’s campaign.
With days until the first votes are cast, I’ve decided to visit Iowa – incidentally, on the third anniversary of the US Capitol attack – to talk to voters at one of Trump’s “commit to caucus” rallies.
I’ve covered many of the former president’s campaign events before, but these are somewhat smaller and more targeted, designed to galvanise his base and ensure they turn up next week to “caucus” on his behalf, so he secures the nomination ahead of his closest rivals: Florida governor Ron DeSantis and former UN ambassador Nikki Haley.
After all, this is an election like no other: if the polls are to be believed, Trump remains the overwhelming frontrunner to become the Republican nominee, paving the way for a potential 2020 rematch with Joe Biden, despite facing 91 criminal charges.
The incumbent president raised the stakes over the weekend, using his first campaign speech of the year to frame the contest as a fresh test for American democracy.
But for Trump’s supporters, who braved near-zero temperatures to gather in the blue-collar town of Newton to see their man on Saturday, it is Biden and the Democrats who are the real threat: fuelling an “invasion” of illegal immigrants; allowing “men to compete in women’s sports”; “weaponising government” to prosecute the leading candidate.
“I think it’s a witch-hunt; I think it’s all political,” Knoxville resident Anna Heaton tells me when I ask what she thinks of Trump’s legal woes. “They want him out because he will win.”
As for the Capitol riots, when Trump supporters stormed the historical Washington building, hoping to stop Biden’s victory from being certified?
“He wasn’t there,” she says. “You can’t control what other people do. It’s their choice, so I don’t think he should have to be responsible.”
The first thing you notice at a Trump rally is the queue to get in. Trump wasn’t due to speak until 1pm but I arrived about 9.30am after receiving an email the night before with “guest instructions” suggesting attendees come early.
But by the time I got there, the line was already hundreds of people deep; soon enough, it was winding around the community centre car park.
Most of the crowd were die-hard Trump fans, dressed in Trump MAGA beanies or “F— Biden” caps, while volunteers with clipboards went around taking names and handing out “I will caucus for Trump” stickers.
One man pushed a small trolley filled with Trump merchandise for sale; another blasted the Beach Boys from the speaker of his “Trump Tractor”, which was painted in the stars and stripes of the American flag.
Behind me, I notice a diverse group of university students, who turned out to be part of a study program overseen by Duke University in North Carolina.
Among them is Andrew Sun, 20, who had spent the past few days with his colleagues attending caucus events across Iowa featuring DeSantis, Haley and another Republican candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy.
“I’m a registered Democrat in North Carolina, so this experience has been more of a spectating experience, but it’s also been eye-opening,” he says.
“I can disagree with a lot of the positions that are being put forward, but it’s still interesting to see how they’re communicating in order to activate people.”
Few politicians activate their base as much as Trump, whose grievance-fuelled brand of politics catapulted his political career in 2016 and has underpinned his comeback after losing the 2020 election.
Heather Hora, a corn and soybean farmer who now represents a state district in southeast Iowa, reckons “no one was stronger on China” than Trump, who she says “brought back common sense to agriculture”.
Michael Goodart says he wasn’t initially a Trump supporter, “but the thing that changed me was he actually followed through with his campaign promises”.
And Charlie McClintock laments Biden’s economic record, insisting “Bidenomics” – the president’s push to “grow the economy from the bottom up and the middle out” – simply isn’t working.
“It used to be that you could go make a pay cheque and get a little bit extra to put in the bank,” he says. “A lot of people out there now are living pay cheque to pay cheque, and it’s destroying the middle class, let alone people that are struggling to get food to eat, and heat their homes.”
Shortly after 1pm – after the opening prayer, a few chants of “USA! USA!“, and two educational videos informing the audience how to take part in the Iowa caucuses next week – the former president arrives on stage.
He begins as he often does: with teleprompter-scripted lines highlighting his past policies, meandering riffs attacking his enemies, and dire warnings that this election will be the “final battle” to “save America”.
But in a speech that lasts almost two hours, the 77-year-old Republican sets the tone for what’s to come this year. He accuses Biden of being the real threat to democracy “because he’s incompetent” and mocks the 81-year-old president’s stutter and cognitive capacity.
He insists that the Israel and Ukraine wars would not have happened under his watch, and praises autocratic strongmen such as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
And he renews his claim that the election was rigged, and gives a glimpse of what another Trump presidency would look like: “the largest deportation program ever”; an overhaul of the Justice Department; investigations against Democrat-aligned prosecutors; funding cuts to schools teaching critical race theory.
There’s even a pitch to build an “Iron Dome” over America, modelled on Israel’s air defence system.
“Would you like that?” he asks as the crowd erupts in cheers and applause.
“Isn’t that better than giving other countries billions of dollars to build a dome, but we don’t have a dome ourselves? We’re going to have the greatest dome ever!”
This is Trump version 2.0: ever the showman, but seemingly angrier by what he genuinely views as a political witch-hunt designed to stop him from sitting, once more, behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office.
“America was stronger, richer, safer and more confident than ever before when I was behind that beautiful Resolute desk,” he says.
“I love that Resolute desk.”
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