Can The Donald keep on ticking America's boxes?
It was originally meant to be Jeb Bush versus Hillary Clinton - and not a soul ever expected Donald Trump to get this far. Now Matt Frei asks if he can actually go the whole way
Published 24/01/2016 | 02:30
They looked like refugees huddled in a cluster outside the Surf Ballroom theatre in Clear Lake, Iowa; wrapped in blankets or duvets, their faces obscured by balaclavas; eyes squinting into the bitter cold January day. Iowa, the first state to vote in the long and arduous presidential marathon, had hit its seasonal low of minus 29 centigrade.
I had never been so cold in my life and couldn't imagine what it must have felt like to wait outside for hours. The letters on the billboard above the entrance barely did the crowd and their endurance justice. "Donald J Trump rally at 4pm. SOLD OUT!" Hundreds had braved hypothermia to see The Donald. And at 4pm sharp he duly arrived in his convoy of SUVs with tinted windows.
Most of his entourage are bodyguards. His only campaign adviser is an impossibly gorgeous twenty-something called Hope, who looks as if she has been beamed in from the set of Sex in the City and onto the set of Fargo.
The last time I spent quality time alone with The Donald was two years ago when he took umbrage with me for questioning him about his germ allergy - he hates shaking hands - or calling him thin-skinned. I knew an interview was a long shot, but I asked Hope, could I at least get on his plane or bus?
She looked at me through frozen eyelashes and said: "We don't do bus."
Indeed, Trump doesn't like to linger. He insists on spending every night in one of his own beds, either in Manhattan or in Florida.
I have observed Trump as a correspondent in America for the BBC and Channel 4 for many years. Interviewing him at length, I would never have expected him to go as far, or to do as well as he is doing at the moment. Trump's candidacy started as an unlikely joke. It is now being taken very seriously indeed - especially by his rivals in the Republican Party. It is this peculiar set of affairs that I am setting out to capture in my documentary to be shown on Tuesday, The Mad World of Donald Trump.
My observation is that Trump doesn't actually much like ordinary people. But they love him.
Joining a crowd of 6,000 crammed into a basketball stadium in balmy South Carolina, the first southern state to vote in the primaries, I shared an observation with Bobby Jo, a mother of four dressed in a velour leopard print tracksuit and heavy gold jewellery.
"The last time I saw crowds this size and with this much blind passion for their candidate was for Barack Obama in 2008," I tell her.
Bobby Jo - not an Obama fan - didn't know how to take this comparison, but beamed nevertheless. The crowd that Trump attracts is almost exclusively white. Pollsters will tell you that they also tend to be working class and less well educated. I'm not sure whether that's true but they all have this in common: a distrust bordering on hatred of mainstream politics, an allergy to the Washington elite and a profound feeling they have been ignored and neglected.
Everywhere we heard the same story: "Donald tells it like it is. He says the things that other politicians are afraid to say and he's the real deal."
It was only a matter of time before Trump got endorsed by Sarah Palin - who also made the Republican establishment blanch when she was chosen by Senator John McCain as his running mate in 2008. Political exile has only made her voice shriller.
Dusting herself down last week to descend on Ames, Iowa - birthplace of John Wayne - she shrieked into the microphone: "Donald Trump is the commander in chief we need to kick some Isil ass." The crowd lost it.
Palin is unlikely to scare swing voters off Trump, as she scared them off McCain. They are already terrified. But she may embolden those who want to stump for Trump. And this is where we get to the electoral nub of the matter: Donald Trump knows he will never swing the undecided. His strategy is to persuade every voter in a mobile home to peel themselves off their couch and make it to the polling booth. Millions of them don't usually bother voting.
And here we enter the weird world of contradictions embodied by Trump. He is the richest man to run for president, but he has spent less than virtually any other presidential candidate ever, just €2.8m so far. He is a billionaire bombast attracting votes from those Americans who can never hope to realise the American dream.
He has been on both sides of just about every issue from guns to gay marriage to Hillary - whose senate campaign he gave money to in 2000 and 2006. He has offended Muslims, Latinos and women like no other candidate, but every time Trump tramples on a red line of decency his support just grows. He has gone bankrupt four times but is hailed by supporters as a business guru. He has been married tempestuously three times without apparently offending too many monogamous evangelical Christians. With so much baggage any other candidate would have imploded.
The fact that his support just grows speaks volumes about the sorry state of America's toxic politics, of which Trump is a symptom and a beneficiary.
As a businessman he is able to short-circuit much of the loathing reserved for professional politicians even though he didn't exactly journey from rags to riches. When he left home, Trump was given at least $10m by his father and a credit line of $40m to set him up following in the parental footsteps in New York real estate.
He lost a significant amount in the early Nineties when property took a dive, having gorged himself on casinos in Atlantic City and skyscrapers in Manhattan. The editor of Forbes magazine, Randal Lane, told me that Trump had learnt his lesson. He now only owns two of the 17 New York skyscrapers that bear his name and makes his money from licensing his brand.
For Trump it really is all about the brand and he sees his graduation from real estate to reality TV to presidential politics as its natural progression. What keeps him up at night is measuring its success.
Lane is in charge of drawing up America's Rich List and he told me how he and his team of accountants spent three days huddled with Trump in his Fifth Avenue offices arguing over how much he was worth. "We concluded it was $4.5bn. Trump got angry and insisted it was $10bn. That's what he said he 'felt' he was worth.
"For a guy trying to convince voters, many of whom cannot even fathom his riches, it puzzles me that he should insist on the extra billions. It's not as if he needs them." But Trump's ego clearly does.
This obsession with the metrics of self-worth also translates to his rally speeches, which he kicks off by reading lists of opinion poll numbers as if briefing a committee of fundraisers. Eyes glaze over at this rambling string of non sequiturs, which sound like a bad stand-up comedy routine - the crowd only really wake up when he is bellowing about building a wall to keep out the Mexicans or kicking Isil's ass. These, of course, are the only bits ever played on cable TV.
So can The Donald become The President?
American history has produced wealthy populist insurgents like him before. William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon, Henry Ford, the car magnate, Charles Lindberg, the aviator - all thrived on a cocktail of political virginity, authenticity, anger and cash. They all failed and Trump may well end up doing so too. But he has already defied all expectations.
As Harry Hurt III, one of his biographers and most vocal critics, says, he is giving hoarse voice to a large segment of the population that feels snubbed by the elites.
With his spiteful rhetoric he embodies a country that has spent the Obama years on a journey: from hope and change to fear and loathing. Add to this mix another terrorist attack like the San Bernadino mass shooting in November and it becomes much easier to imagine the inauguration of Donald J Trump on the balcony of the Capitol. And far more terrifying.
'The Mad World of Donald Trump' is on Channel 4 at 9pm this Tuesday