Why you should care
Because Pastor Trump is just a syllable away from President Trump.
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In rural Sioux Center, Iowa, thousands of the faithful fill the pews at Christian Reformed Dordt College. Behind a brightly lit stage, there’s a massive organ, and two double-barreled speakers blast a popular spiritual anthem: “Your love never fails, it never gives up / It never runs out on me.” A Black 20-something with a yellow-topped Mohawk stands up and starts chanting — “U-S-A” and “One, two, three, we be-lieve that he can win!” — while folks hoot and holler in anticipation. Finally, popular Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress announces the man who some see as America’s savior: “He is the one leader who can reverse the downward death spiral of the nation we love so dearly.”
Welcome to the Church of Trump.
As Donald J. Trump has barnstormed across the nation, he has built a politically incorrect path to the presidency that has him leading national polls, and experts flummoxed. The billionaire real estate mogul, whose campaign didn’t respond to our requests for comment, leads here in Iowa too, with about a third of likely Republican caucusgoers telling pollsters that they would elect him. His overwhelming support from white evangelicals is well documented, but the clergy of Trump is made up of much more than mere churchgoers; it’s the disenchanted everyman (and woman) who believes the country has lost its intrinsic identity — and wants to make America great again.
Just a week ago, most political scientists, when asked about Trump’s grassroots plan in Iowa — the handshaking, phone calling and door knocking that traditionally is crucial for politicians hoping to win the Hawkeye State — balked. “Donald Trump hasn’t done anything on the ground,” said Drake University’s Arthur Sanders. And, some argue, Trump’s trumpeters are largely unconventional, disenfranchised folks with a poor record of actually heading to the polls come Election Day. Many believe this means the front-runner’s lead is fragile, that on caucus day — Monday — it could all melt away like snow under the midday sun.
Yet on this particularly frigid weekend morning, hundreds of the Trump faithful wait in line for an hour or more, a line that extends so far it takes an aerial shot to fully capture the scene. In this context, Trump’s strategy in Iowa is not a strategy per se, but an impassioned call for believers to rise up and rebuild their community. It’s a revival — and one that could ultimately raise him to the office of the president.
While gazing at his flock — 1,500 seated in front of him — Trump speaks: “I’m a true believer. Is everybody a true believer in this room?”
Bundled up in a Trump 2016 scarf and beanie, Jeremy Boyts says he’s at his 40th campaign event. “I’m working for the campaign, spreading the good word,” says the financial planner from Missouri who’s holding up a corkboard with buttons supporting gun rights, the Constitution and other Trumpian talking points. “He’s special,” says a soybean farmer from Struble, while Kathy Moulton, an evangelical Christian who drove here from South Dakota, says the Donald has strong, solid American values, “and America is founded in religion.”
By now, Trump has been called pretty much everything under the sun. Carnival barker. Xenophobe. Chaos candidate. Gollum. But he also engenders an enthusiasm that seems to shine brighter on the campaign trail than during his tenure as a reality TV star. While gazing at his flock — 1,500 seated in front of him, event organizers say, plus an overflow crowd of 500 or so watching a live feed — Trump speaks: “I’m a true believer. Is everybody a true believer in this room?”
The phrase is a knowing nod to a very specific religious term: a Christian who interprets the Bible strictly and, in most cases, has publicly accepted Jesus Christ as his or her personal Lord and Savior. But Trump’s appeal also cuts across religious lines, to those who feel persecuted and no longer see a country made in their image. It’s the typical fallen-yet-saved-by-grace narrative that often rings from the pulpit; but in a way, says Anthony Gaughan, a political scientist at Drake University, Trump “is presenting himself as a redemption figure: ‘I was one of the corrupting campaign contributors, but now I’m going to make the system right because I know how it works.’ ”
As his critics contend, Trump exploits fear and anger. After the dire talk subsides, though, Trump channels the rhetoric of Hope and Change that precipitated President Obama’s rise. “Trump has a certain amount of optimism,” says Dennis Goldford, co-author of The Iowa Precinct Caucuses. “ ‘We’re in deep trouble,’ he says, ‘but we’re going to fix it.’ ” Provided you elect him, of course. And the first step starts in Iowa.
In the past, holding megachurch rallies here hasn’t been a winning strategy. Iowan voters have come to expect intimate conversations in coffee shops and diners, and to be wooed rather than preached at. When Mike Huckabee won the Republican nomination in Iowa in 2008, and Rick Santorum in 2012, it was through smaller, face-to-face interactions across the state. Yet Trump, unlike other presidential candidates, is willing to tell his disciples when they’ve strayed from what he sees as the righteous path: “How stupid are the people in Iowa?” he asked at a rally in Fort Dodge, after Ben Carson overtook him in state polls in November. Last week, at Dordt College, Trump expanded on his remarks: “You pick a lot of losers, folks … If you vote for Ted Cruz, you’re not going to win.”
By comparison, Cruz — Trump’s leading challenger — has taken the traditional route, drafting volunteers city by city and even announcing a “99 pastor” strategy to enlist a faith leader in each of Iowa’s counties to support him. That approach, and given how some of Trump’s supporters are from demographic groups that are less likely to show up on Monday, may give Cruz “a leg up,” says Justin Whitely Holmes, who researches political communication at the University of Northern Iowa. And, to be sure, not everyone buys Trump’s sermon on the mount: At Dordt, Brenda Fritsch is one of a dozen protesters urging voters to not associate Trump’s values with Christian ones. “From a philosophical standpoint, you can’t overlook the hate,” says Fritsch.
Then again, winning here didn’t do Santorum or Huckabee any favors, both of whom quickly faded after Iowa. Unlike them, Trump has built broader support by creating a movement rather than a moment. “He’s a phenomenon,” Sanders says. (In national polls, Trump still leads second-place Cruz by about 16 percentage points, on average, while in New Hampshire, he commands almost triple that of Cruz’s support.) Even Fritsch is fighting an uphill battle. “My parents support Trump,” she says. “They feel like he gets away with things no one else can get away with, so if he can get away it, then he can get things done.”