‘We want our country back’: Why Donald Trump had the Iowa caucuses sewn up

From Gaza to the economy, many GOP voters pine for Trump’s return to power, as presidential elections season kicks off.

Donald Trump
Former US President and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump campaigns in Indianola, Iowa, January 14, 2024 [Brendan McDermid/Reuters]

Indianola, Iowa – It was not just freezing; it was “dangerously cold”, according to local officials, with temperatures reaching Antarctic lows after days of snowfall.

But the bitter weather did not stop hundreds of people from coming out to see former President Donald Trump in Indianola, Iowa, a small town south of the state capital, Des Moines.

A day ahead of the Iowa caucuses, they wore Make America Great Again (MAGA) hats and shirts featuring the former president’s mugshot and held Trump 2024 signs at the campaign rally. More than three years after his supporters stormed the US Capitol to prevent the certification of President Joe Biden’s victory and four criminal indictments later, Trump’s support amongst Republicans is steady.

George Hutton, a Trump supporter from neighbouring Madison County who attended the rally on Sunday, said the former president’s Republican opponents – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former envoy to the United Nations Nikki Haley – are “wasting their time”.

“I think Trump is going to win it by more than what they’re estimating,” Hutton said, referring to the Iowa contest.

On Sunday, rally-goers stood for 15 minutes in the cruel cold in a queue that stretched outside the community college where Trump spoke. Once inside, many did not even get to see the Republican frontrunner in person and had to settle for watching his speech on a screen in an overflow room after the main event space reached capacity.

As the presidential elections kick off on Monday evening with the Iowa caucuses, the question is not whether Trump will win but by what margin.

Trump supporters in a crammed room watch the former president speaking on a screen
Trump supporters watch him speaking on a screen in an overflow room at a rally in Indianola, Iowa [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

The economy:  ‘We want our country back’

While for many Americans, the Trump years were characterised by chaos, inflammatory remarks and a rise in bigotry, the former president’s supporters yearn for the time when he was in the Oval Office.

Trump supporters interviewed by Al Jazeera outlined three main reasons why they are backing the former president: the economy, record levels of migrant arrivals at the southern border and global instability. Trump’s extroverted personality and his legal woes also add to his appeal.

The White House has been arguing that the US economy is healthy, highlighting the low unemployment, strong growth, and investments in infrastructure and noting that inflation that ravaged the global economy during the COVID-19 pandemic is coming under control.

But voters who favour Trump pointed to their own economic struggles and high interest rates to paint a different picture of the economy.

“We need something different than what we’re doing now. It’s not working. I was making more money than I ever have, and now I’m broker than I’ve ever been,” said David Brunell, a 32-year-old Trump supporter, who sat in the overflow room awaiting the former president’s appearance.

“That says a lot about where the economy is at.”

But why not consider one of Trump’s primary rivals? The former president’s supporters say he is a known quantity, and they have seen how he governs.

“We just want our country back. We want it back like it was when he was president and better,” Hutton said.

Brunell seemed to agree. He said that he never considered the other Republican candidates because Trump has a “good track record that goes a long way”.

Foreign wars: ‘Close to World War III’

Although foreign policy has seldom been a top issue in recent US elections, several Trump supporters mentioned the wars in Ukraine and Gaza as the outcome of bad policies by Biden.

As president, Trump was staunchly pro-Israel. He moved the US embassy to Jerusalem, ended US funding for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) and brokered diplomatic deals between Israel and Arab countries that bypassed the Palestinian quest for statehood.

Biden, a self-described Zionist, has been equally committed to Israel.

But to Trump’s supporters, the turmoil in the region is not about specific policy as much as character.

Congressman Jim Jordan suggested on Sunday that the war in Ukraine would not have happened had Trump been in office.

“We went from a guy in the Oval Office in President Trump who projected strength – projected that all around the world – to Joe Biden,” Jordan told the crowd.

Blaine Melvin, a grey-bearded groundskeeper at the local college where the rally was taking place, lamented the state of the world and the country under Biden.

“This is the closest I’ve ever seen World War Three,” he told Al Jazeera. “It’s ridiculous. Nothing even adds up.”

This week, Biden authorised military attacks against Yemen’s Houthi fighters after the group continued attacks against Israel-linked ships, demanding an end to Israel’s war on Gaza.

But Trump had also pushed hawkish policies in the Middle East. He ordered the assassination of top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and pulled Washington from the multilateral nuclear deal that saw Tehran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

Two people holding "Trump" signs
Trump supporters pose for a photo at a campaign rally in Indianola, Iowa, January 14 [Ali Harb/Al Jazeera]

Still, the former president continues to appeal to a flank of the Republican Party that has grown sceptical of foreign military interventions after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“America’s boys and girls should never be sacrificed on the altar of profit for the military industrial complex,” Glenn Jacobs, the former wrestler known as Kane, who is now the mayor of Knox County, Tennessee, said at the campaign event on Sunday.

Migration: ‘He had our borders tight’

Since announcing his first presidential run in 2015, Trump has put migrants in his crosshairs, at times using dehumanising and racist language against them.

There has been a surge in arrivals at the southern US border, including more than 2 million migrants last year.

Biden has been trying to restrict unauthorised migration, drawing criticism from immigrant rights groups and progressives. But he still cannot match Trump’s harsh rhetoric on the issue.

“He’s a strong leader. He had our borders tight,” Bob Snyder, a retiree from Des Moines, said of Trump.

On Sunday, Trump emphasised his curbs on migration and efforts to build a border wall with Mexico. He also read a poem to depict migrants as a poisonous snake.

Last month, the Biden campaign accused Trump of parroting Hitler after the former president said immigrants were “poisoning the blood” of the US.

Biden has also been trying to paint Trump as a threat to US democracy, citing his efforts to overturn the 2020 elections.

But the Republican frontrunner’s supporters say the current administration is the real threat to democracy. They argue that the indictments that Trump is facing are politically motivated and aim to undermine the 2024 elections.

“Everybody knows it’s a bunch of bull. The indictments are false,” Snyder said. His assessment was echoed by nearly a dozen Trump supporters interviewed by Al Jazeera.

Trump is facing four criminal cases, including two indictments – one at the federal level and one in Georgia – over his push to overturn the 2020 vote.

None of that appears to matter to his supporters. On Sunday, Trump spoke for an hour and 40 minutes, bouncing between subjects – from migration to foreign policy to the economy to personal anecdotes – often drawing laughs and cheers from the crowd.

Asked what he likes about Trump, 18-year-old Evan Walker – who will be voting for the first time – said: “More his personality; he just knows what he’s doing.”

“He’s very outgoing.”

Source: Al Jazeera