I was having a Friday afternoon beer with a businessman friend, a Vietnam War veteran approaching retirement. We were talking politics, and he suddenly told me: “Donald Trump would be a great president.” I almost spit up my drink as he explained himself. “Damn Reagan and his big tent, drawing in all of the evangelicals. They’ve hijacked the party.”
“But Trump?” I asked. The birther? With the bankrupt casinos? Who teases a presidential run every four years and makes a mockery of the electoral process?
“Why the hell not?” my friend replied. “He’s the only one who isn’t a part-time preacher, and it’s about time we had a businessman as president. A businessman would do this country a hell of a lot of good.”
Turns out that Trump has more support than you might imagine in the Iowa business community. Some might say that's a sign that nothing should start in Iowa, let alone the race for the world’s most powerful office. Early last month, I received an invitation to visit with Trump on his private jet, during a highly publicized visit to the Hawkeye State. I thought it might be fun to see whether this bizarre idea seemed a little less weird when viewed from close-up.
Scuttling across the tarmac toward what Trump claims is a $100 million Boeing 757, which had just landed at the Des Moines Airport, I asked a respected print journalist walking beside me if the situation seemed at all bizarre to him.
“Been on a lot of candidate buses before,” he told me. “But never a personal airplane.”
We were flanked front and back by TSA agents and Trump staffers as we were escorted to the plane. The sky was dark. There was a light drizzle. We were penned in.
“We’re behaving sort of like sheep,” I observed.
He smiled and nodded.
We climbed the aircraft steps, and I scraped my shoes on the ladder before I entered the plane, worried that I might be tracking mud. It felt like the discourteous kind of thing he might tweet about afterward. It was a good precaution, as I was soon to learn.
Once inside, we were greeted warmly by the same pleasant woman who apparently greets all of the guests on “The Apprentice.” On television she cheerily intones: “Mr. Trump will see you now.” But she didn’t use the line on us, and I wondered if, like her boss, even she holds the media in lower regard than a reality TV contestant.
Behind her was Trump himself, who welcomed us, shaking hands before moving to the front of the cabin to take questions. The plane looked opulent, reportedly with a marble bathroom and 24-carat gold seat belt buckles, as well as a tropical wood inlaid table, and carpet fibers woven with fleece taken from yearling Peruvian llamas. (OK, those last two things were made up.)
There’s a reason why rulers have for many millennia built pyramids, great temples, coliseums and the like to impress the masses. The truth is, we're easily impressed. And on Trump's plane, we especially were. It was difficult not to be, in much the same way that a toddler might fixate on a brightly colored object.
And so, Trump suffered the media with the same brand of tolerance as a tired new parent, as we all started jostling for position with cameras and microphones in the confined space. It’s a big plane. But a supposedly $100 million plane is still just a plane. Every time the cameras and boom mics approached the ceiling or the woodwork, Trump let out a weary sigh.
“Watch... watch.... watch your ceiling,” urged Trump. “If you hurt the ceiling you’re going to make it a very expensive day…”
One camera touched the ceiling gently. “Oof,” groaned a Trump staffer. “Careful with that on the ceiling.”
“I am being careful,” a short reporter shot back, a selfie stick extended toward Trump over the backs of other reporters. Trump eyed it hovering like it was a potentially rabid bat.
Eventually, the requisite questions about his recently launched exploratory committee began. “It’s going really, really well, it’s going amazingly well,” he said, referring to some poll that had him in “either third or fourth place,” even though, of course, he isn’t even officially running.
“Our country is in trouble,” he said. “We have incompetent leadership; we have leadership who has no idea what they are doing. Politicians are all talk, no action, and I’m tired of watching them, I’ve dealt with them all of my life. I’ve done very well with politicians, believe me, and I know that they are all talk and no action and nothing gets done, and our country goes to hell...we are being taken advantage of by everyone like we are a bunch of babies.”
Nearly every response to a question was like a sucker punch. Boom, the economy is going to hell! Bam, Obamacare is a disaster! And on and on.
He assured us that “our leadership is grossly incompetent. They don’t know what we’re doing. Our country, if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to be a big fat Detroit.”
Of course, we hard-nosed Iowa reporters asked all of the meaningful queries that the nation counts on us to ask prior to the caucuses. Like this tough one: “You fired Iowa’s favorite daughter, Shawn Johnson, from 'The Apprentice'; how do you expect to do well in Iowa?” This was followed by general laughter. The intrepid reporter was of course referring to the gold-medal-winning Olympic gymnast. Johnson was also a “Dancing With the Stars”champion. Trump thought it was a great question. He said... well, I forget. Honestly, I zoned out. I don’t care what he said, and neither do you.
Trump was asked if he understood how hard Rick Santorum had worked to reach out to nearly every community in Iowa to win the caucuses in 2012. I could almost see him reaching down and tousling little Santorum’s hair like a kid who deserved only a perfunctory amount of credit.
“Rick’s a nice guy,” he said. “We are different people, they don’t expect me to run like Santorum. Santorum has a full-time job like other politicians. They run, make promises, they win, they lose, but they don’t do anything.” Besides, Santorum doesn’t have a $100 million airplane, he added.
As I watched Trump speak, I thought of what my business friends who like the idea of Trump’s candidacy might be thinking. All of the other Republican candidates -- declared or not -- are angry. Trump isn’t angry, as long as you don’t scrape the ceiling of his plane. Bombastic, but not angry. Trump also doesn’t bring a “faith-based” fire-and-brimstone message to policy or the Borg-like directive to assimilate or go to hell. Trump’s faith lies instead in “the deal,” and the dollar. So the company line goes. But, while he may be a mere sideshow, he has recently hired some well-seasoned Iowa staff. He told us that he will likely know if he is going to run or not in May or June.
(History says don't count on it.)
The press started packing up and Trump took a paternal tone, his eye locked onto a potentially offending camera. “Try not to destroy the roof, and I’ll like you even better. … I’m watching the camera ... know that my day will be ruined...”
Then, of course, a tripod cluttered across a table.
Trump rushed over and picked it up. “The guy dropped his camera right on the table--I knew it was going to happen!” Resigned, he sighed, “What are you going to do.” He gently tossed the tripod on a soft couch, though I could tell he wanted to be more forceful.
“Trump must think we’re a bunch of slack-jawed morons,” a TV guy said to me as we walked across the tarmac.
“Yep,” I said, as we stopped to watch the Donald come down the steps alone, and then climb into his limo. Through the back window I could see him shaking his head as the limo drove away.