The Trump show has been a blast from the minute he descended into his own campaign launch by golden escalator, accused Mexico of sending rapists north of the border and walked into a row with Neil Young over his use of Rockin’ in the Free World.
Jaded colleagues told me not to get too excited. They remembered the ludicrous birther campaign. Let him have his fun and carry on writing about candidates no-one has ever heard of before. HuffPost has rather snootily relegated him to the entertainment pages.
Yet here we are, two months later, and Trump’s lead in the polls seems more solid than ever – despite what any other politician would have seen as run-ending gaffes, over women, migrants, John McCain and probably some others. How can this be?
Which is roughly how I found myself sitting down at the end of a five-and-a-half hour drive to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire (that final half hour being a rather testing search for a parking spot), in The Goat.
This is a crucial state and the second – after Iowa – to select its candidate in February. From now until then, candidate after candidate will pass through, kissing babies, addressing town hall meetings and generally being seen out and about.
Trump was due to speak up the road at Winnacunnet High School in the evening and I was in need some fortification of the burger kind. I ordered what I looked like, the Hot Mess, and nipped to the loo, asking the group at the next table to keep an eye on my hat.
On my return, they were polite enough to answer my questions: Did they know Trump was speaking up the road? Was the Bacon Bucket on the menu really a bucket of bacon? Which other campaigns had been through town?
“The person you really want to speak to is Kerri,” they told me.
Kerri Ruggiero, it turned out, was a volunteer George Pataki, the former governor of New York, and was seeing first hand how Trump’s appeal had destroyed the form book for the New Hampshire primary. She could see his appeal.
“People like him. They think he’s a breath of fresh air,” she said. “And he has the means to do it.”
Younger voters in particular were lapping up his message, she said, that he was a man of means who had no need for donors and lobbyists who would later want to cash in their support. (At this point my burger arrived, with some beautiful golden French fries leaving me to wonder how rude it would be to tuck in, mid interview.)
She made clear she was no fan. (I waited 10 minutes, offered her a French fry with a lame, “I don’t know if you’ve eaten, and then tried to eat the burger without too much ending up on my face.) And that having allowed three of his companies to go bankrupt in order to save his personal fortune she was worried he would do something similar to the country.
At that point she texted a friend to find out why the bar was called The Goat. I was keen for it to be related to the chap with a goat who takes it to meet candidates. For the record, it wasn’t. The name was an acronym: Greatest Of All Time.
That evening, the fervent and the merely curious crammed into Winnacunnet High School auditorium. Many echoed Kerri’s words. They talked of honesty, of Washington needing a kick up the backside.
And this is the appeal of the man. Beyond New York and DC there is a country that feels left out, that is feeling the squeeze and that sees in Donald Trump a return to what made America great.
It was a theme he riffed on repeatedly, of dim politicians selling the US down the river because they simply didn’t have the skills or the courage to stand up to China, big company bosses or whoever else it might be.
But the key to understanding his appeal was in the conversations I had with the people in the hall and the queue to see him (some arrived four hours early). There were three recurring themes:
- Honesty – he doesn’t need donors or lobbyists who will stop him saying what he believes
- Deal maker – he is a businessman with a history of making deals. That’s what America needs
- Confidence – America is on the back foot in the world. He’s a big beast who can help make it great again
Sure, the man is ridiculous in many ways. You might not like his rhetoric. He has fleshed out his policies with the barest of bones. And whether his skills can actually fix any of the problems he has identified is another question. But if he can surge in New Hampshire – where the Republicans have a reputation as liberals – then you ignore him at your peril.