A cold wind was blowing at the Des Moines International Airport late Wednesday afternoon as people gathered in a spot on the tarmac typically used by cargo planes for a Trump campaign rally. But the crowd of almost 4,000 didn’t seem discouraged by the wind.
The Trump campaign had announced it expected at least 10,000 people to attend, sparking concerns about the rally turning into a superspreader event in a state already experiencing substantial community spread of COVID-19.
But even if the rally attracted fewer than half the people the Trump campaign said it world, the potential for virus transmission remained high. The vast majority of attendees didn’t wear face coverings. The chairs set out on the tarmac were right next to each other, as though there was no ongoing pandemic. There was no attempt at social distancing in the stands, or in the overflow area, where people crowded together in an attempt to see the president as he spoke.
According to the emergency public health declaration issued by Gov. Kim Reynolds, organizers of any public gatherings of more than 10 people in Iowa are supposed to ensure social distancing of at least six feet between attendees. Nothing of that sort happened on Wednesday, and Reynolds, one of the rally’s featured speakers, didn’t mention anything about the requirement or social distancing when she took the stage to speak before the arrival of Air Force One.
The governor did mention COVID-19 during her remarks, but only to tell the crowd she’s proud of how she’s handled the pandemic.
“I’m proud to be a governor that puts her trust in our people, because they are responsible, they are resilient and they will do the right thing,” Reynolds told the thousands of mostly maskless people standing or sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. “And that is why we were able to keep over 80 percent of our workforce working and businesses open. It is why we are getting our kids, safely and responsibly, back in school.”
Former governor Terry Branstad, who spoke before Reynolds, also praised her response to COVID-19.
Branstad said he’d just read a report from the Council of State Governments on how states have “handled the challenges of the COVID.”
“And the state that has does the best of all 50, according to the Council of State Governments is the state of Iowa,” Branstad said. “It’s a tribute to Kim Reynolds and the Republicans in the state legislature.”
The report issued in July only examined the fiscal impact of COVID-19 on the budgets of state governments, ranking states in various categories according to their fiscal resiliency during the pandemic. Although Iowa ranked high in each category, it finished in second place behind Utah.
The report did not look at how well states have done mitigating or controlling the spread of COVID-19, or protecting the lives of residents. In its report on Iowa issued on Oct. 4, the White House Coronavirus Task Force said that the state’s failure to control community spread of the disease had led to “many preventable deaths.”
On Thursday morning, the Iowa Department of Public Health reported the state had surpassed 1,500 COVID-19 deaths. According to IDPH, 1,505 Iowans had died from the virus as of 10 a.m., an increase of 13 deaths from the same time on Wednesday.
The department reported another 1,410 has tested positive for COVID-19 during that same 24-hour period, including 32 residents of Johnson County and 63 residents of Linn County.
The state also set another record high in the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients — with IDPH reporting 482 at 10 a.m. — as well as a record number of COVID-19 outbreaks at long-term care facilities, with a total of 61 ongoing outbreaks.
But Branstad’s inaccurate account of the Council of State Governments report wasn’t the most lavish praise heaped on Reynolds at the rally. The afternoon’s first featured speaker, Iowa Republican Party Chair Jeff Kaufmann, said Reynolds “has created a state that is heaven on earth.”
Ridiculous as that claim might sound in any other setting, it’s the sort of hyperbole that’s a standard feature at Trump rallies.
In fact, all the standard features of a Trump rally were present on Wednesday — local politicians offering swooning praise of the president, MAGA hats, a loud soundtrack with music by performers who have clearly said they don’t support Trump (Elton John, John Fogerty, Eric Burdon, among others), as well gay anthems of the 1970s (both “Macho Man” and “YMCA”) — but one important element of past rallies was missing: the anger.
In rallies during the 2016 election and the first year of Trump’s presidency, members of the crowd displayed genuine anger when Trump denounced his enemies. It wasn’t unusual to have members of the crowd screaming threats against reporters when Trump bashed the media for being unfair to him.
On Wednesday, there was still the booing when the president and other speakers criticized what Trump called “the corrupt lamestream media,” but it seemed perfunctory, as did much of the cheering. It was similar to the behavior of a crowd at a professional wrestling match, where the booing and whooping is an expected part of the performance.
There were only a few moments during the four-hour-long event when the crowd appear to be genuinely enthusiastic, and most of them came during the roughly 90 minutes Trump was on stage.
The crowd reacted passionately to mentions of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, promises to protect the Second Amendment and Trump’s pledge to “stop the radical indoctrination of our students and restore patriotic education. We will teach our students to love our country and always respect our great American flag.”
The crowd was also pleased when Air Force One touched down at 6:08 p.m. — and when it taxied back to the site of the rally seven minutes later, so it could serve as part of the backdrop for TV coverage of the event. And when Trump finally took the stage at 6:30 p.m.
According to the schedule for the event, Trump was supposed to begin his speech at 6 p.m. But even if that had happened, the crowd still would have been waiting an hour and 20-minutes between Reynolds, the final speaker before Trump, and the president.
There’s typically an interval between other speakers and the president at Trump rallies held at airports, because Trump likes to make a dramatic entrance by arriving on Air Force One during the rally. But almost two hours, as the interval turned out to be on Wednesday, is a long time to wait between speakers, with little to do except listen to the same set of songs over and over, as a cold wind continues to blow.
Trump acknowledged the wind as soon as he got on stage, holding up a MAGA hat and explaining it had been given to him to wear in case the wind staring messing up his hair.
“I said, ‘Well, my hair is very powerful. It’s very strong. It can handle it,’” Trump recounted. “But I brought it just in case.”
Approximately 20 minutes later, Trump put the hat on. Then he asked the audience if he should take his tie off. The crowd cheered, and Trump removed his tie.
Trump began his non-hair-related comments by talking about a poll he said “just came out.”
“We’re up six [in Iowa],” Trump said.
That poll by Monmouth University was published three weeks ago. It is an outlier among polls, most of which show either a tie in the presidential race in Iowa or Biden with a slight lead.
Trump immediately moved on to complaining that it was unfair for him to be only six points ahead in the state because of all he has done for Iowa.
“No one has ever done more for Iowa and the farm-belt and the farmers and all,” the president said. “No more estate taxes, no more anything. I saved ethanol, ethanol is safe. To me to only be up six, I’m a little bit concerned, I’ll tell you. ‘Cause nobody’s going to do for Iowa what I did for Iowa.”
Trump’s remarks never got much more coherent or accurate than that.
It was a rambling and repetitive speech. And it was repetitive because of the rambling.
Trump had teleprompters next to his podium which scrolled through the text of his speech, but he kept departing from the prepared remarks with long asides, many of which involved accomplishments he said he was not given enough credit for. One recent example Trump offered was a claim that TV news programs were more interested in covering natural disasters affecting people in Iowa and Florida instead of him being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the third time. (The people who have nominated Trump for the Nobel are a mixture of a few people in other countries with fringe political views and Republican members of Congress.)
Trump tells his story about he how and Melania recently watched the evening news expecting to see coverage of his Nobel nominations, but were dismayed that the news was covering a hurricane in Florida and flooding in Iowa instead. This is supposed to make the media look bad. pic.twitter.com/62gzutni0D
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 15, 2020
Other times, Trump indulged in long, discursive asides about a subject, only to have that subject later come up in the text of his speech. He then read the prepared text off the teleprompter, even though he was largely repeating something had said only a few minutes earlier.
All the aspects of Trump’s speech would be familiar to viewers of Fox News. He claimed to have done more in his first term than any president. He complained about what he calls “the Russia hoax.” He boasted about creating the Space Force. He complained he doesn’t get enough credit for not starting a war with North Korea or Iran.
Trump attacked Joe Biden for being old, and attacked Biden and members of Biden’s family as corrupt. He attacked the news media as corrupt. He used barely veiled racist language to try to make white people fearful of Democrats. He blamed China for America’s struggling economy and called COVID-19 “the China virus.” And, of course, he claimed electing Biden would essentially destroy America.
Trump wasn’t the only one Wednesday claiming Democrats in power would destroy America. Reynolds did her best to stoke those fears when she spoke at the rally.
“This is one election we can’t get wrong,” Reynolds said. “Elections matter. And all you have to do is turn on the TV, and see the chaos, the intimidation and the dysfunction and the lawlessness that is taking place across this country.”
“And I will tell you most of those states are ran [sic] by Democratic governors.”
There was one new element in Trump’s presentation on Wednesday, one calculated to appeal to Iowans. Earlier that day, the White House announced Trump would be awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Iowa wrestling great Dan Gable.
At the rally, Trump brought Gable on to the stage, and the two praised each other.
Trump introduces Dan Gable, an award-winning wrestler who wrestled at ISU and coached at UIowa, who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Gable says Trump will be a "multi-time champion," prompting "four more years" chants from the crowd. pic.twitter.com/kWpGZJH0lN
— Anjali Huynh (@anjalihuynh) October 15, 2020
Trump participated in professional wrestling events before becoming president, but its unclear how interested he was in collegiate or Olympic wrestling before he needed to shore up support among Iowa voters. Still, Trump does have a history of awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to athletes. Of the 16 medals Trump has already awarded, eight went to current or former athletes. (Trump even awarded one to Babe Ruth, who died in 1948.)
Near the end of his speech, Trump told the audience, “Get your friends, get your family, get your neighbors, get your workers and coworkers and get the hell out to vote because if I don’t get Iowa, I won’t believe that one.”
“I may never have to come back here again if I don’t get Iowa. I’ll never be back,” Trump added, before turning to Gov. Reynolds. “You understand that, Kim?”
After two more minutes of reading his prepared text from the teleprompter, Trump was finished. He stood on stage for a few more minutes, waving and tossing MAGA hats to the crowd, as the sound system blasted the Village People’s “YMCA,” before returning to Air Force One.