There are some things you just can’t do in politics, not at the presidential level, anyway.
This is a game like any other, with rules honed over decades by the pros in blue blazers clutching focus-group results: Be likable. Don’t make enemies. Respect the party elders. Avoid funny hats. And never wear white bucks or French cuffs to the Iowa State Fair, a flyover fantasyland of cholesterol and common decency where the life-size butter cow grazes behind glass with the life-size butter Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly.
That’s why Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wore jeans to pose atop the hay bales this year. Former HP CEO Carly Fiorina featured pink plaid—Farmer Jane meets Disney princess—and Democratic front runner Hillary Clinton dug up a blouse of blue gingham, hoisting her pork chop on a stick like a blue ribbon for authenticity. They all played it well, adhering to the sacred promise that if they pretend to be like everyone else, voters might think they actually are.
Read TIME’s interview with Donald Trump.
Then a buzzing came across the sky. A $7 million Sikorsky helicopter, sent over six states in at least four hops by its billionaire owner, descended in tight circles on the crowd, the name of the Republican front runner for the 2016 presidential nomination emblazoned on the tail. Donald John Trump, at roughly 25% in the national GOP polls, about twice his nearest rival, emerged in Des Moines with his golden mane encased in a big ruby baseball cap, his cuffs flashing diamond links and his shoes shining brighter than bleached teeth.
The state trooper in charge of the event told the governor that in all his years working the fair, he had never seen a candidate mobbed like Trump. All the competition could do was stick to their scripts. When someone asked Clinton if she had noticed Trump circling overhead, she claimed ignorance. “I was just looking at the people,” she said. Trump, for his part, didn’t pretend to care much for the pork chop on a stick. One bite and he put the silly thing down. The rules have changed. He didn’t need it.
Three days later, back in his corner office in Manhattan, a brass-rimmed Fifth Avenue trophy case in a golden building overlooking Central Park, Trump reflects on the secret of his seemingly instant rise from real estate and reality TV to the center ring in the big top of presidential politics. “People don’t understand,” he says, meaning all the experts who have spent the summer writing him off. “You come in on a Boeing 757, and you get out of a helicopter, and you go over to the fair, and you give the kids the rides, which the kids loved. But you land in this incredible Sikorsky, and people like it.”
He always thought that President Jimmy Carter had it wrong back in the 1970s, when he would walk off Air Force One carrying his own suit bag in a show of solidarity with regular folk. “They don’t want that,” Trump continues. “They want someone who’s going to beat China, beat Japan.”
Behind the scenes of TIME’s cover shoot with Donald Trump and an American bald eagle named Uncle Sam.
Trump won’t hire a pollster, and he has let go about as many senior people from his campaign in the past month as he has hired. He does his own debate prep, doesn’t spend on advertising, refuses to seek big campaign contributions and says he gets military advice from watching pundits jabber on television. His campaign slogan, which he has trademarked, printed on hats and warned rivals not to use, is recycled pabulum—“Make America great again.” He can’t really finish three sentences without bragging about his business deals, his Ivy League education, his golf scores or his place in the polls.
But that’s who he really is, for better and worse, a living performance piece who no longer needs to pretend. It’s hard to look away. “I don’t think the people running for office are real,” Trump continues, speaking now of his competition, whom he keeps finding new ways to diminish. “They have to throw a lot of consultants away and be themselves. I think it is one of the things that has helped me.”
If you want to understand what is happening in the country right now, to get at its shifting id, its calcifying frustrations, its guttural demand for change, you need only listen to that message of disgust, for the political system, its falsehoods and failures, which has taken Trump to the top of the Republican polls. He talks about foreign policy like it was a casino deal and the American economy like it was steel rebar, just waiting for a smarter guy to take the construction crane’s controls. “When was the last time that you saw this country have a victory? We don’t have victories,” he tells reporters. “What things am I going to do different? Almost everything.” And then, on his plans for a great wall on the southern border, which he says he can threaten Mexico to fund: “Nobody is going through my wall. Trump builds walls. I build walls.”
This is an old act. Trump has been saying most of this stuff for years, since at least the late 1980s, when he burst onto the national scene as a celebrity parody of a successful entrepreneur, which he also happened to be—all the best, he said, all the greatest, all the time. And over the decades, the sold-out Trump show, the human brand, became more valuable than his buildings or the casinos he could not keep afloat. The wealthy flocked to his golf courses, the working stiffs bought his ties, and developers around the world paid to put his name on their condos. Three times he danced with a presidential run, basking in the free publicity. Finally, at the age of 69, surprising even some of his friends, he decided to toss in his hat. “I felt I wanted to do it for myself,” he says. “I didn’t want to look back in 10 years and say, ‘Oh, I could have done that.’ My family would look at me.”
And people are grateful. They really are. From Iowa to New Hampshire, where he leads in the polls, his supporters keep echoing one another, almost verbatim, when asked to explain the unlikely appeal of a presidential candidate who once stood astride a professional wrestling ring, where he pretended to beat his fist into another man’s head. “He tells it like it is,” they say.
You don’t need a focus group to translate those sound bites: To support Trump in August 2015 is to oppose the established order, and not because of ideology but because you have just had enough—of the squabbling politicians, the dynastic political clans, the system of distinguished people who promise but can’t deliver. It is to say aloud to the pollster on the phone that you are ready to trade in the phoniness of the political process for an accomplished huckster who never backs down. “It’s a belief that the country is fundamentally broken and nobody is fixing it,” explains Republican pollster Frank Luntz. “It’s a sense that all the elites are in it for themselves and everybody else is suffering.” It is also a reminder that performance matters. On the two dimensions of your television screen, in the 20-second sound bite of an often bankrupt process, what H.L. Mencken termed “a carnival of buncombe,” a true showman can beat out rank even on his worst days.
Trump is a walking, talking wake-up call for the GOP and media elite. The ironies are as unmistakable as they are unforgiving. A conservative middle class crushed by economic change and unsettled by demographic transformation has reached the point where a condo promoter conveys more credibility than the party’s most accomplished governors. When he says he will beat China, steal Iraq’s oil and stick it to Iran, he is selling an unlikely dream. But that, after all, is what campaigns are about. “I’m just as disappointed with the Republicans as I am the Democrats,” Trump says. “It’s just so false and so phony and they can’t move—it’s moribund. They become weak and ineffective, except with one thing, getting themselves re-elected. That’s the one thing they’re good at.” Preach.
“There are two things going on,” explains Roger Stone, Trump’s on-again, off-again political consultant, who left his campaign orbit most recently on Aug. 8. “One is the total revulsion of American voters with politicians and the entire political system. And secondarily, just the belief that he can’t be bought.”
He still sips Diet Coke to get through the day, the only real vice for a lifetime teetotaler. His older brother Fred died of alcoholism at 42. “The best guy. He just had everything,” Trump says. “He would tell me, ‘Don’t ever drink. Don’t ever drink.’” He passed the message to his five children, all of them apparently happy and healthy, three of them now grown and working for him at the company, their pictures filling the walls with his own. “It’s great when it works,” he says of employing the kids, a privilege his developer father offered to him. “But I have friends where it doesn’t work; it’s a disaster.”
As usual, Trump’s point is that when he is involved, things work well. He leans forward in his chair and points to the Republican debate on Aug. 6 as proof. The Fox News moderators set the first question as a trap, hoping to return the race to the old physics: Raise your hand if you refuse right now to pledge to support the Republican nominee in the general election, and abandon any hope of an independent candidacy. “I had to make a very quick decision,” Trump says, remembering that feeling of shock onstage before a live crowd of 5,000, some 24 million Americans watching at home. “I took a deep breath, and I raised my hand. And it turns out I got credit for it.” The GOP audience liked his courage, he explains, even if they hated his position.
Rather than fall in the polls after the debate ended, as so many expected, Trump continued to climb. It has been like this all summer. When Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly asked him about his sometimes vile comments toward women, he responded by dismissing her, retweeting a description of her as a “bimbo” and saying she had “blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever.” Afterward, his favorability rating actually increased among Republican women in the most recent CNN poll, to 60%, though independent and Democratic women are far less kind.
When he announced his campaign, before a crowd of hundreds that he claimed to be “thousands,” he said Mexico was sending mostly rapists, criminals and drug users across the border. That lost him more than a dozen business partnerships, from the 2015 Miss Universe broadcast to a Serta-mattress branding deal, not to mention millions of potential Latino votes. When he was asked about former Republican nominee John McCain, he said he preferred war heroes who never got captured. A subsequent Internet poll, which Trump can’t stop quoting, found he was more popular among current and former military than the hero McCain, never mind the margin of error.
Under the established rules, any of those utterances would be disqualifying. But the other candidates whose polls have been spiking in recent weeks include Ben Carson, a retired brain surgeon who never held public office, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, and Fiorina, the former corporate executive with a single failed Senate race under her belt. Then there is the surging freshman Senator from Texas, Ted Cruz, whose defining message is that all politicians are liars and thieves. Less than 32% of the country has a favorable view of the Republican Party, including just 68% of people who call themselves Republicans. And the numbers are falling. “Every time somebody says I made a mistake, they do the polls and my numbers go up,” Trump says. “So I guess I haven’t made a mistake.”
If anyone dares to challenge him, he is relentless. He calls South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham “a stiff” and Jeb Bush a “puppet” and says Texas Governor Rick Perry wears glasses “so people will think he is smart.” “If I was the governor of New Jersey, the George Washington Bridge would not have been shut, if you talk about temperament,” he says of Chris Christie, who dared question whether being good at Manhattan real estate had anything to do with international diplomacy. When Kentucky Senator Rand Paul points out that Trump’s policy approach mocks conservative orthodoxy, the front runner shoots back, “Someone should primary him out, because he can be beaten, believe me.”
Most of his rivals have been cowed by the onslaughts, unable to beat the more popular bully at his game. “At this point we just have to ride it out, wherever he takes us,” says a strategist for another GOP contender. “What else can we do?”
THE BIGGER QUESTION is whether Trump can paste some broader credibility to his winning posture before his rivals gang up on him to push him from the field. It means a lot to have 25% of the vote when 17 candidates are running, but there are signs in the polls that many of those who don’t support him now will never vote for him. A recent CNN poll found that 58% of Republican-primary voters thought Trump on the ticket would decrease the odds that the party wins the White House. More than half the country still finds him unqualified for the presidency.
His response has been a focus on policy, releasing a written plan for immigration that is both bold and indecipherable. He would build the wall, confiscate the earnings of undocumented immigrants if Mexico did not pay for it, seek an end to birthright citizenship and rejigger the way immigrants who enter the country legally get visas. As for the estimated 11 million now in the country without papers, including about 10% of California’s workforce, “they have to go,” though he won’t say how he plans to make them leave, and he promises to return the “good ones” quickly. Whether those lucky winners will get an eventual path to citizenship—he won’t say just yet.
On taxes, he says he can rebuild the country’s infrastructure and military without raising rates to bring in more revenue, though he remains unsure whether he will sign Grover Norquist’s pledge never to raise taxes. He is outraged by the way some American companies relocated overseas to dodge taxes but sees a tax cut for the big companies’ foreign profits as the proper solution.
He rails against the corruption of the political process but is not yet ready to embrace public financing; his solution is “full transparency,” presumably increasing the pace at which donors are disclosed and closing the loopholes of anonymity so that his shaming campaign can continue. He once supported Canadian-style single-payer health care but now calls President Obama’s health reform a disaster and promises to replace it with “something terrific.”
But these equivocations are par for the rutty course on which he plays. Most of his rivals can’t even find a clear answer to the question of whether they agree with Trump’s threadbare immigration white paper, while Clinton has become a master of boldly committing to policies that poll well for her coalition while attempting to dodge any pressing question that might complicate her coronation. Yet it would be a mistake to think Trump is incapable of moderation or nuance. At heart he is a pragmatist, not an ideologue. He would not rip up Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, because contracts matter, but he would “enforce that deal like they never saw.” He boldly defends Planned Parenthood for the women’s health care it provides, not the abortions. And while his rivals quietly plot deep cuts in costly senior entitlement programs, he promises to treat Social Security and Medicare as sacrosanct.
And besides, his path to victory has always been on the surface. As the interview begins to wrap up in his office, he tells us that we must come with him downstairs to see the offices of one of his tenants, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, a foreign behemoth that dwarfs Citibank. The company recently re-signed a lease with him, around the same time the bank’s CEO staged a photo op in his office. “They love me,” Trump says. Then it is down another set of floors to the lobby, where his “Make America great again” hats are for sale to the tourists who stop by for a piece of Trump.
As he bids farewell, he has a final thought, something he has been mulling over. It’s about that massive audience for the first Republican debate on Fox News, which he credits almost entirely to himself. On Sept. 16, CNN will host the next debate, under the direction of Jeff Zucker, the man who helped launch Trump’s NBC show, The Apprentice. Trump has no doubt it will be huge.
“Here’s my question: So if I go to CNN and I say, Look, you’re going to have a massive audience, and if I say to them, I want $10 million for charity, nothing for myself, what happens? I’m not showing up, right?” he says. It’s a rhetorical question, the wheels of entrepreneurship are turning, the joy of being Trump dancing on his face. “I’m not showing up unless you give $10 million to cancer, to this, to that. You pick 10 great charities, $1 million per.” He’s not sure just how far the rules of democracy can bend, how big his ambitions can grow. “If I’m in it, they’ll get this crazy audience, and they’re going to make a fortune since they’re selling commercials every time we take a break. Would you ever say to them, would you ever say, I want $10 million for AIDS research, for cancer, for this type or not, or is it too cute?”
Journalists are professionally obligated not to answer, so we look at him in silence. Trump understands, except he won’t give up. He never gives up. “But it’s interesting?” he asks, still looking for approval, still demanding affirmation.
Yes it is. There’s no doubt about that.
—With reporting by Zeke J. Miller/Des Moines