It was in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Jan. 23, 2016, just nine days before the Iowa caucuses that Donald Trump delivered what became one of his most memorable lines.
He was at Dordt College, a Christian liberal arts school, where a young, enthusiastic crowd sat patiently staring at a large stage that was bare except for a lectern, three American flags and three Iowa flags.
Trump walked out, the crowd rose to its feet clapping and shouting, and Trump opened his arms wide and did a little pantomime of: “Me? Your applause is for me?”
“They say I have the most loyal people. Did you see that?” Trump asked the crowd. “Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”
The crowd ate it up and on his way to the next stop, Trump tweeted: “Just left Sioux Center, Iowa. My speech was very well received. Truly great people! Packed house — overflow.”
He doesn’t mention the “shoot somebody” line, but he doesn’t need to. The internet is already alight with it, as the national news soon will be.
Throughout the day, tweeters mulled the deeper meaning of Trump’s words. Some would say Trump was admitting that his followers were sheep-like. He could commit a heinous crime and they wouldn’t blink.
Others thought Trump was bragging that his core was rock solid. And even though Sen. Ted Cruz would edge Trump in the Iowa caucuses, it would not matter.
And still others complained it was an inappropriate time in American history to talk about shooting people. A few months later, in May, in midtown Manhattan, a “disheveled and agitated man” would grapple with a police officer, produce a knife and be shot dead.
The New York Times noted an interesting phenomenon: The shooting scene “quickly turned into a public spectacle” with diners deserting their coffee and croissants at a nearby cafe, Pigalle, “and going out onto the street to see what had happened.”
People weren’t running from the shots — the police had fired off nine of them, hitting a passerby as well as the agitated man — but were rushing toward them. Everything in America was treated like a performance.
And Donald Trump was very good at performance.
His general election opponent, Hillary Clinton, was not so good at performing, but was plenty good enough. And Trump was genuinely worried about becoming a loser.
There was also something eating away at Trump’s gut: He truly believed the election was being “rigged” in Hillary’s favor. It was a word he used time and again.
His website had a “Help Me Stop Crooked Hillary From Rigging This Election!” page. And Trump believed the House speaker, Paul Ryan, a Republican, was secretly for Hillary because he wanted to run for president himself in 2020.
Trump worried that his core supporters, those who would walk through fire for him, were not plentiful enough for him to win. He needed to attract others, but Hillary and her husband were plotting every day on how to steal the election from him.
When the FBI director recommended she not be prosecuted for the use of her private email server, Trump went nuts.
And a familiar image returned to his speeches. At a rally in Pensacola, Florida, on Sept. 9, 2016, Trump said: “[S]he could walk into this arena right now and shoot somebody with 20,000 people watching right smack in the middle of the heart and she wouldn’t be prosecuted, OK?”
At a campaign rally in Nevada in February, Trump had repeated his claim that he could get away with anything because his people were so loyal. “Even the really dishonest press says Trump’s people are the most incredible,” he said. “Sixty-eight percent would not leave under any circumstances. I think that means murder. I think it means anything.”
Anything? Did it mean his people could collude with Russian agents to defeat Hillary Clinton? If he could get away with murder, he could get away with a little collusion, couldn’t he?
In Toledo, Ohio, 12 days before the election, Trump’s mood was one of ebullient confidence. “We should just cancel the election and just give it to Trump, right?” he said. “What are we even having it for? What are we having it for? So when we win, we are going to Washington, D.C., and we are going to drain the swamp!”
He did win — with the help of the Electoral College — but has he started to drain the swamp? Or is he just changing the cast of swamp creatures?
On Wednesday, at a confirmation hearing for Trump’s nominee for FBI director — Trump had fired the guy who didn’t want to prosecute Hillary — Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein said: “The FBI director does not serve the president. He serves the Constitution, the law and the American people.”
And maybe I was imagining it, but down at the White House, I thought I heard the sound of laughter.
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