The transformation of the Republican primary into a reality TV show is now complete. Donald Trump’s nationalist infomercial-cum-veterans’ fundraiser on Thursday night began with Tana Goertz, an Iowa-born contestant from Season 3 of The Apprentice. She promised the audience that Trump would change their lives just as he did hers—which seems unlikely, since he is not going to turn them all into television personalities, but speaks to the magical thinking at work in the Trump phenomenon. Next up were Lynette “Diamond” Hardaway and Rochelle “Silk” Richardson, black women and sisters who have catapulted to minor celebrity with their pro-Trump YouTube videos. “We had a president that ran on hope and change,” said Diamond. “But our veterans don’t have any hope, and some of our veterans don’t even have enough change to buy a loaf of bread.” “Uh huh,” Silk exclaimed.
It remains to be seen how Iowa voters will react to Trump’s decision to ditch the Fox News debate to stage his own pageant, but inside Drake University’s Sheslow Auditorium, it felt like a terrifying triumph. It helped that Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum, desperate for airtime after being relegated to the undercard debate, showed up to lend the whole bizarre affair an air of Republican legitimacy. (They are, after all, the last two winners of the Iowa Republican caucuses.) “I want to say how grateful I am to Donald Trump for inviting us,” said Huckabee, who apparently really hates Ted Cruz. “The easy thing for him to do is to simply ignore that anybody else cares about veterans, and he’s not that kind of person.”
They were followed by John Wayne Walding, a charismatic Green Beret who lost a leg in Afghanistan. Walding then introduced two of his Marine friends, one of them the executive director of 22 Kill, an organization that fights suicide among veterans. (The name comes from the statistic that 22 veterans kill themselves every day.) He presented Trump with a personal “honor ring,” worn in remembrance of these lost soldiers. I lost track of how many times the hundreds of people in the audience burst into shouts of “USA! USA!” When it was over, Trump announced that he’d raised over $6 million for veterans’ groups.
Thus, rather than absorb the attacks of his competitors on Fox, Trump got to play the magnanimous benefactor, starring in his own show that was broadcast on competing networks. “We’re actually told that we have more cameras than they do by quite a bit,” Trump boasted. When he mentioned Fox, the crowd booed. A farmer in the audience told me he respected Trump’s gambit, because it showed that “the press does not always get their way.” Fox has stoked this sort of distrust of the mainstream media since its inception, and it’s enjoyable to watch that distrust turned back on Fox itself. The pleasure is muted, though, by seeing who benefits.