When I think back on all the crazy moments I’ve witnessed during the 2016 cycle, one often stands out above the rest. It was in early August at a Donald Trump rally in Des Moines, and Governor Terry Branstad was at the podium giving a warm-up speech. The crowd broke out into chants of “Lock her up!”, as they often started to do in the weeks after the overheated RNC convention.
The look on Branstad’s face in that moment was one I won’t forget. He stood there silent, standing awkwardly rigid after just delivering a vicious attack on Hillary Clinton. He looked confused and uncertain, unwilling to encourage or acknowledge the crowd as they screamed to jail their political opponent, yet certainly too afraid to tell them to settle down.
In the crowd that day were dozens of people wearing those “Trump That Bitch” t-shirts that vendors sell to eager Trump supporters outside of rallies. I commented to one of the staffers there that if I was in charge of a Democratic Party event, I would immediately toss out anyone with such vile and misogynistic messaging, no matter if they were supporters or not. My concern was met with a shrug of the shoulders. Many adorning those shirts yelled the loudest as Branstad stood silent.
I also recognized very few of the Republican activists that I had gotten to know during the caucuses, the ones who showed up at Rubio, Cruz, Fiorina and Bush events. I met a lot of nice Republicans during that time. I don’t see them anymore, except at the occasional party fundraiser.
With the kind of angry people Trump and Iowa Republicans have welcomed into their party, the bizarre comments from voters at Mike Pence’s event in Newton yesterday shouldn’t come as a shock.
“For me personally, if Hillary Clinton gets in, I myself, I’m ready for a revolution, because we can’t have her in,” a woman told Pence.
Pence cautioned her not to say that in a moment reminiscent of John McCain telling a rally-goer in 2008 that Barack Obama was not, in fact, a Muslim.
This is unfortunately what Iowa politics looks like these days. Thanks to Iowa Republicans’ full embrace of Trump’s candidacy, more and more crazies have entered the party and felt emboldened to project their conspiracy theories and hatred. The Des Moines Register asked what it all says about Iowa, and the answer is nothing good.
The “Iowa Nice” that our state is so well-known for is dead, murdered by the 2016 election.
Nearly everyone on the Republican side has gotten in on it, egged on and justified by the unified Trump support among Terry Branstad, Kim Reynolds, Joni Ernst, Chuck Grassley and Jeff Kaufmann. Steve King has been emboldened to go so far as to announce common cause with European far-right nationalists and tweet out white supremacist sayings. The Republicans’ Reagan Dinner in Des Moines on Saturday was a very dark affair, filled with vicious, over-the-top attacks on Clinton, with one attendee shouting out “Impeach her!”, though it was unclear what they wanted to impeach her from.
Branstad and Kaufmann claim their Trump loyalty is partly in an effort to protect the Iowa Caucus, but they’re doing much more harm than good. Candidates and media love coming to Iowa partly because caucus-goers are so well-informed and can converse intelligently with candidates on in-depth policy issues. Right now the base of the Iowa Republican Party has turned into a bunch of foaming-at-the-mouth radicals. When 2020 hopefuls hold town hall forums in the future, will they get people calling for armed revolution against a President Clinton?
And with Trump waging open warfare on the GOP, certain to cause down-ballot havoc, the Republican Party may emerge from 2016 looking for ways to prevent candidates like Trump from winning in the future. Iowa went for Ted Cruz in the caucus, but Iowa has also become Trump’s best, most loyal vote of the swing states. Given the Trump embrace from the state party’s establishment, isn’t it more likely that Iowa caucus-goers would gravitate to another Trump-like nationalist?
Leadership matters. And Branstad and Kaufmann led their party and their voters to become more hateful and more extreme. That is bad for the Iowa Caucus.
But it’s not simply limited to the Republican side. The base of the Democratic Party here isn’t anywhere near the level of anger the Republicans are at, but you can see where we’re headed in that direction. The county conventions back earlier this year featured shouting, yelling and nasty accusations. The Sanders and Clinton factions have still yet to fully reconcile with one another and a sense of mistrust persists.
During the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, one of the Sanders national delegates told Senator Mike Gronstal during an attempted unity meeting that every Democratic legislator is “corrupt.”
“When you say things like that, that’s a conversation ender,” Gronstal replied, according to several people in the room.
And it seems like many of those conversations did end. There’s this prevailing idea that if you aren’t 100% with someone on their favorite policies, you’re the enemy.
When I covered a Green Party rally, one of the nice, enthusiastic Jill Stein supporters was cautioned by her friends not to talk to me, because they told her I had once written that she was a “suicidal Marxist who works at TGI Friday’s.” Now, anyone who actually reads Starting Line knows I wouldn’t write something so unprofessional and nasty-sounding, nor that I actually feel that way about anyone (and indeed, it was some random VICE reporter who wrote it). But some people will believe anything and the worst of someone if that person is perceived to not be on their side. At least I was given a chance to clarify and reassure in this situation.
You saw flashes of that during the Polk County minimum wage fight. The activists advocating for a $15/hour minimum wage brought up very important concerns with the process and the youth and tipped wage exceptions. They also got out of hand at times, leveling very personal attacks at the supervisors, as well as shouting and yelling at times during the meeting, which didn’t help anything. The supervisors didn’t improve matters either by making odd accusations right back that the activists didn’t care about fighting hunger because they weren’t also at meetings about local food pantries. They even had sheriff’s deputies kick out one of the lead activists for constantly shouting at them.
It’s all part of a pattern of a breakdown in political discourse in Iowa. Republicans’ fiery hatred of Clinton has led them to a dangerous place, tolerating the extremes of racists and misogynist so they can win. The activist left is trending toward a dangerous path as well, with both sides of the internal Democratic divide not doing enough to reach out to one another. And yes, it’s happening all across this country, but it’s particularly noteworthy here given our reputation, as well as the severity of it caused by Iowa Republicans’ choices.
Perhaps it will get better once Election Day is here and gone. Perhaps it won’t. But one thing is sure: it will take real leadership in both parties to return our state’s politics to a productive place, and to regain the “Iowa Nice” distinction that has served our state well.
by Pat Rynard