DAVENPORT, Iowa – Donald J. Trump spoke here on Monday, his first visit to the state since announcing his candidacy in the 2024 election last November. It was a homecoming of sorts for Trump, whose close second-place finish in the Iowa caucuses seven years ago propelled his unexpected run to the White House.
“Iowa, we love you!” Trump proclaimed in 2016. “We thank you. You’re special. I think I might come here and buy a farm.”
Trump didn’t follow through on that emotive bit of enthusiasm, but he still believes the Midwestern heartland is fertile ground for his “America First” mantra. He’s not alone: Trump’s Iowa trip is the latest in a flurry of activity by potential GOP candidates looking to gain a foothold in the crucial early primary season state. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was here three days earlier promoting a new memoir that reads like a campaign manifesto.
But if the 45th U.S. president arrived late to the scramble for Iowa, he and his supporters did so in force. Despite sub-freezing temperatures, a sizable contingent of red-hatted MAGA faithful had amassed outside the Adler Theater by 10 a.m. Armed with lawn chairs and huddled in “Trump 2024” blankets, they formed a political tailgate party that stretched around the block by the time the event began 11 hours later. Cars and pickup trucks sporting Trump-friendly bumper stickers and plates from every part of the country clogged the roadways and honked in support of those with boots on the ground.
Although attendees were promised a speech on “America First Education Policy,” Trump instead took to the stage to discuss a wide swath of topics ranging from trade war to transgenderism. He spent much of the time recounting victories in office and decried the many “self-inflicted wounds” the country bore under the first two years of the Biden administration. The speech was roughly 75 minutes and concluded with a half hour of impromptu Q&A with members of the audience.
A number of Monday night’s talking points were grafted from Trump’s keynote address at CPAC last week. The former president again foretold of a “final battle” in 2024. Many promises were echoed, and anecdotes like his fateful conversation with Taliban leader “Abdul” were repeated. Aware of his surroundings, however, Trump added new wrinkles, including a passionate advocacy for the agriculture industry.
“I am the most pro-farmer president that has ever been in the White House,” he informed the audience. “By far.”
Trump cited his support for family farm-friendly exemptions from the estate inheritance tax (the ever-controversial “death tax”), as well as the increase in payouts to farmers during his administration, as proof of his commitment.
Hand-in-hand with this was an increased focus by Trump on energy independence. Trump is always keen to remind voters about Biden’s axing of the Keystone XL Pipeline in 2021 (a “tragic mistake,” he said Monday), but new to this speech was a call for the nation to become a global exporter of ethanol, which Trump pledged to pursue as “a national security priority.”
Trump may have betrayed an ulterior motive for this new stance when he segued into an open attack on Gov. Ron DeSantis, reminding the audience of his long and “very bad” history of opposition to the fuel source. He also went after the governor’s past support for raising the minimum retirement age for Social Security recipients.
Attacks on Ron “DeSanctimonious” have become routine for the former president on social media but received a mixed reception from Monday’s audience. Although he hasn’t yet declared a run, a recent poll by the Des Moines Register found DeSantis’ favorability in the Hawkeye State to now be roughly on par with Trump’s own.
At Monday’s event, many Trump fans were willing to offer high praise of Florida’s governor – provided he stays out of the way until 2028.
John Russell, a 51-year-old industrial loader from Aurora, Ill., was one of the very first to arrive in front of the Adler Theater on Monday. “He’s the greatest governor in my lifetime that I’ve seen,” he said of DeSantis. “But he’s not ready for the world stage yet.”
Speaking prior to Trump’s rally, Russell was one of several attendees who expressed skepticism about a perceived “establishment” bent from DeSantis, citing praise he’s received in recent months from “RINOs” (“Republicans in Name Only”) such as Jeb Bush. Trump was happy to press this theme on stage, casting DeSantis as the spiritual successor to now-unpopular figures of the GOP’s old guard.
“Ron was a disciple of Paul Ryan, who is a RINO loser.” Trump said, adding that DeSantis “reminds me a lot of Mitt Romney.”
It took over an hour for Trump to discuss education policy, one of the issues he touted ahead of time. But once he got there, he wasn’t shy. “I will immediately sign a new executive order to cut federal funding from any school pushing Critical Race Theory, transgenderism, and any other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content for our children,” he vowed. The crowd erupted in applause.
Trump also called for a breakup of the federal Department of Education, bemoaning the U.S.’ status as one of the highest spenders and lowest performers in international rankings on education. “So we spend three to four times more on educating a pupil, and yet we’re at the bottom of the list,” Trump said. “They’re at the top of the list and they spend much less money, so you know the system doesn’t work. So breaking up the Department of Education is a very simple thing to do.”
Trump would additionally call for direct elections of school principals, and advocate for an expansion of school choice, praising Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for passing the state’s high-profile “Students First Act” and pledging to create something similar at the federal level.
Amid early jockeying in Iowa, education policy has emerged as a fertile field in the race for GOP 2024 presidential nominee. Victories against “DEI bureaucracy” in schools were a focal point of DeSantis’ own events Friday. Last month, Mike Pence traveled to Cedar Rapids where he denounced “radical gender ideology” in public schools.
Elanor Mendoza, a grandmother and doctor from the Davenport area, described Critical Race Theory as a “poison” infecting the school system. She liked what Trump had to say about it on Monday but was afraid infighting in the party may prevent real progress.
“I would say that the Republicans have an overflow of talent – very capable people,” she said. “All I will say is ‘let the best man win,’ because we are all caring for a country that is in the pits right now.”