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5 things I learned by spending four hours in The Donald Trump Experience

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is pictured at a news conference near the U.S.-Mexico border outside of Laredo, Texas July 23, 2015. REUTERS/Rick Wilking

How is Donald Trump still leading in national polls? How has he surged so quickly, and so contrary to the wisdom of pundits, in Iowa and New Hampshire? 

One of the answers popped up in Iowa on Saturday morning. At 10 a.m., when the line started outside of Donald Trump’s “family picnic” in Oskaloosa, Gov. Chris Christie (R-N.J.) was locked in an argument with a voter in the Des Moines suburbs. As Donald Trump fans feasted on free barbecue, Christie grew so frustrated with a gun rights activist that he told him to “run for president” if he wanted a debate.

One hundred and twenty people were in the room to witness that. One thousand and three hundred people were in Oskaloosa for Trump. And Trump didn’t argue with his audience at all. He spent 56 freewheeling minutes attacking the Obama administration, Chinese trade practices, Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.), Hillary Clinton, the Des Moines Register (“a liberal rag”), Caroline Kennedy, companies that build factories in Mexico, and freed POW Bowe Bergdahl .

I was at that picnic. Here's what I learned about the phenomenon that is Donald Trump.

1. Trump survived his McCain spat. Lots of people gasped at Trump’s “war hero” snark against Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Not many of them will participate in the Iowa caucuses. According to CNN’s polling, Trump actually ticked up marginally in the Hawkeye state after the McCain joke. That may not last – indeed, other polls in other states suggested that the joke backfired. But the sort of voter inclined to back Trump is not a fan of McCain.

“He had the nerve to put McCain in his place,” said Angie Binns, 59.

“I’ve been thinking that for years myself,” said Don James, a 62-year old immigration control activist who brought a “Deport Illegals” banner to the rally. ”No more walking on eggshells, no more political correctness.”

Another voter, who declined to state his name, reacted to the mention of McCain’s name by referring to (false) rumors that he had collaborated with Communists. Yes, McCain’s heroism powered him to many primary victories with Republican voters. But it’s 2015, and to many conservatives, McCain’s claim that Trump would “rile up the crazies” on immigration reform was more offensive than what Trump said. 

2. You say Trump is “rude.” Voters say he’s “honest.”

Trump might not have gotten away with the McCain line if he was not, well, Donald Trump. His free-associating style, and stream of tangential insults, is seen not as crudeness, but as a refreshing honesty. That was especially true for some of the older voters in Oskaloosa – the most reliable Republican voters.

“I like him because he’s not afraid of anyone,” said Amerillis Wilson, 77. 

“I like that he’s outspoken and he doesn’t take any guff from anybody,” said Carol Beaver, 77. “Whether that’s right, I don’t know. I’m tired of Washington not telling us what’s really going on.”

Some of the biggest cheers for Trump came when he lacerated the Des Moines Register, the state’s largest newspaper, whose editorial board had called on him to quit the race. Trump gleefully barred them from the rally itself, and told his audience that the paper was little-read and full of falsehoods. Tana Goertz, a contestant on The Apprentice, warmed up the audience by ticking off all the businesses that had cut ties with Trump. 

“People want the truth,” she said. “The truth hurts! The truth hurts! It’s not easy to say the truth.”

3. Trump’s turning his money into populist cred.

As soon as Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, Donald Trump was telling reporters that the nominee had been too shy about his wealth. His theory was that voters loved and appreciated success. He tested that in Iowa, and got laughs and cheers whenever he bragged about how much he owned. 

Among the examples:

- Trump decried the Obama administration’s strong dollar policy, before admitting that it had been good for him. “I can buy property all over Europe.”

- Trump warned that Japan was catching up to the United States in – of all things – the yacht-building industry. “I’ve been around. I’ve seen boats. These are the biggest boats I’ve ever seen.”

- Trump criticized President Obama for flying to Los Angeles for TV appearances instead of making the hosts come to the “cool” White House. “When you start up a Boeing 757 – and I know, because I have one – it’s expensive! You’re spending money once you turn the key.”

The point of all this is not just to brag. It's to establish Trump as beyond the control of any donor. “I read where Jeb Bush raised over $100 million,” Trump said. “If you think those people aren’t expecting a lot, you’re wrong.”

4. There’s more to the campaign than Trump.

When Republicans want to console themselves about the Trump boomlet, they note that high-powered strategists have not signed up with him. That’s true – but Trump has hired a real campaign team. The event in Oskaloosa included an overflow room and a private meeting with activists who were judged to be especially influential. Event staffers had eagle eyes for veterans in the audience, asking them to hold “Veterans for Trump” signs, just to put a period on the McCain story.

“It was as strong an organization as I’ve ever seen,” said Phil Cavanaugh, a 54-year old Republican who’d been involved in local politics since 1978.

Only after dismissing Trump’s hubris has the press noticed the candidate’s political team. His campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was at one point running three state chapters of David Koch’s Americans for Prosperity. No organization was more effective at turning Tea Party activism into grassroots organizing, collecting the names of people who could be turned out to lobby their legislators. The campaign’s only grassroots stumble so far came when it released the names of Veterans for Trump.” Some of the vets were surprised to see themselves promoted that way. But the point was that the Trump campaign had quickly identified them, and used them.

5. Trump is having so much fun.

After his main speech, and after a quick address to his overflow room, Trump stood for 28 minutes of reporter questions. He referred to producers who had covered him before by their first names. He even took two questions from a 9/11 Truth activist, Rick Shaddock, who had somehow made it into the press conference.

“As a builder of many skyscrapers, you know they’re built to be strong,” said Shaddock. “Many people have questions about how those towers came down.” 

“The World Trade Center?” asked Trump.

“Yeah,” said Shaddock. As he continued, Trump narrowed his eyes, then asked the other three dozen reporters in the room – “Is this guy some kind of conspiracy guy?” 

The Trump boomlet may be undone by a gaffe. (Trump seemed downright nonchalant about the coming debates.) But none of the gaffes that were supposed to fell him have really slowed him down. In the meantime, Trump is happily talking to reporters, interjecting himself into every campaign story. This is not the germophobe stunt candidate that some predicted. It’s probably time to stop taking bets on when he’ll see a dollar sign and quit.