As Donald Trump left the stage at Ernie Boch’s mansion in suburban Boston on Friday night, attendees clawed at him, shouting for attention, for handshakes and, of course, for selfies.
Despite the requirement for attendees to make out $100 checks to his presidential campaign, the Republican frontrunner insisted the event was not a fundraiser.
Whatever the evening was, it was lavish.
Boch brought in what he called “the world’s best cover band” and provided an open bar, a wide range of entrees including lamb shanks and fish tacos, and a cake in the form of Trump’s signature baseball cap – motto: “Make America Great Again”.
In the same way their children would paw at One Direction or Taylor Swift, the mostly upper-middle-class New Englanders who made up the crowd could not hide their delight at the chance to meet the man who has upended the race for the White House.
Three days before, on a hot Tuesday afternoon in the heavily Catholic town of Dubuque, Iowa, the atmosphere had been markedly less fancy. The venue, a convention center, looked nothing like Bosh’s ornate lawn party, as a largely blue-collar crowd lined up for hours to see and hear Trump speak.
This is the extent of Trump’s reach as he continues to lead the polls: the real-estate mogul turned presidential candidate has supporters in working class Iowa towns and he has supporters on the manicured grounds of a sprawling Boston mansion. But a surprising trip on and off the trail with him over the course of the last week revealed that the two sets of Trump lovers have come to admire him for very similar reasons.
‘Oh, I wish I had big nuts like him – he’s not afraid of anybody’
Love him or hate him, Trump’s personality is magnetic. The bombastic billionaire and reality television host has long portrayed himself as a straight-talking icon of American capitalism – and an embodiment of the garish consumerism that often comes with it.
He also likes to trumpet his independence from the political establishment, arguing that his wealth means “lobbyists and special interests” cannot buy him off. To many Americans who find themselves fed up with the political process, it is an appealing line.
In Dubuque, Bob Cooksley, a retired veteran from Sherrard, Illinois, told the Guardian: “I just like that he hasn’t been a politician, and doesn’t try to get re-elected as representative or senator or governor. He doesn’t have none of that.”
Trump also appeals to small businessmen like Bob Inello, who owns an electral contracting business.
“He’s a businessman. It’s about time we had a businessman and a CEO instead of a politician in politics,” Inello said.
Carl Semrow, 16, of Brodhead, Wisconsin, agreed: “He has very good American ideals to turn this country around, such as capitalism.”
On top of his business success, Trump’s bold persona steals hearts. Dino Rossi, of Newton, Massachusetts, envied what he saw as Trump’s fearlessness.
“Oh, I wish I had big nuts like him,” said Rossi. “He’s not afraid of anybody or anything. That’s pretty cool.”
Art Siml, from Wheaton, Illinois, was similarly seduced by the candidate’s brash personality. Siml came to his event with a sign he had made with his grandson: “Don’t be a chump, vote for Trump.”
While Siml hadn’t fully committed to supporting Trump’s candidacy, he liked Trump “because he’s honest and he’s not necessarily politically correct”.
The Trump card: immigration
Trump has shot to the top of the Republican field with a call for a tougher stance on illegal immigration, including a proposal to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country while building a wall across the US-Mexican border.
He has made these calls in highly charged language, including stating that Mexico was deliberately sending criminals into the US.
In his presidential announcement speech, in New York on 17 June, Trump was referring to Mexico when he said: “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
He has since has gone out of his way to press the issue. After the party on Friday night, under the auspices of a group called the Remembrance Project, Trump met briefly with families of people killed by illegal immigrants.
The candidate told the family of Joshua Fromer, who was killed in a car accident involving an undocumented migrant 10 years ago: “It’s going to be a very important life he led. A lot of people are going to be saved because of him. We’re gonna to give you a voice.”
Fromer’s brother, Matt, was visibly emotional. He later told the Guardian he found it “unbelievable” that Trump was “addressing what has been ignored for far too long”, and praised Trump for “bringing light” to the issue of illegal immigration.
Trump’s message, of course, resonates with many who do not have personal connections to the issue.
Sandra Murray, from Dubuque, told the Guardian: “We’ve definitely got a problem with immigration. I’ve heard there are 11 million illegal immigrants here, but I’ve also heard there are 30 million. Whether it’s 11 or 30, one million is too many.”
Murray said that with illegal immigration came drugs, and “with the drugs, comes crime”.
She cited the recent death of Kate Steinle, a 32-year-old San Francisco woman who was shot dead, allegedly murdered by a man who had been deported five times. The case has been repeatedly mentioned by Trump.
“That’s just one scenario that got brought up on the news,” Murray said, adding that while she had not personally seen any negative effects stemming from illegal immigration in her community, she “did her research, and [knew] what’s out there”.
Clay Diciaula, a 21-year-old from Dodgeville, Wisconsin, shared such concerns.
“Something needs to be done,” he said. “Can’t have people come in killing people like they have.”
Diciaula also criticised what he saw as a media distortion of Trump’s plan to deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants. He thought journalists neglected to mention the fact that Trump plans on repatriating those migrants who have been law-abiding and well behaved – “the good ones”, Dicaula called them.
“Bringing them out is gonna make it easier to bring them back in,” he mused.
Still, some had questions about Trump’s immigration policy which would remain, for now, unanswered. When prompted, Steve Rosanke of Dubuque wondered: “I agree with him on most things, but how do you move that many people?”
Trump’s appeal: from Bush voters to former diehard Democrats
The big difference between the crowds from the midwest to the east coast lay in their political backgrounds.
In Norwood, most guests were conservative Republican voters. A typical attendee was David Levesque of Warwick, Rhode Island, who had singlehandedly built a local chain of coffee houses, Brewed Awakenings. While Levesque told the Guardian he had voted for politicians in both parties, he said only two had previously excited him like Trump: Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin, who interviewed Trump for her show this weekend.
Other would-be Trump voters, such as Ed Barsamian from Naples, Florida, were recent converts. Barsamian said he had once been a “diehard liberal Democrat”, but had moved to the right because Barack Obama was “a fraud”.
In Iowa, the crowd was far less politically engaged. When asked who they had supported in the 2012 Republican primary, many Trump supporters answered: “George W Bush”. He last appeared on a ballot in 2004.
One of the first people to show up to the Dubuque rally was Phil Brunsman, from the small town of Farley. Brunsman, who is on disability benefits, had brought a lawn chair; with it, he snagged a place in line hours before doors were due to open.
He had always voted for a straight Republican ticket, he said, but had to think to remember the last time he had caucused: “Last time, when Bush was in there,” he said, uncertainly.
Frank Kennedy of Galena, Illinois showed up with a picture he had painted of Trump surrounded by images of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore. While he was not entirely sold on Trump – he said he needed the frontrunner to trade him a campaign baseball hat for his picture in order to seal his vote – he was still a big fan.
“I’ve known about him since about 1970 and always thought he was a cool guy,” said Kennedy. “He’s against the crooks in Washington, and he wants to straighten that out for us.”
The last time Kennedy voted in a presidential election was for George W Bush in 2000. He wasn’t sure if he would vote in 2016.
“It depends,” he said. “If there’s a lot of snow and stuff I’ll stay home. I live out in the country on a really bad road.”
On the campaign trail, Trump’s speaking style is a bizarre blend of Andrew Jackson and Andrew Dice Clay, as he mixes populist appeal with insult comedy in monologues that can range from 20 minutes to an hour. Trump’s speeches are crude, rambling and wildly popular.
But there is something more to all the bluntness. Trump has come to embody a concept that one man can come to Washington and turn everything around. His supporters, vocally frustrated with both Obama and congressional Republicans, are seduced by a candidate promising to turn around an economy that once guaranteed every generation could be better off than that of its parents.
Through his business background and much-vaunted negotiating skills, Trump has offered a kind of magic elixir that will make all such problems go away. As it turns out, many Americans would very much like a dose.