There were far more homemade signs at the rally than there were “Make America Great Again” caps, the unofficial uniform of Trump’s supporters, but his Art-of-the-Deal take on the Iran deal played well enough with the crowd. They seemed to regard him with amusement and sincere interest, though their general opinion was best expressed later by Sarah Palin who said, “You don’t reward terrorism. You kill it!” This crowd didn’t want a better deal. They wanted no deal.
But it didn’t take long for Trump to suck them in with a rant that gave a clue as to why the flamboyant billionaire is playing so well with white, working class Republicans.
“We lose everywhere. We lose militarily. We can’t beat ISIS. Give me a break. We can’t beat anybody. Our vets are being treated horribly,” he said, and the people around me started murmuring in agreement. Suddenly the crowd, or at least the part I was standing in, shifted from taking in a spectacle to feeling a chord struck inside them. Forget the facts—there are plenty of dead terrorists and Somali pirates who are unavailable to comment—but Trump’s vision of America on a losing streak felt true to the Tea Party crowd.
“It will change,” he said. “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored of winning. Believe me.”
There was no hollering back where I stood, but that isn’t to say he wasn’t getting a response. The murmuring had taken on a happier tone. “Winning, yeah,” said one. “That’d be nice, huh? Winning?” said another.
“We are going to turn this country around,” Trump said, the crowd now completely with him. "We are going to start winning bigly, on trade, militarily.” And yes, Trump said “bigly,” but no one cared. He’d conjured both a word and a world in which the United States didn’t have the most powerful and lethal military force in the history of the planet. Every word he said felt true to them, even the one he made up.
“We’re going to build up our military. We’re going to have such a strong military, that nobody—nobody!—is going to mess with us. We’re not going to have to use it,” said Trump.
This is American Exceptionalism re-imagined by Charles Atlas. Trump wants to prove that he can make America so huge and so strong—the strongest!—that no terrorist would dare kick sand in our faces again. Thinking this way is more than a little silly, but it is exactly how the people who went to the Stop Iran Deal Rally felt.
The pity of this all is that the Iran deal shows how America can lead (and win!) in an increasingly disorganized world. We negotiated with Iran from a position of strength. We had support from our European allies. We had Iran’s billions in our banks. Behind door number one was Iran giving up their nuclear weapons program. Behind door number two was Iran becoming the next destination for Drone Airlines. The United States gave up nothing in this deal. In exchange for their own money, Iran gave us what we wanted: an Iran without The Bomb.
This is what winning looks like. This is our enemy surrendering their weapons without a fight not because they love us but because they know they would not survive the fight. After our embassies getting bombed, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia invading Georgia, the red line in Syria, Benghazi, Russia invading Ukraine, Boko Haram, and ISIS, stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons was change we need to believe in.
There are reasonable criticisms of the Iran deal, but you didn’t hear any at the rally. Instead, they got Sen. Ted Cruz, who seems to get his intelligence briefings from Call of Duty. “If this deal goes through, we know to an absolute certainty, people will die,” Cruz said. “Americans will die.” They also heard from Palin, who took the occasion to tell not one but two thinly veiled penis jokes at the President’s expense.
Cruz and Palin are minor players who are as yet unable to tap directly into what animated the crowd at the Stop Iran Deal Rally. “What part of ‘Death to America and Israel’ do you not understand?” read one popular sign. To them, negotiating with Iran exposes our weakness. Maybe they’re being misled. Maybe they’ve thought that everything Obama has done is wrong so long that they can’t see anything he does as right. But if they—and Trump—want America to be great again, they could hardly do better than Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Jason Stanford is a partner with the Truman National Security Project. He is also a national Democratic consultant and writes regular columns for The Austin American-Statesman and The Quorum Report.