DES MOINES — Donald Trump was conspicuously absent at a conservative Christian forum here, where his long-shot rivals for the Republican presidential nomination were asked how they could be role models from the White House. The host brought up Trump’s insulting nicknames: “How do we raise the bar?” he asked.
The next day, Trump swooped into Iowa for his own event — where he lobbed insults, made crude references and casually tossed out baseless and false claims designed to belittle his opponents and critics in vicious terms. Children wandered around in shirts and hats with the letters “FJB,” an abbreviation for an obscene jab at President Biden that other merchandise spelled out: “F— Biden.”
During his speech inside a high school gym in Fort Dodge, former president Trump called one GOP rival a “son of a b—-,” referred to another as “birdbrain” and had the crowd shrieking with laughter at his comments on Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), who he called “pencil neck” before asking, “How does he hold up that fat, ugly face?” He brought the house down while mocking Biden, at one point baselessly suggesting Biden is using drugs and can’t get offstage “by the time whatever it is he’s taken wears off.”
One of Trump’s introductory speakers from the Iowa state legislature declared anyone who kneels for the national anthem is a “disrespectful little s—,” quickly drawing a roaring response. And outside the packed venue, vulgar slogans about Biden and Vice President Harris were splashed across T-shirts: “Biden Loves Minors.” “Joe and the Ho Gotta Go!” One referred to Biden and Harris performing sexual acts.
Trump’s coarseness and cruelty have come to define the Republican Party since his rise to the presidency — and many GOP voters relish and emulate the approach, while others tolerate it. The split-screen on display in Iowa on Friday and Saturday highlighted one of the defining dynamics in the Republican race, in which Trump is the dominant polling leader overshadowing a roster of candidates running more traditional campaigns.
Offered the chance to support other presidential hopefuls who champion similar agenda to Trump in a less abrasive package, Republicans are for now sticking with the former president — underscoring how his personality and shattering of behavioral norms have long been a major part of his appeal. Conservative evangelicals influential in Iowa — the first state in the GOP nominating calendar — have previously set aside some distaste for Trump’s personal behavior as he took up their causes, including appointing antiabortion judges to the Supreme Court, and next year’s caucuses will test whether anything has shifted.
Trump’s rhetoric has alienated voters across the political spectrum and made him a particularly galvanizing opponent for Democrats. Within the GOP, however, it has spread, with others down the ballot and even some of his rivals looking to replicate his shock tactics. Saturday afternoon’s event in Fort Dodge served as a stark illustration of the crudeness, meanness and unfounded accusations that he has helped normalize in politics.
T-shirts on sale at the event neatly summed up that appeal with images of Trump giving a middle finger. “Even my dog hates Biden!” one of the merchants yelled each time someone walked up to look.
The substance and tone of Trump’s event was typical for a candidate who shot to political power with shocking pronouncements, insulting tweets and breaches of basic etiquette that, to supporters, were proof of his pitch as an outsider rather than a standard politician. He gained a political following pushing false claims that the country’s first Black president was born in Africa, denigrated migrants from certain countries, gave cutting nicknames to his rivals and enemies and won despite a recording in which he bragged in crass terms about groping women.
At one point Saturday, Trump responded at length to lurid unsubstantiated claims about his sexual activity that were included in a dossier penned by former British spy Christopher Steele in 2016, saying his wife Melania immediately dismissed them as false because she knows he is a germaphobe.
Anticipating another general election matchup with Biden, Trump is criticizing Biden’s policies but also attacking him in highly personal terms as weak or “stupid.” On Saturday he suggested Biden is unimposing to the dictators Trump often compliments, saying Chinese President Xi Jinping, who recently met with Biden, is “strong like granite” and musing that Taliban leaders might not call Biden “your excellency,” as Trump says they once addressed him.
“Everything Donald Trump says is either projection or a reflection of his deep insecurities. The American people elected Joe Biden in 2020 and rejected the hateful, divisive extremism of Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and they’ll do it again next November,” said Biden campaign spokesman Ammar Moussa.
Campaigning for president again, Trump’s rhetoric has only escalated. Last weekend he likened his political enemies to “vermin,” drawing a backlash as historians noted that dictators including Adolf Hitler used similar language. On the trail, he regularly assails the prosecutors investigating him with more nicknames (“Letitia Peekaboo James,” which rhymes with a racist slur) and labels like “animal.” On special counsel Jack Smith: “You take a look at that face, you say, that guy is a sick man.”
“President Trump is a role model,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung said in response to criticisms of the former president’s rhetoric. “He’s showing how to completely dominate a primary and general election.”
Trump’s language has rubbed off on his supporters.
“Joe’s gotta go,” said Lori Carpenter, 59, as she left the Fort Dodge event. “And the ho shouldn’t have been there in the first place.” The “ho” was Harris, she clarified, before offering another nickname for Harris that was even more vulgar.
“It doesn’t bother me,” she said of Trump’s insults and crudeness. Her relative, 71-year-old Marsha Crouthamel, agreed.
“It doesn’t bother me either because his policies are strong,” she echoed, adding that Trump got a lot of laughs and added, “Sometimes you just gotta excite people a little bit.”
“We’re Christians, and we can look past that,” Carpenter said. “We see the good that he did our country when he was in.” Asked what she thought of GOP rivals arguing they could deliver Trump-like policies without the baggage, she said: “They’re weaker than him.”
Many Republicans were never fans of Trump’s personal style, even as they embraced his policies. Others who were once drawn to Trump are expressing more doubts about his drama and in particular his willingness to bash fellow conservatives — and Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination are hoping to tap into that.
Some of them have increasingly suggested to voters that the former president’s behavior is a problem.
“You need to have the better angels of our nature guide us when you’re exercising his type of leadership,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday at the forum in Des Moines hosted by the Family Leader, an Iowa-based evangelical group. “The president has the ability, using the bully pulpit, to lift people up. We need that in this country.” The whole event was designed as a display of political civility, with three usually-combative GOP candidates assembled together at a table decorated for Thanksgiving.
DeSantis got some of the night’s strongest applause when he laid out his case against Trump, and on Saturday, he criticized the former president’s “disrespect for Iowa conservatives” in a post on X, noting Trump’s attacks on Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds.
But even Trump’s opponents have often declined to denounce his most outrageous comments and in many ways echo his style.
DeSantis has vowed to “start slitting throats” in the federal bureaucracy. Nikki Haley has seized attention with her put-downs of rival Vivek Ramaswamy in the debates. (“You’re just scum.”) And Ramaswamy has repeatedly come to Trump’s defense.
Trump is the overwhelming favorite to win the GOP nomination with less than two months until the voting starts. Warming up the crowd for him in Fort Dodge, Iowa state Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink (R) channeled Trump-world’s message for Republicans put off by Trump’s personality — the kind of voter better-represented at the Family Leader forum.
Republicans looking to move on from Trump often tell Trump supporters, “We need a fresh start … I wish he’d stop saying bad things about people,” Kraayenbrink told the audience. “You know what my answer is to them?” He laughed. “If that’s what you believe, the fake news, the Democrats, the RINOs, and the establishment — you’re buying everything they’ve been selling you for the last seven years.”
While Trump’s audiences love his attacks on Biden, they are usually impassive when he turns to DeSantis, his favorite punching bag in the GOP primary. Trump on Saturday repeatedly referred to DeSantis as “DeSanctimonious” or just “DeSanctus” and went on a long, mocking tangent about how DeSantis once sought his endorsement in a tough race for Florida governor. Trump also briefly bashed rising rival Haley and called her “birdbrain,” an insult he debuted this fall.
Some Trump supporters wish he would ease up on fellow Republicans. But many also brush it off as “Trump being Trump,” or politicians doing what politicians do — attack each other.
“Politics is politics,” said Matthew Stringer, 26, another attendee, when asked about Trump’s comments on Schiff and others. “Is there better terms for it? Probably. But you know, honestly, he’s admitted that he’s no holy man. And neither is anybody else.”
Trump paused for a moment to note that some Republicans want him to dial things back, reenacting suggestions to pull back on DeSantis. “They said, ‘sir, please don’t hit him so hard.’ Why? ‘He’s a Republican.’ Who the hell cares!?”
The crowd laughed loudly in surprise. Some started to clap.
As for Biden, Trump claimed he used to hold back a bit “out of respect for the office of the presidency.”
“But now you can say it,” he added.