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Donald Trump: A journey beyond the worship of his rallies to understand his enduring appeal in US heartlands

It's a week since Donald Trump stormed to victory in Iowa.

The polls predicted he would do well, but that didn't make this first test of his re-electability any less remarkable.

The four-times indicted, twice impeached, election-denying, global agitator won in all but one of the state's 99 counties.

It was unprecedented on many levels. He secured 51% of the vote, winning by a margin of 30 points.

For the former president's many supporters, it represents the beginning of his second coming. His road back to the White House is clearer, they think.

But many in America and well beyond are baffled and alarmed. Why is a man so divisive, so polarising, so surrounded by chaos, so popular still?

As America's media pundits packed up their glitzy pop-up Iowa studios and headed east back to their metropolitan bases, I headed west into the heart of the US.

I wanted to understand the enduring draw of Donald Trump.

Over the past few years, I've spent plenty of time at Mr Trump's rallies.

They are more like rock concerts than political events and they are where you'll find the diehards; the people who'll seemingly do anything for Mr Trump.

They are the people for whom he is more than a political leader. He's worshipped.

There is genuinely a strange gravity at the rallies. Conspiracies swirl. Truth and fiction blur. Reason is absent.

I wanted to get beyond that.

The people at the rallies represent his base of support but they alone didn't win him the White House before and they won't do it again.

He won the White House in 2016 by convincing a broader group that he was the answer.

In 2020, he failed to convince enough Americans that he deserved another four years, losing to Joe Biden.

But now he hopes Iowa is the indicator that he can turn it all around again this November.

Watch our new foreign affairs show, The World with Yalda Hakim, from Monday to Thursday between 9pm and 10pm on Sky News.

Getting beyond the base

To the west of Iowa is Nebraska. It's a conservative heartland. Farming is the main industry.

It's the start of a journey to understand the broader and apparently enduring appeal of Mr Trump - beyond the rallies.

First stop is the small town of Prague and a meeting with farmer Mike Kubik.

His business is grain, his politics is conservative and his life is good.

"I've been here basically my whole life. Nebraska born and bred," he tells me as we tour his snow-covered land on his all-American quad buggy.

"Life is excellent," he adds. "I love my job - I've never had a bad day."

Mr Kubik's experience is a reflection of Nebraska's economy.

The midwestern state has among the nation's largest gains in personal income, and unemployment is low.

He is happy with his son's education at the local school. It's the good life.

Economically his experience mirrors the national story, too. America is booming but it's not trickling down; people aren't feeling it.

"Our economy is going down," Mr Kubik tells me from across his kitchen table.

"We've more than doubled our fuel costs. Our chemicals have gone up, our fertilizer has gone up, the cost of equipment has gone up. Food is terrible, and our government doesn't seem to care."

Mr Kubik's story reflects the puzzle of American politics right now.

There is a disconnect between perception and reality in America.

Mr Kubik's lot may be good, but it just felt better before. There is a lingering nostalgia compounded by stubborn inflation.

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Nostalgia for Trump?

Mr Kubik adds: "Our government is not getting deals done, the export - our grain. It is hurting our bottom line, our prices are dropping."

And then a view I will hear over and over on my journey ahead: "Trump put America first. There are some things that I didn't agree with, but overall, he leads with leadership. He's a businessman. He'll get a deal done."

As we talk, Mr Kubik conveys a multi-layered nervousness - about the economy, about the "woke" direction of the nation, and about global security - all of which seem far removed from his good Nebraskan life.

Mr Kubik points out that no wars began under Mr Trump.

President Biden is managing two and is exposing the limited worth of American leadership - with Israel-Gaza, Russia-Ukraine and China's century-defining rise.

He presents an argument you hear over and over among supporters of the former president - that Russian President Vladimir Putin wouldn't have dared invade Ukraine with Mr Trump in the White House - a point Mr Trump likes to run with, probably because it's neatly unprovable.

"Donald Trump has power to say 'don't do it'. And the thing is, they believe that he'll enforce it," Mr Kubik says.

Trump 'not afraid' of 'chaos'

At one level or another, most here are in agriculture.

Deeper into Nebraska, my next conversation is with crop scientist Trey Stephens.

He helps the farmers to make a profit.

"I think now in these last four years, I haven't felt a lot of attention to agriculture from this administration," he tells me.

But quickly, Mr Stephens conveys that it's about more than just business and the economy.

"It always felt like Trump was in control and, you know, right now, these last four years, it's kind of like who is in control?" he asks.

"What about the chaos that seems to follow Trump?" I ask.

"Yeah. I think I mean, in order for change to happen, sometimes chaos ensues. And Trump is not afraid of that," Mr Stephens says.

He returns to the same thought repeatedly in our conversation - that Mr Trump isn't a politician. He was elected to shake things up and to return power to the American people.

And the divisiveness?

"I try to remove myself from a lot of the things he says and focus on the things that he does," Mr Stephens adds. "If it was my wish, I would have a businessman that's strong like Trump, but maybe he just doesn't say as much."

'I miss the America I grew up in'

As the interstate cuts south, Nebraska becomes Kansas, but the politics doesn't shift much.

The weekly auction in the town of Manhattan draws farmers and their cattle from across the state.

It's an all-American scene - cowboys in their stetsons. Cliched? No. This is as real as it gets - a snapshot from the very middle of America.

Among the crowd, I meet rancher Jamie Grollmes.

She says: "When Trump was in office, it was a lot more steady. You didn't see the highs and lows. It was a lot more consistent, you knew what to expect. With Mr Biden we're on a rollercoaster in terms of our markets."

But what about Mr Trump the man, I ask. He's pretty unique?

"He annoys me," she replies. "I think he needs to learn to keep his mouth shut on some things. I think he's very good on business, but I think he says some things he shouldn't and sometimes I think he needs to keep his mouth shut."

A few seats away is retired rancher Tom Massey. His baseball cap reflects his politics.

"I miss the America I grew up in," it says.

Who's the answer, I ask. Who is going to make America better?

"Well, I think Trump will change things around if he gets back in, I really do," he answers. "I think he's going to get our border closed up, get things back to normal.

"I think he's not a politician, I think he's a businessman. When he came in the first time, he changed a lot."

The man running the auction is something of a local celebrity. Andrew Sylvester is an award-winning auctioneer.

We sit for a coffee in the auction hall cafe where he reflects on two Americas, far apart.

He says: "We live here in the middle of the United States. I think that people on both the east and west coast, where there's high populations, I think they probably forget where their food comes from.

"To them, their food comes from the grocery store, when in fact, we grow it right here in what they call flyover states."

Like others, he sees flaws in Mr Trump. And he's baffled at America's inability to find fresh candidates.

"I don't know why the Democrats and Republicans can't come up with younger candidates or candidates that don't have any baggage," he says.

"Biden's side obviously has baggage. And Donald Trump seems to be in and out of court and there's issues there. But we're going to vote with whoever the nominees are."

"And for you, that means Trump's the man if he's the nominee?" I ask.

"Absolutely. Absolutely. I'll vote for Donald Trump again."