COUNCIL BLUFFS — Jeff Jorgensen wants someone to write the how-he-did-it book, explaining how dark horse candidate Donald Trump became U.S. President Trump. And he wants Chapter One to give credit where credit is due, to two entities: God. And Pott County.
Jorgensen shared this wish as we waited an hour in line in the pouring rain outside the Mid-America Center, where President Trump appeared Tuesday. He explained himself as we waited about four more hours inside the arena, where Jorgensen — a GOP volunteer — politely directed foot traffic from Section 207.
And he offered to tell me more — a book’s worth, he said, suggesting I write it — as we left the rally before Trump had finished in order to beat the crowds.
“Someone needs to chronicle his early entry into politics,” Jorgensen said as we walked past piles of dumped umbrellas, empty tents, piles of $20 Make America Great Again knit hats and throngs of Trump supporters who couldn’t get into the arena and had to make do watching the president from a big screen outside.
“A guy that never ran for political office in his entire life. And then? Wins the presidency of the United States,” Jorgensen marveled.
Scanning the dark night sky over Iowa, he said: “This is basically where it started.”
If Jorgensen is right, then start with the credit — or blame, depending on your point of view — with Pottawattamie County Republicans.
Every year, the Pott County GOP holds a fundraising dinner named for two of the party’s most famous names: Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan. The Lincoln-Reagan Dinner raises cash and profiles.
It offers a platform that can be an early testing ground for rising stars to address party stalwarts in a state that has a major say in the launching of future presidents. Past speakers have included Herman Cain, the Godfather’s Pizza CEO who ran for president in 2012; U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas; and most recently, U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa.
But the most famous speaker in recent years was the one who is president now. And the Trump rally in Council Bluffs Tuesday closed a loop for Jorgensen that began almost four years ago.
It was Jan. 24, 2015, and Jorgensen was just exiting a hotel suite in Des Moines filled with Carly Fiorina’s people. The presidential hopeful and former Hewlett Packard CEO was in Des Moines like a lot of other Republican stars for a “freedom summit” hosted by Steve King, the notoriously outspoken congressman from western Iowa. (King is so outspoken that even Trump at Tuesday’s rally took note and dubbed him “the most conservative man in the world.”)
Jorgensen asked Fiorina to speak at the Pottawattamie County Lincoln-Reagan Dinner. She didn’t immediately commit. Then he saw Trump, another presidential prospect, in his trademark dark suit and red tie being interviewed by someone with a TV camera as a handful of onlookers watched.
Jorgensen approached a “man in a sharkskin suit,” he said, who looked more New York than Iowa. Did Sharkskin Suit think that “Mr. Trump” might want to come to Iowa to speak? Sharkskin Suit took Jorgensen’s card, interrupted Trump’s TV interview and the next thing Jorgensen knew, the two were shaking hands and posing for a photo.
Fast-forward to May 2015, and Trump spoke at that Lincoln-Reagan Dinner. Jorgensen doesn’t remember a thing Trump said. He was too busy working the room. But he does remember these details: Trump had jumped at the chance when Fiorina didn’t. Trump had been very concerned about turnout, getting on KFAB for interviews when ticket sales slumped.
Trump responded with table gifts: a big box of ties and other Trump odds and ends. And Trump didn’t want to stay for the whole dinner. He asked to speak first and leave.
The experience showed Jorgensen that Trump was a man of action, a man who wanted things just so, a man who would turn an event upside down if it suited him, a man in complete command.
Trump got elected. He carried Pottawattamie County by 21 points . Jorgensen later lost his post as Pott County GOP chairman after hosting a controversial event about alleged threats posed by Muslim groups, which drew protesters and sheriff’s deputies. Jorgensen remains active in Pott County GOP activities and serves on its central committee.
No one seemed to be talking about Islam at the Trump rally Tuesday. The threat that Trump hammered and hammered was the Democratic Party. Trump held Republicans up as America’s savior, the party slashing regulations, boosting ethanol, creating jobs, lowering unemployment, especially in Iowa, and — approving a new U.S. Supreme Court justice, Brett Kavanaugh.
Democrats — or “Dims” in Trump-speak — were America’s villains, “an angry mob,” with “a lust for power” who were “unhinged” and hell-bent on burning the country to the ground.
The rally, like the president, was short on nuance and long on extremes. The crowd loved it and responded in a kind of fervor that seemed religious. And there was an otherworldly sense in people’s explanations of Trump’s rise. Jorgensen was among several who mused that divine providence played a role in helping Trump pull off his improbable 2016 win.
“I honest to God think the Good Lord has something to do with it. Maybe 95 percent,” he said.
Jorgensen, who works at Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, casts himself as a conservative Republican who is all-in with Trump. Unlike most in the crowd, he didn’t wear Trump gear or roar or shout or wave a sign. Dressed in a printed oxford and dark slacks, a U.S. Marine Corps ball cap on his head, the 64-year-old stood in the back and allowed one whoop (for ethanol), a few claps (deportations) and mostly wore a bemused smile. He offered sideline commentary.
“Typical Trump humor,” he said, when the president suggested that Kavanaugh protesters were paid and then joked they were angry because they hadn’t been paid yet.
“That’s going to be in an ad. Trust me,” he said, when Trump riffed on congressional candidate Cindy Axne’s name, calling the Democrat, “Tax me.”
“I just realized why he’s so popular,” Jorgensen whispered at one point. “He is Joe Sixpack who just happens to be a billionaire. That’s why he connects.”
But Jorgensen didn’t need to stay the whole time. After 45 minutes, he was ready and we jostled our way out of the standing-room-only upper tier.
Then we both realized we’d left something behind and had to run back.
I grabbed my phone charger from the wall. He fetched a treasure he was hoping to show Trump in person. It was a program from that 2015 Pottawattamie County Lincoln-Reagan Dinner.
It was a simple piece of white paper, folded in half, containing Trump’s biography and an outline of the night’s event. On the cover were pictures of both Presidents Lincoln and Reagan and — in black marker — another president. Trump had autographed the program for Jorgensen in illegible cursive.
Trump also had used the editing caret symbol to insert something between the words “Reagan” and “Dinner.” That word, written in all-caps, was: TRUMP.