Donald Trump sits behind his desk on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan. It is 2pm, and he has just got off the phone with America’s most famous football player, Tom Brady.
Into the office walks Ernie Boch Jr, a billionaire car salesman with shoulder-length hair and black leather pants. “Holy shit,” Boch says. “It’s Donald Trump!”
So begins one 24-hour episode of the Donald Trump Show, a political satire about a billionaire celebrity who runs for president, breaks every rule in the manual, and becomes the frontrunner in the Republican race for the White House, beating all the senators and governors running for the Republican nomination by double digits in the polls.
Now Boch Jr is in his office, explaining that he wants to host a fundraiser for Trump at his 16,000-square foot mansion in Massachusetts. The fellow plutocrat, who has made a fortune selling cars in New England, is awestruck by Trump. “He has you shaking in your boots before you even meet him,” he says after the meeting. “When that elevator opens, you can feel the power.”
He decided to lend Trump his support a few weeks ago, when he was at home, flipping through TV channels in search for something to watch. He noticed Trump was on every channel. “I stopped and I said to myself: man, this guy is running for president,” he says. “How great would it be to get him to my house?”
Roger Stone, a longtime political adviser to Trump until he parted ways with the campaign a week ago, argues that television, and a unique celebrity persona, is central to Trump’s success as a presidential candidate.
“Fifteen series of The Apprentice has made Trump a polished television performer,” Stone says. “If you look at the show he looks like a decisive, tough leader, in the high-back chair, perfectly lit, perfectly made-up, making decisions.”
Stone, who used to work for Ronald Reagan, recalls how in 1980 a reporter asked the then presidential candidate how an actor could possibly occupy the White House. Reagan replied: “How can a president not be an actor?”
Stone adds: “The voters don’t distinguish between reality TV and politics.”
The voters are packed into Winnacunnet high school auditorium for a live performance of the Donald Trump Show.
“And now, without further ado,” says a voice over a loudspeaker. “Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome, the next president of the United States … Donald J Trump!”
Trump emerges from behind the curtain, walks on to the stage and juts out his arms out as if to say “and here I am”.
The TV showman begins the rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologue that will constitute his 58-minute speech.
To the extent to which it can be summarised into a coherent narrative, it is that America is in decline, losing jobs and industry to China and Mexico, and losing oil to the Middle East. Barack Obama is stupid. The other presidential candidates are also stupid, or boring.
They’re all controlled by wealthy donors who pay for their campaigns and are the dark forces pulling the strings. Money is the real puppet-master in America, and Trump knows this because he’s rolling in it, and he’s been controlling politicians all his life.
Now only Donald Trump, a smart, successful, property tycoon and TV celebrity so rich he is beholden to no one, can fix the problem. He will bring jobs, take care of veterans and the elderly, and be the most militaristic person in the room.
The audience loves every second of it, especially those parts that parody the political establishment, such as when Trump does an impression of a stiff politician. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, in the mock drone of a monotone politician. His shoulders are hunched, his eyes squinting at an imaginary script near the podium. “Hello,” he says. There are howls of laughter.
“You don’t want a scripted president!” he tells them, as people rise to their feet for a standing ovation and the loudest applause of the night. As the crescendo builds, he adds: “And you don’t want a politically correct president!”
Later, Trump treats the audience to another skit. Now he’s in the Oval Office, taking a call from the chief executive of Ford, who wants to build a factory in Mexico. President Trump tells him he will not permit that to happen.
The auto manufacturer protests, so Trump tells him he’ll slap a 35% tax on every Ford car and truck brought to America. The CEO gives in and the crowd cheers wildly. “It’s that simple,” Trump tells them. “Believe me.”
Toward the end of his speech, Trump stops, mid-sentence, apparently lost in thought. He points to the back of the auditorium.
“Look at all the cameras blazing there,” he says. “This is live, all over the place. We’re on Fox, CNN.”
He picks up an invisible script from the podium. “Look,” he adds, “there’s nothing.”
Trump walks along a high school corridor, camera crews in tow, and into a huge sports gymnasium filled with thousands more people.
This is the overflow room, for people who were unable to get into the main event, and the moment they see Trump they surge forward, screaming. “Can you sit down?” Trump says. “I guess you can’t, right? Do you even have seats?”
Outside, Trump steps out into the another crowd. These are the people who could not get into main event or the overflow room. They have been waiting outside for hours and now they are being held back by Trump’s private security guards, who are playing the part of secret service agents.
Someone throws a bunch of flowers that hit Trump in the face. He smiles, waves, and gets into a presidential-style motorcade of SUVs with blacked-out windows.
“Thank you Mr Trump,” shrieks a woman as the car door slams shut. “For giving us hope.”
Saturday, 10.45am, Des Moines airport
Trump is in his luxurious private jet with Chuck Todd, the anchor of NBC’s Meet The Press. Todd is trying to pin down the billionaire over a soon-to-be released immigration policy, which includes a proposal to build a giant wall to keep Mexicans out and a plan to end to an automatic right to citizenship for people born in the US.
This is the first time Trump will lay out a policy document since he launched his campaign two months ago. Todd is trying, without much luck, to unpick the details. Trump, who is supremely good at speaking without saying anything, evades the interrogation like a bar of soap in a bath.
“Chuck, it will work out so well, you will be so happy,” he reassures the TV anchor. “In four years you’re going to be interviewing me and you’re gonna say ‘what a great job you’ve done, President Trump’.”
This prerecorded interview is a major coup for the Sunday morning show.
Usually, Trump just phones into TV shows and is instantly put through to the anchor. No other candidate, from either party, is given that luxury, but then no other candidate’s mere presence results in an immediate spike in viewers.
“You cannot turn on the TV without seeing Donald Trump,” says Kevin Madden, a senior adviser to both of Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns, who is not associated with any candidate in 2016. “It is nearly impossible not to be at or near the top of the polls when you get that much attention.”
Trump and Todd have moved to a room in the private jet terminal of the airport for the next segment of their interview.
Trump declares the Iran nuclear deal “will lead to a nuclear holocaust”, but would seek to implement it nonetheless, and says he would send troops back into Iraq to secure oil fields seized by Islamic state fighters.
“You go and knock the hell out of the oil, take back the oil,” he says. “We’re going to have so much money.” The Iraqi people will get “something”, he adds, but “we should definitely take back money for our soldiers”.
Todd asks Trump from whom he gets his military advice. “Well, I watch the [TV] shows,” Trump says. “When you watch your show and all of the other shows and you have the general and you have certain people that you like.”
Toward the end of the interview, Todd asks the real estate mogul about an interview he gave Playboy magazine in 1990 in which he insinuated his life was just one big performance.
“Are we all part of a show?” Todd asks him. “You know some of the criticisms. We all feel like we are in a reality show.”
Trump smiles. “No,” he says. “This the real deal.”
The sky rumbles. Trump appears, first as a black speck in the clouds, then as a helicopter hovering above the Iowa State Fair, low enough for people to read the letters emblazoned across the side: TRUMP.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner, happens to be touring the fair at that very moment to meet with voters. Everywhere people are pointing to the sky. “Trump! Trump!”
Children are especially excited because the next segment of the Donald Trump Show is billed to include helicopter rides of kids.
A customised Sikorsky S-76 helicopter lands in a parking lot one mile from the fair, hurling a gust of cut grass, gravel and dirt into the faces of waiting reporters. They spit and cough and laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Trump emerges in white leather golf shoes and a red “Make America Great Again” baseball cap. A dozen children line up behind him, like props.
Trump has landed in a softball field, and he gets a slew of softball questions.
What does it feel like to be in Iowa? What’s your biggest challenge, going forward? Mr Trump, what do you want to say to the kids?
There is a more sombre query from a Guardian reporter. “If you made it to the White House can you tell us under what circumstances you would use a nuclear weapon?”
“Well, I don’t even want to talk about that question,” Trump says. “That’s a very serious question. Hopefully you never have to use a nuclear weapon – hopefully. But you have to be prepared – the world hates us.”
Another reporter asks when Trump will release more substantive policies. “I know the press wants it,” he says. “I don’t think the people care.”
The mothers and fathers on the sidelines clap in approval.
Trump is in his helicopter again. Two of the seats that were supposed to be used for children are taken up by TV anchors.
Three young boys did, however, make it on board, and one of them has a GoPro camera strapped to his head. “Mr Trump?” asks a nine-year-old named William Bowman, just as the helicopter is about to take-off. “Are you Batman?”
Trump leans forward. “I am Batman,” he says.
Within hours the video will become an internet sensation, and CNN will run the headline: ‘I am Batman, Trump tells boy on helicopter ride’.
Batman arrives at the Iowa State Fair in a golf cart, escorted by local and state police.
For decades presidential contenders have been coming to the fair to eat corn dogs and slap the backs of farmers, but veterans of the festival will say they’ve never seen anything quite like the pandemonium sparked when Trump turns up.
He is supposed to visit a life-sized cow carved out of butter, but his entourage quickly realise it will be impossible to make a path through the mob. Instead, for close to an hour, Trump and the crush of people around him just meander through the fair in the searing heat.
People are laughing and reaching forward to shake his hand or take his photo. They shout things like “We Love You Donald” and “Bring It Home Donald” and “Money, Money, Money, M-o-ney”, the tune of The Apprentice theme song.
It takes five minutes for a Guardian reporter to squeeze through the scrum and ask a question. “You said voters don’t care about policy. Why do you say that?”
Trump looks tickled. “The voters know I have good decision-making abilities,” he says. “They trust me.”