What Stealth Protesters Reveal About Trump’s Iowa Competitors

What Stealth Protesters Reveal About Trump’s Iowa Competitors

At a campaign event for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, the woman I was interviewing was lying to me. 

I had approached her near the front of the crowd, where she posed for a photo holding a cherry red DeSantis sign. For someone so proudly signaling her support, she seemed a bit unsure when I asked if she was supporting him. “Uh, yeah,” she said. When I asked her to elaborate, she opened up more, telling me that her name was Karla, she’d been a Republican her whole life, and though she liked some of what former President Donald Trump had done, she was worried about his fate in the courts and liked the governor’s strong record in Florida. 

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It was only after DeSantis began speaking that I realized what had happened. In the middle of the speech, one young man began making a commotion. 

“I know you have an agenda, stop,” DeSantis said as security firmly escorted the still-yelling protester out. Another protester then hopped on stage with the governor, unfurled a banner reading “Desantis: Climate Criminal,” and was promptly tackled to the ground. “How much money are you taking from oil companies?” he demanded from the floor. And then it was “Karla’s” turn. I couldn’t make out much of what she said, though she, too, was yelling as security escorted her out. 

When I found her outside later, she told me her real name was Laela, and that she was an organizer with the climate action organization Sunrise Movement. She was doing this, she said, to force all the candidates to address the climate crisis. The issue was personal to her. When she was fifteen, she had lost her home in a tornado, she said. “I look different than people in there,” she said when I asked about her earlier lie. “I did do it to kind of, like, protect myself.” 

As the Iowa contest races to a close, with flocks of reporters trailing the Republican presidential candidates ahead of the voting Monday, covert protesters are hoping to attract more attention for their causes. Sunrise Movement has been among the most visible, and Laela said she felt that the more people like her interrupted these events, the more the climate crisis would become a defining issue for even Republican candidates. Given how the audience clapped as DeSantis dismissed the protesters—”We’re not going to let people like that win” and “This is [what is] wrong with the college system right there”—I’m not so sure.

But the protests do reveal something about the character of the candidates Iowans are assessing, and about their approach to campaigning. The disruptions are another way that Iowa’s person-to-person retail politics can break the theater of heavily scripted political operations. After delivering essentially the same lines for months on end, the candidates’ reactions to the stealth protesters give a sense of how they think on their feet and how they respond to unexpected criticism.

Nikki Haley, locked in a tight race for second with DeSantis, has taken a similarly disciplined approach to disruption as the Florida governor has. Months ago, when hecklers interrupted her saying she was “not even a Swiftie,” she looked on, smiling, while security escorted both of them out. “While that has been a distraction, remember how blessed we are that we have freedom of speech in this country,” she said. This week, multiple videos posted online by Trump-supporting agitators appear to show her team barring them from or throwing them out of events. The approach shows how both Haley and DeSantis are fighting to keep control of the narrative. According to polls, they are far behind Trump, and with money and established campaign operations, they and their advisors are trying to stay on script, come what may.

That contrasts with the more free-wheeling style of Vivek Ramaswamy who, polling in the single digits, has less to lose and has emphasized the importance of free speech throughout his campaign. When he took the stage in the Iowa state Capitol a day earlier, Laela confronted him, as well. And when another Sunrise protester began yelling, Ramaswamy agreed to hand over his microphone for sixty seconds. When security moved to eject Laela, the entrepreneur said she could stay. He then took a question from another activist, who continued talking over him. “I thank you for voicing your opinion and asking the question, but at the end of the day, we have to be able to have respectful, open debate,” he said.

And then there’s the GOP front runner, Donald Trump. In the past, Trump has occasionally endorsed violence in response to disruptive protests, or their possibility. In 2016, he told rally attendees to “knock the crap” out of hecklers. The same year, Trump said of a protester that he’d “like to punch him in the face”. As protests took place nationwide in 2020 after the killing of George Floyd, then-president Trump hinted at violence, and seemed to endorse it in private with top Pentagon officials. Trump has left much of the campaigning in Iowa this cycle to surrogates. Recently, he has backed off calls for “retribution” in his campaign.

Many voters, especially young people, say they are tired of candidates with cautious, choreographed styles and canned lines. “I understand you have a platform and you want to stick to your talking points,” said Aidan Driscoll, a first time caucus-goer I met at a Haley event who was thinking of supporting her, but was critical of her and DeSantis’ disciplined remarks. “But I think if you want to build a broader base of support, you need to start actually speaking to what Americans want to hear, rather than just the same thing that you keep regurgitating over and over again.”

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