Melissa Golden for CNN
Melissa Golden for CNN

Two angry men and their disenchanted armies

The essential sound of the Republican primary season was a collective roar in three syllables, a battle cry giving way to an incantation. You never knew when it might arise, just as you never knew what Donald Trump would say next, but it sometimes corresponded with violence. Trump's army made this sound in Las Vegas, when he envisioned smacking the hell out of an Iranian leader; and in Miami, when a barrel-chested vigilante hauled a protester down by the collar. Trump heard this primal chant, saw its gathering force. He leaned toward the microphone and joined in. U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A! It was loud enough to raise the dead.

The meaning of that sound had changed dramatically in fifteen years. And the story of its evolution said a lot about the political fracturing that made way for the most unorthodox major presidential candidate in modern American history.

On September 14, 2001, President George W. Bush stood on a crumpled fire truck in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, addressing rescue workers through a bullhorn.

"We can't hear you," someone yelled. The firefighters were exhausted. They'd been inhaling toxic dust all day. They had lost 343 comrades when the twin towers fell, including the driver of the truck on which the president stood, and they were losing hope that anyone else would be found alive.

"I can hear you," Bush said. "I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people—and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

This would prove to be the high point of Bush's presidency. In his autobiography, "Decision Points," a picture of him in the wreckage with the bullhorn would appear just after the title page. Bush 43 had found his voice, and his cause, which boiled down to killing the bad guys before they could kill any more Americans. Now the rescuers could hear him, and they loved what they heard. They chanted: U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

The whole nation might as well have been chanting with them. Bush's approval rating soared to 90 percent, the highest Gallup had ever measured for any president. For a moment it all felt clear and simple, the way it had after Pearl Harbor: a war of good versus evil, with good destined to prevail. As Bush also said that day: "This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing."

Years went by, and that hour did not arrive. Not in the caves of Tora Bora. Not with the conquest of Baghdad. Not on the aircraft carrier where Bush stood under a banner that said MISSION ACCOMPLISHED and declared the end of major combat operations. That hour did not arrive with rendition, or waterboarding, or secret prisons, or the atrocities of Abu Ghraib, or the deaths of many Americans whose families never knew what their blood had purchased. The conflict went on and on, and what ended instead was the moral certainty behind it, the unassailable justice of the cause. What replaced U-S-A was Green Day's "American Idiot," an album of protest and ridicule; and "Team America: World Police," a film that used animated puppets to lampoon Bush's military overreach. His approval rating fell steadily from 2001 to 2008, hitting 25 percent just after the economy collapsed. U-S-A became the sound of a colossal missed opportunity.

It came back seven years later as the sound of anger and defiance, the rebel yell of a new nationalist faction. When Trump promised to make America great again, he was not just talking about highways and factories. He was talking about the idea of America, the gossamer U-S-A that existed in the weeks after 9/11. First things first, though. It was time to tear down the House of Bush.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks to supporters at the 2015 Iowa State Fair. Landon Nordeman for CNN

The Great Republican Revolt of 2015 did not really begin until mid-July, when a man who had never served in the military found he could trash a Republican war hero and suffer no political consequence. But a harbinger appeared in January, when the same man walked onstage at a theater in Des Moines to inform voters at the Iowa Freedom Summit that he just might run for president. Donald Trump was still getting his act together, testing his material, frequently consulting the notes he pulled from his jacket. He got mild applause for disparaging Obamacare, moderate cheers for his promise to build a fence on the Mexican border. (In his imagination, it had yet to become a wall.) Toward the middle, when he railed against currency manipulation and collapsing bridges, the audience barely responded. Then he started talking politics, specifically who else might seek the Republican nomination, and suddenly he had their attention again.

"We have some good people," he said. "It can't be Mitt, because Mitt ran and failed. He failed."

At this pronouncement, some in the audience whooped and howled with agreement. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had won 24 states and nearly 60 million votes in 2012, and he was seriously considering another run. But six days after Trump's speech in Des Moines, Romney would say he'd reached the same conclusion: It was time to step aside and let someone else take on the Democrats.

"So you can't have Romney—he choked," Trump said. "You can't have Bush."

Here Trump had to pause for ten seconds as wild applause filled the theater. This was a conservative audience, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was the party's early front-runner and most effective fundraiser. Nevertheless, "you can't have Bush" would prove to be the single most popular line of Trump's twenty-four-minute speech.

"He's very, very weak on immigration," Trump said. "Don't forget—remember his statement, 'They come for love.' Say what? They come for love? You've got these people coming, half of 'em are criminals. I mean, they're coming for love? They're coming for a lot of other reasons. And it's not love. And when he runs, you gotta remember, his brother really gave us Obama. I was never a big fan. But his brother gave us Obama, 'cause Abraham Lincoln coming back from the dead couldn't've won the election, 'cause it was going so badly, and the economy was just absolutely in shambles, that last couple of months. And then, he appointed Justice Roberts. And Jeb wanted Justice Roberts. And Justice Roberts basically approved Obamacare, in a shocking decision that nobody believes. So you can't have Jeb Bush, and he's gonna lose, aside from that, he's not gonna win."

Trump rewrote all the rules.

No one from the political establishment had reason to believe Trump. None of the experts thought he would run. But in 2015, the experts were wrong about almost everything. They thought Bush's $160 million fundraising machine would help him destroy his sixteen Republican competitors. They thought political experience was a useful selling point. They thought you couldn't be a serious candidate without a super PAC or a detailed list of policy proposals. They thought a man running for president had to treat others with a semblance of respect. Trump rewrote all the rules. In the same way that people watched Superman to imagine how it would feel to save the world, people watched Trump to imagine how it would feel to say whatever you wanted and get away with it.

Unprecedented 2016

John

Avalon

The challenge of covering Trump

A unified party could have driven him out. But Trump saw the fault lines and drove them wider. Later, Jeb Bush's allies would look back wistfully on June 15, 2015, the first official day of his candidacy, the last day party leaders had any control over the party's message. They had done the math. They knew the white vote alone could not put them back in the White House. For all his miscalculations, their last actual president had taken this to heart. George W. Bush advocated a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. He said, "Family values don't stop at the Rio Grande River." He won re-election in 2004 with as much as 44 percent of the Hispanic vote. After that number fell to 31 percent for Sen. John McCain in 2008 and 27 percent for Romney in 2012, the Republicans knew they had to widen their tent.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush enjoys a treat at the 2015 Iowa State Fair. Landon Nordeman for CNN

And it seemed possible, at least in theory. Jeb Bush had moderate views on immigration and a Latina wife of forty-one years whom he'd met on a high-school trip to Mexico. He was revered by Florida Republicans, especially the Cubans of South Florida who could help him build a general-election coalition. "I intend to let everyone hear my message, including the many who can express their love of country in a different language," he said, and then switched to Spanish for a few words about the noble cause of the United States.

But this primary would not be about welcoming Hispanic-Americans or any other minorities. It would be about the blunt force of Trump's personality. It would be about the issues he raised the next day at his own campaign kickoff, when he complained about drug dealers and rapists pouring across the Mexican border. It would come down to primal fear and raw self-interest, about voters like Patricia Messinger of Las Vegas, about the stories she told herself and others, especially the one about the restaurant job she lost and the reason she lost it, "because I'm white and 55," as she put it, and about the woman who took her job: young, Latina, undocumented, a woman Messinger did not know she was training to become her own low-cost replacement. The Patricia Messingers of America would never consider Jeb Bush. They were just too angry.

It is possible to read Trump's popularity as a kind of retribution for George W. Bush's failures. But it came with a narrower vision of U-S-A, one that restored simplicity at the expense of size. In his signature moments, Bush 43 united Americans from both parties. Trump's U-S-A was a fraction of a fraction, a group whose vigor depended on shrinking the tent.

For these voters, Trump made things fun and easy. You could go see him in Iowa in late July and get a free hot dog or hamburger and do the wave and listen to country music until he showed up and told you exactly what you wanted to hear: We were the good guys and they were the bad guys and we were going to win and they were going to lose. If we voted for Trump, everything would be fine. Sure, we had problems, mostly involving the Mexicans, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Syrians, and the Russians, but President Trump would fix them all. It used to be simple in America, and it could be simple again. Think of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who deserted the Army in Afghanistan. Nuance? Complexity? Mitigating factors? Nah. Trump knew all he needed to know. "In the old days, you'd shoot him," Trump said. "Quickly."

Some white working-class voters had begun to feel like native-born foreigners, and they were thrilled to see a candidate personify the old American superpower. He talked like a man who got his way, right away, every time, whether or not he said please. Most people had to watch what they said these days, now that iPhone cameras were everywhere and a single tweet or Facebook post could ruin your career. When Trump spoke his mind, he rose so high in the polls that he held the Republican Party in a double bind. Don't touch me, he warned them, or I'll run as a third-party candidate and hand the election to the Democrats.

The more Trump horrified the party regulars, the more he delighted his supporters. In 2015, a man could hold a press conference and toss off a series of inflammatory comments about Mexican immigrants and rile up the Democrats and the big corporations and the mainstream media, thus dominating the news cycle, thus drawing more attention to his message, thus connecting with quite a few people who'd been saying those same things on their front porches after a few beers. Boom. And enough with these namby-pamby apologies. Those were for normal politicians, otherwise known as losers. An apology implied that they­—the liars in the press, the low-energy members of the Republican establishment, the false gods of political correctness—were fit to judge you, a really smart and rich guy whose various towers and aircraft stood as monuments to your achievement. Which would soon include a wall on the Mexican border.

The more Trump horrified the party regulars, the more he delighted his supporters.

Former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg summed up the campaign strategy in two words.

"Common sense," he said. "The Republican primary voter will want it. And Washington will immediately tell you, 'You can't do that.' That's the elite class telling you, 'We're smarter than you and you don't know what's good for you.'… Further infuriating the voter, and making the voter more dedicated to Trump….

"The idea of the wall is genius too," Nunberg continued. "It touches on immigration, so it's a policy issue. Two, it touches on Trump's brand. Builder. Developer. Three, it fits the rationale and appeal of his candidacy. The wall. Subliminally, you're saying it's time to take care of America's problems….

"So then you have the wall between the Trump people and the establishment people….And every single time you mentioned the word wall wall wall Trump Trump Trump on TV, the prospective primary voter is going to think, 'Trump. He's our protective wall. To protect us.'"

Trump had been mentally simplifying the nation's problems for at least twenty-eight years. In 1987, when Ronald Reagan was president, Trump spent nearly $95,000 to place full-page ads in three newspapers calling on the U.S. to charge Japan and Saudi Arabia for American military protection. Trump had an old friend named Roger Stone, a Nixonian political operative who arranged for Trump to give a speech in New Hampshire during the primary season when then-Vice President George H.W. Bush led the race for the Republican nomination. The crowd gave Trump standing ovations before and after his address, during which he said, "Whatever Japan wants, do the opposite," and called Iran a "horrible, horrible country," and wondered aloud, "Why couldn't we go in and take over some of their oil?" A local man formed a committee to draft Trump for president.

At the time, he was too busy running his real-estate empire to run for office. But when his three older children grew up and learned the business, he thought he could put it in their hands. Right after Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election, he and Stone began talking about 2016. A few days later, Trump applied to trademark the phrase MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.

Pom-poms line the stands before a Trump rally in Mobile, Alabama, on August 21, 2015. Melissa Golden for CNN

Trump had some rough moments in June 2015. His advisers say he never regretted the comments about Mexican rapists, because he never seems to regret anything, but his corporate brand suffered real damage. At least a dozen companies severed ties with him, including NBCUniversal, which had broadcast Trump's reality show, "The Apprentice," and his beauty pageant, Miss Universe.

Late in the afternoon of July 1, a young woman and her father were taking a walk on Pier 14 in San Francisco when he heard a loud popping sound and saw her collapse. "Dad, help me, help me," Kate Steinle said. He performed CPR, and paramedics rushed her to the hospital, but she died there from a gunshot wound to the aorta. The police had a suspect: Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, 45, an undocumented Mexican immigrant who had previously been deported five times. Two days later, Trump sent out a press release saying that Steinle's death proved him right about illegal immigration. Time and again he invoked "beautiful Kate" as one more reason for building his wall. On July 14, her brother, Brad Steinle, appeared on CNN to say, "Donald Trump talks about Kate Steinle like he knows her. I've never heard a word from his campaign manager, never heard a word from him."

That day a national poll from Suffolk University and USA Today showed a new hierarchy among the Republican presidential candidates. Trump would never trail Jeb Bush again.

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Sen. Bernie Sanders raises his fist at a rally commemorating the anniversary of Social Security and Medicare in downtown Seattle on August 8, 2015. Nate Gowdy for CNN

By 2015 in America, outrage had become a competitive sport. Nearly everyone was aggrieved about something, and if you expressed shock and anger over one particular thing you were likely to elicit shock and anger from others over the fact that you were not more shocked and angry about something else. Into this maelstrom walked Sen. Bernie Sanders, an angry septuagenarian, who said, in effect, "Here's something that should make us all angry." Which, in this climate, sounded like a message of unity and hope.

Sanders believed that We the People had lost control of our destiny, that a handful of rich people and large corporations had grabbed the steering wheel, and that maybe just maybe we could take it back. He wanted to stop the billionaires from hiding their untaxed money in offshore accounts, raise taxes on Wall Street speculators to help pay for free tuition at public colleges and universities, and tear down a campaign-finance system that he said rigged elections in favor of the donors who wrote the largest checks.

Ever since 2010, when the Supreme Court handed down its Citizens United decision, the richest Americans had been allowed to spend unlimited money in pursuit of their own political agendas. The Republicans embraced this new reality. The Democrats shrugged their shoulders and joined in. Even President Obama reluctantly abandoned his old grass-roots principles when he saw that massive outside spending could help him get re-elected in 2012. But when Sanders said, "We can overcome a corrupt political system that allows billionaires to buy elections," he did not intend to let anyone buy him. He would run for president without a super PAC, without the soft-money support that had become the industry standard. In short, he would fight the billionaires on his own terms: with a campaign funded entirely by small donors.

This stunning rejection of the status quo would help Sanders raise far more money in the primary season than any of the Republicans—and nearly as much as his leading Democratic opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. "My mother gives $35 a month out of her grocery budget for Bernie," said his New Hampshire state director, Julia Barnes. And there were a lot of people like Barnes' mother. By establishing a kind of mutual dependency with his supporters, Sanders won their loyalty. At the Iowa State Fair on August 15, he said he'd received 350,000 campaign contributions worth an average of $31.20. A new poll showed he had just surged past Clinton in New Hampshire. A small army followed him down the Grand Concourse, chanting:

WHAT DO WE WANT? REVOLUTION! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!

It seemed a lot of people wanted revolution. Something did seem wrong with a system wherein a middle-school teacher in suburban Iowa could be paying an interest rate of nearly 10 percent on a student loan whose balance stood at $70,000 and just kept going up. "I probably won't pay off my student loan before I die," said Jessica Smith, who was voting for Sanders in the hope that he would save her from that fate.

Sanders had spent twenty-four years in the House and Senate, and had become a darling of the progressive movement in 2010 with an eight-hour filibuster against extending the Bush-era tax cuts. Over the years, his staff collected the email addresses of nearly 400,000 supporters across the country, and his chief strategist, Tad Devine, said they came in handy when Sanders decided to run for president. With help from the digital team at Revolution Messaging, the same outfit that helped build Obama's grassroots support in 2008, the Sanders campaign tried an unusual tactic. Instead of campaigning solely in the early-primary and caucus states, Sanders mapped out his supporters' locations and held rallies where he could draw the largest crowds. The results were astonishing. In July and August alone, he drew 10,000 in Madison, Wisconsin; 12,000 in Seattle; 20,000 in Portland, Oregon; and 27,000 in Los Angeles.

Seconds after Sanders takes the stage, protesters from Seattle's Black Lives Matter chapter grab the microphone. Nate Gowdy
Sanders' supporters react as the activists commandeer the mic. Nate Gowdy
Protesters at the Seattle rally. Nate Gowdy

Would these crowds help him win the early states? Not directly. But they forced the media to take him seriously—or at least give him a brief glance before turning away again. Sanders had little to offer in the way of scandal or personal insult. As he said in July, "In politics, it's how are the polls going, how much money is somebody raising, did somebody say something dumb yesterday….They'll publish it over and over again. What did Donald Trump do yesterday? And they cover the food fight within the Republican Party. But all of this, all of that type of stuff, deflects attention from the real issues." Which included a higher minimum wage, free health care for everyone, paid family leave, and generally making the poor less poor and the rich less rich. Sanders had been saying the same thing for forty years, and the nation was finally listening.

"This country belongs to all of us." -- Sen. Bernie Sanders

Sanders continued toward the state fair's Soapbox, a traditional campaign destination that allowed candidates to address residents of the first-caucus state. All three leading candidates responded to the opportunity in character. Clinton was tired of answering unpleasant questions about her use of a private email server; she had skipped the Soapbox and thus avoided more unpleasant questions. Trump liked to punish those who offended him, and he had skipped the Soapbox to penalize its host, The Des Moines Register, for an editorial calling on him to drop out of the race. But Sanders was a man of the people. There was no decision.

"THIS COUNTRY BELONGS TO ALL OF US," he shouted to a large and attentive crowd that featured pink hair and purple hair and ice-blue hair and one hairstyle that was half blood-red and half fire-orange, although, to be fair, most of the young revolutionaries had unremarkable hair. For his part, Sanders had a wispy crescent of white hair that nicely suited a man of his age, almost 74, which would make him five years older than Ronald Reagan—the oldest president—on Inauguration Day. His age made some voters nervous, and a decade earlier he had collapsed in public from dehydration and the flu, but now, even in the blinding heat, he did not seem tired or frail. He seemed passionate, robust, energized by a clear sense of mission and a distance runner's heart. He spoke loudly and rarely smiled. Once in a while, he told a joke.

"There goes Donald Trump," he said as a chopper droned overhead. "I apologize. I left the helicopter at home."

Sanders the carpenter and Trump the millionaire's son had more in common than either would have liked to admit. Both delivered simple messages of economic populism. Both said the system was rigged against the American worker. Both proclaimed themselves ethically superior to the candidates who depended on super PACs. Sanders and Trump would become Clinton's most durable opponents. One reason: Each man made the case that he couldn't be bought.

The nomination had always been Clinton's to lose.

After seventeen minutes of raging against the billionaire machine, Sanders left the Soapbox. He got some light heckling from a man who called him a "communist," but Sanders let it slide. He walked down the concourse, past signs for cotton candy and funnel cake, past a tent where children walked on the keys of a giant piano. One hundred and seventy days before the Iowa caucuses, a boring and predictable presidential race had now become downright strange. The nomination had always been Clinton's to lose. She had unmatched experience, command of the Democratic donor class, and a virtual lock on superdelegates—the party leaders who could help decide a close race for the nomination. And yet, aside from her potential to become the nation's first female president, she represented the status quo at a time when voters on both sides seemed to want sweeping change. When Sanders said Americans were sick of the two-party system, he had plenty of corroborating evidence. Only four candidates in either party were polling above 10 percent nationally. Both establishment leaders—Clinton and Bush—had negative favorability ratings. So did Trump. Of the two leading candidates in each party, the only one with a positive favorability rating was Sanders, a longtime independent and self-described Democratic socialist who would soon trim Clinton's 41-point lead in Iowa to the single digits.

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Two security guards await the Trump helicopter to land at the 2015 Iowa State Fair. Landon Nordeman for CNN

If Trumpism had an emotional center, it was something like the fear of serpents in your living room. He conveyed this fear at his rallies by reading aloud the lyrics of a song called "The Snake," written by Oscar Brown in 1963. It told of a woman who found a half-frozen snake on the path by the water. She took pity on the snake, carried it home and set it down by the fire. It woke up and bit her.

I saved you, cried that woman

And you've bit me, even, why?

And you know your bite is poisonous and now I'm gonna die

Oh shut up, silly woman, said the reptile with a grin

You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in

Trump's vision of U-S-A demanded expulsion of the snakes: the one who killed Beautiful Kate, the one who took Patricia Messinger's job, the ones in Jersey City, real or imagined, who cheered when the towers fell. It falsely asserted that Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim who had slithered into the White House, through a door left wide open by George W. Bush, so that when Jeb Bush said his brother had "kept us safe," Trump said what anyone would say in a room full of vipers: "I don't feel so safe."

As the summer wore on, more and more Republicans reached a different conclusion: Their party was the house, and Trump was the snake. After all, he had once been a Democrat, a donor to the Clintons, a golfing acquaintance of Bill, and when CNN's Don Lemon asked him in August what he and the Democratic ex-president had discussed in their phone call three months earlier, Trump's first response was, "Well, that's none of your business." Democratic opposition researchers began compiling a dossier on Trump, but they delayed its release to avoid helping Republicans they considered to be more electable. Indeed, the Democrats were thrilled to see the other party overrun by a reality-TV star who had once moonlighted as a professional wrestler. Neither Jeb Bush nor anyone else could prove that Trump was secretly working for the other team. But if he had been—if his real goal was to poison the Republicans the way he claimed the renegade Mexicans and Muslims were poisoning America—he could not have done it any better.

Trump hated losers almost as much as he hated snakes, and this hatred was seductive for an electorate that blamed its own leaders for recent defeats in presidential elections and the U.S. Supreme Court. By conventional standards, Trump should have been finished when he said that McCain "was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren't captured." McCain had spent five-and-a-half years in Vietcong prisons and refused to be released before other Americans. He had lost a nearly unwinnable election to Obama in 2008 and had pressed for bipartisan compromise on immigration. By conventional standards, he was a venerated elder of the Republican Party. But the standards had suddenly changed. In the reckoning of Trumpism, McCain was just another loser who let in more snakes.

Trump might have been finished again in August when he blamed Fox News host Megyn Kelly's tough questions on the "blood coming out of her wherever." But no! It turned out that plenty of Republicans enjoyed seeing another paragon of the establishment get knocked around, especially if political correctness got a collateral kick in the pants. Nearly 30,000 people turned out to see Trump that month in Alabama, including a woman who claimed to represent a group called Women For Donald Trump.

Donald Trump speaks to supporters at a rally in Mobile, Alabama, in August 2015. Melissa Golden for CNN
A young Trump supporter cheers at the rally in Mobile. Melissa Golden for CNN
Kimber Sparks of Pensacola, Florida, at the Mobile rally. Melissa Golden for CNN

The media covered Trump relentlessly, because he was accessible, newsworthy and usually good for some outrage, which drove up clicks and ratings. Even when his Republican competitors got some airtime, it was often because they'd said something about Trump. Then he had the pleasure of destroying them. Rick Perry, a former Air Force captain and governor of Texas, called Trump a "cancer on conservatism." He dropped out before the second debate. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal called Trump a "madman who must be stopped." He was gone before Thanksgiving. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a serious man with serious foreign-policy ideas, called Trump a "jackass," which provoked Trump to share Graham's cell-phone number on live television. Graham responded with a video on YouTube that showed him dropping the phone in a blender and setting it on fire. He was gone before Christmas.

The second phase of the Trump offensive began in November, when the retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson caught him in national polls. Desperate to regain the spotlight, Trump raised his theatrics to a new level. On a surreal night in Fort Dodge, Iowa, he pledged to "bomb the shit" out of ISIS. He called Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida "weak like a baby." In a nine-minute rant about Carson, he compared the doctor to a child molester. He ridiculed Carson's famous story about trying to stab a friend during childhood—which had been called into question by a CNN investigation—by delivering a sneering re-enactment that involved tugging on his belt and stabbing the air with a phantom knife.

"How stupid are the people of Iowa?" he asked, insulting the very first group whose support he was courting. "How stupid are the people of the country to believe this crap?"

The next night, a coordinated series of terrorist attacks in Paris killed 130 people and wounded more than 300. When Carson stumbled on questions about handling the jihadists, Republicans once again put their trust in the man with the phantom knife. Trump rolled on, leading the field, claiming he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11 in New Jersey, attacking the journalists who questioned the claim, mocking a reporter's disability.

Sanders leaves the rally in Seattle in August 2015. Nate Gowdy

Sanders brought the conversation back to his favorite topic. "Our people are fearful," he said at ABC's Democratic debate on December 19. "They are anxious on a number of levels. They are anxious about international terrorism and the possibility of another attack on America. We all understand that. But you know what else they're anxious about? They're anxious about the fact that they are working incredibly long hours, they're worried about their kids, and they're seeing all the new income and wealth—virtually all of it—going to the top 1 percent. And they're looking around them, and they're looking at Washington, and they're saying, 'The rich are getting much richer, I'm getting poorer, what are you going to do about it? What are you going to do for my kids?' And somebody like a Trump comes along and says, 'I know the answers. The answer is that all of the Mexicans, they're criminals and rapists, we've got to hate the Mexicans. Those are your enemies. We hate all the Muslims, because all of the Muslims are terrorists. We've got to hate the Muslims.' Meanwhile, the rich get richer."

Trump gained strength from the controversy. A CNN/ORC poll released just before Christmas found him leading the Republican field at 39 percent, more than double any of his rivals. Marco Rubio, believed by many to be the party's most electable candidate, was stuck at 10 percent. Jeb Bush walked alone through Boston's Logan Airport, holding onto hope and a blue duffel bag. In New Hampshire, site of the nation's first primary, Trump's lead seemed insurmountable. State Republican Vice Chairman Matt Mayberry recalled a recent conversation with two men at a local Walmart.

"Who you gonna vote for?" he asked them.

"Trump," they both said.

"Why?" Mayberry asked.

"He's not gonna be pushed around," the first man said.

"He's gonna make America great again," the second man said.

"How's he gonna make America great again?" Mayberry asked.

"I don't know," the man said. "He just is."