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By Logan Blakeslee

The future of the United States is likely a subject which hangs over the minds of many college students. Armchair theorists and media pundits are rallying to announce that the “end of American democracy” is nigh, and such a prediction is bound to stir up feelings of hostility between voters of both parties. The outcomes of Donald Trump’s many court cases will pose uncertainties for the powers and limitations on the Executive Branch in ways that haven’t been relevant since the end of the Nixon administration. 

In this article, I will report my observations from the Republican primary caucus in Iowa as I experienced it, and then connect those observations with my own feelings about the 2024 presidential election. I give my deepest thanks to the Leadership Institute for sponsoring yet another trip of mine, this time to Des Moines, as well as Run GenZ, a political training program designed to instruct young conservatives on how to run for public office. Run GenZ was the organization which kindly invited me out to Iowa in the first place, free of charge. (For those seeking deeper engagement on the political scene, I highly recommend getting in touch with Aly Lepinski, the manager of the Leadership Institute’s internship program for Spring or Summer, which takes place in Washington, D.C. It’s the best, I tell you. The best internship.)

Flying out from the Wilkes-Barre Airport in Pennsylvania, I was readily fatigued by several long delays in my departure due to rough weather conditions. American Airlines was kind enough to offer me a brief stay in the Sheraton Charlotte Airport Hotel as I waited for another connecting flight, and I had an interesting (albeit expensive) dinner with an older gentleman whose flight was delayed alongside mine. We chatted for over an hour about his military career and I wished him well as I got ready to board a plane to Dallas, followed by another to Des Moines. 

By the time I arrived at my destination on January 5th, I had missed the first three or four hours of the Run GenZ annual conference. I slept in my room for another hour or so, too exhausted to give my full attention to the long list of invited speakers. In short, the first half of the day was very uneventful for me. The second half was where things got interesting. After a decent complimentary lunch, the attendees were greeted by the first of multiple high-level politicians. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu gave an excellent speech about how he pursued his conservative agenda despite gridlock in the NH state legislature. He also briefly touched on his reasons for endorsing Nikki Haley’s presidential campaign, citing their close friendship and her impressive service record at the United Nations.

Afterwards, I managed to get a photo with him and held a short but meaningful conversation. I was very direct with Governor Sununu, informing him that I was jealous of how well his state is run compared to New York. Needless to say, he was very flattered. We then chatted about the Free State Project, where he acknowledged that the arrival of libertarians into New Hampshire has provided a boon to good-quality state legislators. Bidding farewell to one another, Sununu and I parted ways at the Embassy Suites hotel, which was the location of the conference. 

Dinner was next on the agenda. The attendees gathered together in vans or taxis and we were delivered to the Des Moines Embassy Club, a fancy building complex with a luxury dining area on the top floor. The view was incredible; the lights of the city were dazzling and I could see the strange-looking domes of the state capitol building in the distance. As a teetotaler, I abstained from the alcohol being served from the art deco bar and took my seat with a glass of water.

Around me I could see signs and t-shirts from the Nikki Haley campaign and in the background was a sizable news crew. This naturally made me very curious as to what was actually going on. I did not have to wait for long, as Chris Sununu returned and was accompanied by Nikki Haley herself. Gov. Sununu explained why he had endorsed Ambassador Haley and she, in turn, spoke about what it was like to run for president while also being a mother. It was a heartfelt speech and I believe that she is running for the right reasons. 

A line quickly formed for photographs and I managed to get a spot in the middle of it. When it was my turn for a picture, I shook Ambassador Haley’s hand and said that I was supporting her bid for the presidency. She smiled warmly and replied, “We’ll win this together.” Once the dinner was finally over, I walked back to the hotel in frigid temperatures alongside two other attendees. Our phone batteries had died and we were unable to call a cab, but the stroll was pleasant enough. 

The next day, after a generous serving of breakfast, I endured a gauntlet of political consultants with great expertise in fundraising, advertising, and networking. All of the attendees were given worksheets to fill out as the speakers gave us important information about campaign management. Right as I was beginning to doze off, someone unexpected came our way. The conference room was closed off as Chris LaCivita, co-chairman of Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, made his entrance. 

Mr. LaCivita, formerly the manager for Rand Paul’s unsuccessful bid for president, felt very confident about Trump’s ability to win the primary and eventually defeat President Joe Biden. He derided Ron DeSantis’ super PAC as “Always Back Down” and felt assured that the Supreme Court would overturn several states’ decision to block Trump from the ballot. From the audience, I asked him for his opinion of Project 2025 (an organizational plan for the next Republican president to overhaul the federal bureaucracy). He answered plainly that the media was afraid of it because it’s an actual plan, something that Republicans have lacked for quite some time.

Finally, he was asked to identify the most important trait in a political candidate. He answered with two: kindness and conviction. The ideal candidate must truly believe in something in order to run for office. With that statement, I saw a number of armed security personnel enter the room and Mr. LaCivita stepped aside to introduce none other than Donald Trump himself. The attendees erupted in applause and we all stood up to snatch a few pictures. We were all awestruck to see a former president directly in front of us.

For the record, this was my second time seeing President Trump in person. The first time was when I sat back in the crowd at CPAC 2020, although this time around I was much closer and much more surprised. No one had been informed that Trump was going to visit the hotel until a few minutes before he showed up. The former president complimented us all for being “very beautiful” and he proceeded to make a number of jokes about Joe Biden’s competence. His speech jumped from topic to topic faster than I could recount, but I remember some mention of Israel, Ukraine, Russia, ISIS, climate change, tax cuts, etc. Trump then went on a bizarre tangent about how wind turbines result in whales going “crazy” and not reproducing. He also insisted that he would only become a dictator on “day one” and never again afterwards. Make of that what you will.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t time for Q&A and there was no chance that the Secret Service would let us get close enough for pictures. To our greater surprise, however, Trump grabbed a marker to plant his autograph on the hat of one of the attendees, the only one of us to bring the iconic red MAGA hat. The former president then departed through the back door, allowing for another long sequence of political consultants to fill out the rest of the conference’s schedule. 

I flew back to Wilkes-Barre the morning after and dedicated a lot of thought to the state of American politics. Iowa, as we all know, is just the opening salvo of the Republican primary season. Attack ads and polling forecasts are going to dominate the news cycle for months. Even though I personally favor Nikki Haley in this race, her subsequent losses in Iowa and New Hampshire strongly indicate that Donald Trump will be the nominee for a third time. After that, we can expect to see a rematch with Joe Biden. The ultimate winner of this contest is still anyone’s guess.

It is no secret that most Americans still do not want to see a repeat of the 2020 election. The sad reality is that party primaries give advantages to incumbents, and neither the Democrats nor the GOP can afford to give support to a candidate who will not excite the voter base. Trump and Biden, if nothing else, are experts in raising voter turnout. While I find Trump to be charismatic, the likelihood that he will be convicted for crimes committed on January 6th prevents me from earnestly backing his reelection campaign. 

The Republican Party is in dire straits if it continues to ignore the logistical problems that come with backing a potential felon for president. Younger voters, even conservative ones, are opposed to Trump by significant margins and they would probably be better served by the likes of Ron DeSantis or Nikki Haley in the White House. The MAGA agenda has great potential for the country but it needs a spokesman who can reach as many people as possible. 2024 is Trump’s last chance to recreate the Republican Party in his image. 

Should he fail, conservatives will need to do a lot of soul-searching and pray that the nation will endure another four years of Joe Biden. 

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