"I just got here and it's a total madhouse," my friend, a senior writer for a major US newspaper, has called to warn me. "This is nothing like the other GOP rallies - the Secret Service is here. This guy attracts big crowds."
"This guy" is Donald J. Trump, the front runner for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Less than a year ago, the 69-year-old real estate mogul was regarded as little more than a cultural joke, notorious for his reality show catchphrase "You're fired!", his petty internet feuds, and his boorish demands that President Obama prove his US citizenship by publicly displaying his birth certificate. (Obama finally did it just to shut him up.)
But while Trump may still qualify as boorish, he's no longer anyone's joke. Some recent polls list Trump with as much as 41% of the Republican vote, and that number may be climbing. Just recently, a friend told me although he "wishes Obama could have a third term," that if Trump wins the nomination he will vote for him.
"In principle he's right with a lot of the things he says, he just says them the wrong way," my friend explained. "Plus, I wanna have a job."
I was stunned. What had I missed? Had Trump's campaign somehow evolved from bizarre talk of building a wall to keep out the Mexicans to a meaningful message that everyday people could relate to? Had he proven himself a legitimate candidate while I was too busy mocking him to notice?
I find a parking spot a few blocks from the rally and walk back in the freezing rain. I'm trying to find the press entrance when I see a middle-aged white couple bundled up and shivering by the side of the road.
"Are you here for Trump?" I ask them.
"We're protestors," the woman tells me. Her name is Susan Ahl, and she's a registered Democrat. The man is her husband, Derek, an Independent.
I ask why they're not carrying any signs or yelling protest chants.
"We're protesting with our presence," Ahl says. She adds that Trump rallies can "turn violent" and protestors are often physically attacked.
"[Trump] says he's going to create jobs, but what kind of jobs?" Susan asks incredulously. "How is he going to create them? By getting rid of the illegal immigrants? He'll be creating minimum wage jobs."
"Creating jobs at the expense of humanity," David adds. "At the expense of freedom."
Not surprisingly, Trump supporters inside the rally hold a very different view. Linda Panikowski, a 45-year-old Occupational Therapist, wears a "Make America Great Again!" hat and is eager to explain why she's "100% for Trump."
""He's about protecting our country," Panikowski says. "He's cares about our safety and the Second Amendment. He's unifying, where Obama was divisive."
I ask her if Trump's well-publicized insults toward women and minorities might also be labeled "divisive."
"The media chops off his sentences to make him sound bad," Panikowski explains. "I encourage everyone to go to a rally rather than believe the media.
"If you're an American," she tells me, "he's for you."
Local attorney Richard D'Agastino says Trump "reminds me of General Patton."
"I supported Donald long before anyone knew who he was," he says proudly. "He's going to restore pride in our nation."
I ask him about Trump's propensity for insulting his opponents rather than focusing on the issues.
"They analyze what he says and twist his statements," D'Agastino says, dismissing the notion that Trump might ever say something inappropriate.
As for Trump's lack of political experience, "he'll hire the right people," D'Agastino says.
"Besides," he adds, "some of the most experienced candidates have made the worst Presidents. Just look at George Bush Senior!"
When Trump takes the stage, his first order of business is to brag about the number of people who braved the elements to attend his rally. He turns to Senator Scott Brown, who is hosting the event, and asks Brown to confirm that "this is the biggest crowd you've ever had."
'Absolutely Donald!" says Brown. The audience cheers.
Trump then boasts about the number of times he's been on the cover of Time magazine, and praises the Wall Street Journal's "incredible" story on him. Throughout his speech, Trump makes constant references to his large crowds, his rising poll numbers, and the hopeless incompetence of his opponents.
After taking several minutes to deride "dopey guy" Glen Beck who "looks like hell" and "cries on television all the time," Trump moves on to describe the "serious wall" he plans to build at the Mexican border. The Mexican government will pay for it, Trump says, because "they're making so much money off of the US."
"We're also gonna stop that whole thing with the visas where people fly in." Trump says ambiguously, only to refer moments later to "visa programs where we can bring people in if you can't get people for jobs, because we don't want to stop our economy. So we have as part of our visa programs where you can put people to work."
Confusing bureaucratic minutiae of work visas aside, the bottom line is crystal clear.
"I will be the greatest jobs President that God has ever created!" Trump tells the Biggest Crowd, who applauds wildly. This is the hyperbole they've come to hear.
"People sometimes ask me if there's anything Donald Trump could say that would make me not vote for him, and there is one thing," D'Agastino offers, grinning impishly. "He could say 'I'm not running.'"
I believe him. A striking feature of Trump's supporters is they are almost universally sure of Trump, and by extension, of themselves. (Or is it the other way around?) They tend to view political issues in more concrete, less worldly terms than non-Trump supporters do. Their response to conflict is simple: Kick The Other Guy's Ass. That Trump recognizes and exploits this is clear in his choice to have Rocky III's "Eye of the Tiger" play as he enters the stage, and his promise that "If people mess with us they're gonna be gone. We're gonna wipe them off the face of the earth."
Meanwhile, democrats and liberals seem far less certain of their candidates' abilities to make America great again, no matter how well-intentioned those candidates' agendas might be.
"I don't know that either Clinton or Sanders will get very far dealing with Congress," Susan Ahl says. "I think it will be a similar deadlock to what we've experienced with Obama.
"I'm cynical about anyone getting anything done."
It may be that one of Trump's biggest strengths is what he does not say. Trump's refusal to provide specifics on how his extraordinary proposals will work leaves his opponents with little they can directly attack, while his supporters can fill in the blanks any way they wish. Trump's aversion to tactfulness, his flamboyant dogmatism, and his failure to acknowledge how the government actually works have become his biggest selling points. He's the rogue prince galloping in to save white, working class Christians from the brown-skinned foreigners who want their jobs and their literal heads. His supporters want to believe Trump can run the nation as he does his luxury hotels: by simply "hiring the right people." They want to believe in a fairy tale. There are few yearnings more distinctly American than that.
"He's charismatic, he's entertaining, and he knows how stir up the masses," Susan Ahl concedes. "I've asked myself, 'would I rally too, if there was a candidate like him that was preaching my values?'"
"And, yes," she says, "I probably would."