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Donald Trump's Fans Only Hear What They Want to Hear

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In a sea of signs protesting President Obama's nuclear deal on Wednesday, there was one that literally towered above the rest: It loomed 12 feet over the crowd, with TRUMP in huge letters blazoned across a red background. The biggest. The best. An instant media sensation.

"He will confront these people,” said Ed Hunter, a 50-year-old contractor from Maryland who was holding one end of the giant sign, which he ordered off the Internet for $100. “He will not back down. He will not enable little special interest groups. He's not afraid of anybody.” It was a popular sentiment among the several hundred who’d amassed for the Capitol Hill protest organized by Sen. Ted Cruz to protest the Iran deal. Trump may have staked out one of the most liberal positions on the Iran deal within the 2016 GOP field, and he may even have inadvertently helped the deal happen, but his fans don’t hear the policy nuance—they hear the bluster.

As the rally kicked off, cameramen and photographers and reporters kept coming up to Hunter and his sign-holding partner, Jim McDonald, a 70-year-old retired lawyer from Fairfax. Young men and women posed for photos under the giant sign, grinning broadly despite the sweltering heat. At first, Hunter and McDonald had their backs to the stage, so the Capitol dome would frame the backdrop of supporters' photos. But before Trump followed Cruz to the stage, they turned it around so that The Donald could see his own name hoisted above the crowd. "I've been making lots of wonderful deals, great deals, that's what I do. Never, ever in my life have I seen any transaction so incompetently negotiated as our deal with Iran," Trump told the cheering crowd, standing in front of a Capitol dome that he described as full of "very, very stupid people." 

Cruz, who has promised to "rip up and rescind" the Iran deal, could easily have attacked Trump for being soft on the issue. In August, Trump said that he would enforce the Iran deal if it’s in place when he takes office. "I've heard a lot of people say, 'We're going to rip up the deal,'” the real-estate mogul told NBC News. “It's very tough to do when you say, 'Rip up a deal.'" Instead, Trump said he'd take a hardline approach to enforcing it. "I would police that contract so tough that they don't have a chance. As bad as that contract is, I will be so tough on that contract." The only other GOP candidate who’s been as moderate on the issue is Jeb Bush.

But rather than go after Trump, Cruz—who’s only polling around 7 percent nationally—is trying to ride his coattails instead, making him a special guest on Wednesday. Trump, meanwhile, reaped the rewards of Republican outrage over the deal by sharing a stage with the likes of Cruz, who riled up the crowd by accusing Democrats of financing murderous jihad: “You bear direct responsibility for the murders carried out with the dollars you have given them. You cannot wash your hands of that blood.” When Trump took the stage, he didn't need to mention blood. He could just talk about #winning. "We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning," he told the cheering crowd.

In the lead-up to Wednesday’s rally, Trump had been moving right on the issue, writing in USA Today that he "will renegotiate with Iran" when he's elected president. While that's extraordinarily unlikely, it's still completely in character for Trump: Somehow, by the sheer force of his personality, Trump will Get Things Done to Make America Great Again. At the rally, Trump promised that he will get things done with Iran before he assumes the presidency. “If I win the presidency, I guarantee you that those four prisoners are back in our country before I ever take office," he told the crowd, referring to Americans currently detained in Iran. 

Since Trump's entire campaign is based on braggadacio—the swaggering response to anger, frustration, and resentment—his fans don’t tend to parse his policy positions very closely. In fact, gathering from those I spoke with, they tend not to even believe that Trump means it when he sounds a more moderate note. Howard Glickman, a 52-year-old Trump supporter from Philadelphia, waved away the idea that his man would be soft on Iran deal. "He'd enforce it in his way. No bull. Go in and check. Go in and do things," he told me, echoing Trump's own blunt vernacular. Glickman's 26-year-old son Josh believes that Trump would go to even greater lengths to push back against Iran. "He would either write a new deal, or go to war," said Josh Glickman, wearing a Trump shirt and Trump's "Make America Great Again" hat, with an Israeli flag draped over his shoulders. 

The truth is that Trump has arguably made it easier for Obama's deal to move forward, as The Atlantic's Peter Beinart writes. His candidacy has thrust issues like illegal immigration to the forefront of the debate, taking conservatives’ focus off the Iran deal at the very moment that the White House was working to convince wavering Democrats to support it. Inside the Capitol, while Cruz was imploring protesters to "Stop this deal!", Obama had already secured the 41 Democratic votes necessary to assure its passage.

Despite Republican promises, there's little room for the next president to come up with an alternative agreement: While Congress could vote to reimpose sanctions on Iran, they would have minimal impact without the cooperation of China, Russia, and Europe, who would be extremely unlikely to go along once Obama’s deal is already in place. So Trump’s new vow to make an alternative deal magically appear isn’t any more implausible than the promises made by the rest of the Republican field on Iran. 

Jay Smith, an 80-year-old from Baltimore who has a party supplies business, isn’t particularly concerned about all that. When I recounted Trump’s moderate remarks from August to him, Smith said he simply doesn't believe that Trump would ever enforce the president's deal. "I don't accept what you're saying,” said Smith, a fan of Trump who’s undecided about the 2016 race. "Every time he speaks, he says it's the worst deal in the world."