Shrouded in scaffolding, the Dome of the Capitol, towering over the Mall, looks less like the vast crown of empire these days, and more like a bad art project. I’d seen it the night before, arriving in DC, through the arch by which you come out of Union Station, a nice bit of framing, letting you know you’re entering the new Rome. Or were. Surrounded by metal and light, it glittered portentously. Intriguing, but not commanding.

The next day, in the bright late summer sunlight, above 3000 or so Tea Partiers, it looked neither. Third World was the leitmotif, and the crowd only added to the picture. The halt, the lame, the old and above all the white, they were gathered to protest against the proposed Iran deal, negotiated by President Barack Obama and about to get through Congress by complex manoeuvres. The crowd had been summoned by Tea Party Patriots, the now largely online Tea Party peak body, to assemble and protest against the “worst decision a president has ever made”.

Five years ago, the Tea Party could have got triple, quadruple the crowd, and, well, double the quality. Among the crowd of mostly fat, mostly poorish, 60-somethings in sweatpants and branded T-shirts, edgy “Veterans for a Strong America”, black-garbed, some eccentric secret order of young men in neatly pressed suits over which flowing crimson robes were draped — there were few of the more prosperous middle-class people who’d been the backbone of the Tea Party in its early years.

Where’d these folks come from? “Virginia.” “Virginny, we drove in together.” “Texas,” says one woman, beside her husband in a mobility scooter. Her bye-byes flap under her arms in neon nylon sleeves like two stolen hams. “Did you fly?” She looks at me as if I were mad. “Drove. Took us three days. We’re here for Ted.” Ted is Ted Cruz, the Canadian-born Texas Senator and candidate who has aligned himself with Anglo nativism more than any other candidate. He’s speaking as we are talking, a short-haired man with a hangdog face in business suit and tie, ploughing his way through a cogent argument about the deal.

“I wanna ask every Senate Democrat, ‘How will you look in the eyes of the mother, or father, or sons, or daughters of those who are murdered by jihadists? Those Americans who were blown up? Those Americans who were shot? Those Americans who were killed? Those Israelis who were murdered?'”

Well, cogent on its own terms, which are fictional. The background to the Iran deal is that, despite sanctions, the Iranians are on track to develop nuclear arms capability in three to six months (and have as much right to it as any nation). Trying to bomb the program out of action would be impossible, as much of it is deep-buried; even carpet-bombing Iran wouldn’t do it, and would, of course, unleash hell. Invasion of Iran is out of the question. The deal has been achieved because the Iranians are desperate to unblock the sanctions. Whether or not the terms of inspection, etc, are adequate is a matter for specialists.

Cruz purports to be one of them, but those who came to hear him appear to be in minority. In the stifling DC heat, as he makes his case, inflammatory enough, but still recognisable foreign policy discourse, the crowd shifts and fans itself, applauds little. Last week, Cruz threw the event open to others, and so more than 20 speakers are lined up, including Michele Bachmann, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and the Donald himself. It’s a Woodstock of right-wing crazy, the bruised and battered dome above makes an all-too apt symbol of their aggrieved victimhood. Having heard from generals and congressmen, by minute 10 of Cruz, we’re not listening, we’re waiting. And after a couple more speakers it’s “… Donald Trump”, and on he comes.

To see why Donald Trump is now polling 32% in a 16-candidate race (Rick Perry has pulled out, citing dooty, family, etc — and has also been indicted for felony misconduct in office. Oops.), you have to see him among all the other carpetbaggers eager to grab themselves a share of right, white disaffection. Seven years ago, they were doing the thunderous “Obama is a traitor/socialist/communist” thing, he was possibly sent by Satan, America was divinely ordained. Later in the rally Glenn Beck, the pop DJ-turned-TV Mormon apocalyptician, would take 20 minutes to recite the notion of dark times, the judgement on all of us, etc, while the crowd began to slowly stream out, passion losing out to parking fees. It stopped working when Obama was re-elected and the sky didn’t fall in. But the class of 2010 have nothing else.

Trump does. “I been doing deals for along time … Never ever have I seen a deal so incompetently negotiated as this one.” Presence and energy for a start. Solid, square-shouldered, bulked out by a loose-cut suit, the hair less ridiculous at a distance than in close-up, Trump has many times the energy of anyone else on stage. His message is simple and direct — all the solutions are easy, and they’re not being done because everyone is stoopid. “When I’m president, we’re going to win big. We’re going to win all the time. We’re going to win so much you’ll get tired of winning!” Cheers. “I’m joking of course (beat) — you never get tired of winning!” Bigger cheers. For years, the right has been obsessive about Obama, defined themselves against him. What started as a rallying point became self-subjugation. Trump is not obsessive, but dismissive. Barely mentions Obama at all. “These guys are stoopid.” I’ll fix it.

This is the salesman of course, the art of the deal. The schtick relies on the magical power of language. Tell someone they’re great, they always were great, we’ll win, of course we will, and you change people’s composition. EST, Synanon, The Landmark Forum, NLP, corporate trainers — they all use these approaches, and they work like a drug. Reagan did it, but his approach was like Edmund Burke speaking in the Commons compared to Trump’s cartoonish version. What’s most interesting is what Trump doesn’t use: American exceptionalism — “this is the greatest country in the world”, manifest destiny, “ordained by God, the last best hope of man” — all the stuff that really only became dominant, indeed suffocating, after 9/11. He simply says America should be so powerful, have such a big military that no one even thinks of crossing it. Not for any celestial reason, just because “the world goes to hell when America doesn’t run it”. It’s interesting how few pundits have remarked on this, how at variance Trump is from the rest of the right-wing pack.

“A section of the Republican Party — a third, currently — will accept anything, anything to feel a sense of energy and simple truths again … “

Trump is pure anti-politics of course; for once, that vastly overused term is apt. His appeal manages to obscure the inconvenient fact that many of his economic positions are not in the new style of techno-utopian neoliberalism — “let’s find the next Steve Jobs and we’ll pull money out of our ass to buy the new thing he invents, so recovery” — or Romney’s disdainful 47%. He’s pro-public healthcare, a minimum wage and social security. Why wouldn’t he be? He’s an old-fashioned Keynesian-era capitalist making money from big deals involving property, rezoning, union deals and enough demand in the economy for there to be a market.

People wonder how Trump could appeal to so many poor and workers when he looks like the archetypal old-skool capitalist/robber baron, snarling and chewing on a cigar. But that’s part of the appeal, because such people are from the era when capital made jobs happen, and bosses and workers shared more of a common public world. Now, the tycoons the Republicans tell people to admire are the black-turtleneck brigade — young men from the information society elite, doing something no one understands, and which doesn’t appear to offer any sort of job at all. Many of them are creepy Ayn Randians, transhumanists, techno-accelerationists, excited by the transformation of a world people would like to hold onto. Trump promises full restoration, without details. You can have America as it used to be, but it’ll be better. How? Leave it to me. Yes, boss.

Thus Trump, despite his centrist policies, has won over many Tea Party followers and a goodly proportion of evangelicals. Indeed, when told that Trump supports a public health system, 44% of such say they do too — when told Obama does, that figure falls to 16%. That’s a long way from “Obamacare is satanic” position hitherto being pushed, and makes obvious how floating and imaginary these positions really are. The core of it is race, of course. Even though Obama’s not running this year, part of the appeal of Trump is a desire to defeat the current President retroactively. President Trump would be a resumption of national glory from Reagan onwards. The white folks in between can be dismissed as bumblers and degenerates, but Obama must be repudiated and his era closed, the great departure. Then, in the phrase used since the resignation of Nixon, and never fulfilled, “our long national nightmare will be over”.

That’s certainly the mood on the lawn. “Damn right!” “Yeah!” people yell, at every snappy line. On the other side of the street, Code Pink have organised a counter-demo of about 30, with an anti-war slogan painted letter by letter on a line of parasols — ergggh — right beside a counter-demo of anti-Zionist Hasidic rabbis in full black get out. A few Code Pinkers wander over to the very edge of the rally, among those leaving early for dialysis. They’re in a mood to argue, and one Pinker in particular — a woman, young, black, tall and poised — gets all the attention. I mean all the attention. Old white guys in schlubby shirts are lining up three deep to denounce. “Miss, you’re naive, you’re hopelessly naive.” “You support terrorists!” “I’m talking to the lady — you’re naive, you know nothing, you understand.” Half a dozen old Code Pinkers around, same vintage as these guys, yell out. But it’s the young black woman who drives them crazy, just crazy.

Sarah Palin begins her free-form rant — here’s a selection of the full transcript:

“Thank you! Man, I never thought I’d say it, but I think you all are a lot tougher than Alaskans being able to be out here. I’m roasting, I’m melting. I’ve always said though, sweat is my sanity, so as I sweat let’s bring some sanity to this discussion about this insane treaty that’s in front of Congress … We’re negotiating with the braggadocious, number one state sponsor of terrorism? No … It’s up to us to tell the enemy, ‘We win, you lose’. Just like Ronald Reagan would have told them. Because you gotta think about again, the premise of this. Why did we ever get to that point of supping with Sharia? It’s because Iran was dirty dealing. They were bad actors already, accused of hiding their secret nuclear weapons work in their secret facility. Well we just codified it … No, only in an Orwellian Obama world full of sprinkle fairy dust blown from atop his unicorn as he’s peeking through a really pretty pink kaleidoscope would he ever see victory or safety for America or Israel in this treaty. This treaty will not bring peace. You don’t reward terrorism! You kill it!”

As this performance piece floated across the air and a heckler was detained and hustled out (he was a mentally ill man, floridly psychotic, the only possible competition to Palin), the berating of the Code Pink gal reached its height. “Sirs I can only argue with you one at a time,” she said, half-amused. The heckler was being handcuffed — i.e. treated — a few metres away. A tour bus pulled up. People poured out and began taking photos. The chaos seemed to swell and grow outward.

Later that evening, pundits would wonder why Cruz had invited Trump and Palin. The next day they would get their answer, when a fresh round of outrage about Trump hit. He’d already been pinged for off-the-cuff remarks about Carly Fiorina, recorded in a Rolling Stone piece — “look at that face; who’d vote for a face like that?” — and now he was going on the attack against Ben Carson, who had chided Trump for a lack of humility. “Look, he’s a doctor, I guess he’s an alright doctor” — Carson performed the first separation of head-conjoined twins — “but he doesn’t know me. He talks about God, quotes the Bible, sounds like he just learnt that verse before he went on”. The attack provoked fresh confusion among the right, given to an unctuous piety, and you couldn’t help but give one cheer for the Donald for bursting it. Since the remarks came out at the same time as polls had him at 32%, the pundits were more or less at a loss. They had not yet dealt with the coup de grace, the last part of the Rolling Stone piece in which Trump talked about his daughter, Ivanka, and mused “if I weren’t her father, I might be dating her”.

The right-wing press have simply passed over that piece of incestuous musing in silence. It’s Trump the enormous id stalking the landscape, saying what many think and few say, channelling the full Lolita-ism of much American culture, the Mileys and Taylors. It”s the patriarch musing to an amanuensis that maybe none of the rules apply to him — or that people will act that way if they are sufficiently desperate for him to represent them. But a section of the Republican Party — a third, currently — will accept anything, anything to feel a sense of energy and simple truths again, imagining that the country’s myriad problems can be taken apart as simply as the scaffolding that currently imprisons the towering focus of its power.