Trump speaks to a crowd in Manchester, NH. February 8, 2016. (AFP / Don Emmert)

Trump: the art of the political rally

Manchester, New Hampshire, US, February 17, 2016 -- To many people overseas it defies logic. How can a former reality TV star -- best known for making money, a spectacularly ugly divorce in the 1990s and wanting to ban Muslims from entering the United States -- ever win the New Hampshire primary?

But go to a Donald Trump rally and it starts to become clear.

Trump at a rally in Virginia. October 14, 2015. (AFP / Mandel Ngan)

The snow was falling thick and fast when I joined the mass of journalists queuing up outside the venue. It was dark, well below freezing and the wind was perishing. Out front, members of the public started arriving more than an hour before the doors opened. By the time we got inside, I could no longer feel my toes and wrenched my boots off in agony to knead them back to life.

By the time Trump finally walked out on stage -- half an hour late because of a snowstorm -- several thousand people had braved hazardous driving conditions to see their man. It was an extraordinary turnout.

Trump addresses a crowd in Manchester, NH. February 8, 2016. (AFP / Don Emmert)

Jeb Bush welcomed a tenth of that number in a school canteen two days earlier. Marco Rubio pulled in around 1,000 -- lured with promises of a pancake breakfast, which was later downgraded to coffee and muffins. "I came for some entertainment I guess," explained one 19-year-old student as he waited for Trump.

"It'll be phenomenal," said Brian Carey, who runs a construction company and has installed a custom-made "Make America Great Again!" sign on his barn. "It's not coming down," he said.

Opera, Beatles and... Elton John?

The intimate locales favored by his rivals are not for Trump. Never mind that in New Hampshire's homespun brand of retail politics, the practice is to shake hands and take selfies in diners. Trump simply booked the biggest venue in the state, the 10,000-seat Verizon Wireless Arena. And as the MC pointed out, Mr Trump was paying out of his own pocket.

While Bush and Rubio begin their town halls with the oath of allegiance, Trump supporters shopped for snacks and sodas from concession carts, as if they were going to a basketball game or a rock concert.

As they took their seats, the loudspeakers blasted out the famous Puccini aria "Nessun Dorma," the Beatles and Elton John -- an off choice in the eyes of some hardcore American conservatives. As one member of the audience put it: "Why do we have to listen to this queer liberal?"

Then the MC advised people not to resort to violence in the event of protests. He appealed for calm and said law enforcement would step in if need be. We were clearly in for a different kind of night.

Trump speaks to a crowd at a Manchester, NH rally. February 8, 2016. (AFP / Don Emmert)

In Europe, politicians often go to great lengths to pretend they are ordinary Joes. Trump loves nothing more than telling everyone how rich and successful he is. He's a larger-than-life billionaire who makes people feel that a little bit of his success can rub off on them. It's all about image. And power.

The stage was dressed in a red, white and blue neon "Make America Great Again!" sign and a presidential looking row of US flags.

Making an entrance

The main man's arrival was heralded by a campaign video that included a picture of his family in a gold-leaf sitting room, his youngest son astride a stuffed lion. The minute he strode out, the crowd went crazy. The moment he started speaking, the audience was captivated. The more he insulted the countries and people he blames for the ills of modern America, the more the spectators loved him.

Would any other politician call a rival a pussy? Trump did of Ted Cruz, taking his lead from a woman in the audience. "She said he's a pussy. That's terrible," he said, shaking his head in faux outrage as the crowd erupted into wolf whistles and applause.

Trump and Cruz at a debate in Las Vegas. December 15, 2015. (AFP / Robyn Beck)

So well known are his policies, that they have become catchphrases. "Who's going to pay for the wall?" he shouted. "Mexico," the arena screamed back. "U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!"

Trump supporters at a Virginia rally. January 18, 2016. (AFP / Nicholas Kamm)

Of course it is easy to sneer at the candidate and his supporters. At every step he has broken the rules of electioneering. Yet somehow he is standing at the head of the field through sheer charisma and force of personality.

Why Trump?

While analysts in Washington and New York see America as a patchwork of Democrat states and Republican states, of black voters and blue collar cities, many people are tired of being viewed as vote banks, whose problems are promptly forgotten.

Disenfranchised Americans turn to him because they are turned off politics and in its place he offers celebrity. They are angry: with career politicians, with the mainstream media and with the system. Several members of the audience I approached refused to talk to a journalist. He's a showman who takes the stage like a rock star, sending fans dizzy with excitement. It's not really politics, it's entertainment.

Trump gets off his plane in Iowa. January 30, 2016. (AFP / Jim Watson)

When his speech was over -- and he took no questions -- he walked past the bleachers, shaking hands and being mobbed by cameras like a movie star tracked by paparazzi.

Trump's campaign strategy has been to suck up the oxygen from everyone else in the Republican field by dialing into breakfast shows, insulting his rivals or launching attacks on Muslims, Mexicans, women, the disabled or anyone who crosses his path.

His audiences are generally white, hard-working Americans, alarmed by their country's flagging status in the world. They are out of a job, or struggling to make ends meet. Trump jets in to sprinkle a little stardust that peps them up.

Trump supporters at a rally in Virginia. December 2, 2015. (AFP / Nicholas Kamm)

He may be clever enough to have identified the problems and fears facing many Americans. But his many opponents say he has none of the answers.

Jennie Matthew is an AFP correspondent based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.

A Trump supporter in Iowa. January 28, 2016. (AFP / Jim Watson)
Jennie Matthew