By Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
DAVENPORT, Iowa — Bruce Goacher, a repo man in a camouflage cap and oil-smudged jacket, praised Donald Trump as he drove his flatbed through Davenport on his way to seize a delinquent borrower’s car.
Trump’s call for barring Muslims from entering the United States may have sparked an international uproar, but it only reinforced Goacher’s support for the Republican Party’s top contender for president.
“He says let’s not bring nobody here until we get to the bottom of it,” Goacher said Tuesday over the rumble of the tow truck’s engine. “I agree 100 percent.”
Men like Goacher are the main reason Trump has sustained his lead in the Republican presidential race for six months. Poll after poll has found that white men with no college degree are among the New York tycoon’s most avid supporters.
As Goacher can attest, recent events — terrorist massacres in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., Syrian refugees pouring into Europe, political clashes in the U.S. over guns and immigration — have only strengthened Trump’s bonds with these voters.
On Saturday, Goacher shook the candidate’s hand at a Davenport campaign rally. He noticed the smooth texture of Trump’s palm.
“He didn’t have to work as hard as I did with my callused hands,” said Goacher, 56. “If a man can become a billionaire without having to work that hard for it, he’s evidently a pretty smart man, money-wise, and the United States has to be run as a business.”
Goacher’s world could hardly be further from Trump’s, with the private jet, the global network of luxury hotels, the trappings of celebrity. Goacher, a lifelong resident of a down-and-out industrial section of this small city on the Mississippi River, once slaughtered hogs at the Oscar Mayer plant.
From the driver’s seat of his tow truck, Goacher points to signs of decline: “That was a gas station. That was Sears. Over here was the A&P. They’re all empty.”
Alpo and Dog Chow are still made at the Nestle Purina factory near the riverbank, but the Oscar Mayer plant will soon be replaced by one that will employ just 475 of its 1,400 workers.
Trump’s gift for showmanship — his stand-up-comedian riffs left his Davenport audience laughing as much as cheering — can obscure his appeals to bigotry.
He has played off voters’ fears “in a very demagogic way” while coming off as a strong leader, said Stu Spencer, who managed Ronald Reagan’s campaign to unseat President Jimmy Carter in 1980.
“They like the way he gets up and says it like it is — just like they talk to each other in the bar,” he said.
To Goacher, Trump’s swagger and blunt talk of a more forceful America offer hope in dangerous and unstable times. He admires Trump’s “no-bull attitude.”
“I think he’s writing all his own stuff, ’cause it’s too off the wall for anybody to write something like that,” he said the day after seeing Trump at Davenport Speedway, where Goacher used to race stock cars.
As for Trump’s agenda, Goacher likes it all, starting with immigration. “He’s not going to deport everybody — just illegals,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with that.” Echoing Trump, he said some were “robbing and killing to survive.”
Goacher mentioned a local company that charges “8, 10 grand” to replace a roof. “OK, there’s a boatload of Mexicans come by, and you can get it done for 2 or 3 grand. They’re not from here. That’s hurting the businessperson that’s here.”
As a successful owner of a tow truck company, Goacher sees some of himself in the former star of The Apprentice. When repossessing a car, it’s best to dodge contact with the owner, Goacher explained. But when it’s unavoidable, the ability to size people up quickly is essential.
“It’s either that or get screwed,” he said. “I can look at somebody, in 30 seconds of talking to them, I can tell you whether they’re a con … or they’re a pretty decent person.”
Trump, he said, uses a similar talent on a grander scale. “He thinks a lot like me.”
Goacher, a relaxed but fast-talking man whose pace picks up when he’s on a repo job, grew up in a more prosperous Davenport. His father, a World War II fighter pilot, made a living painting military equipment at the Rock Island Arsenal, just across the Mississippi. His dad also ran a gas station.
When Goacher finished high school in 1977, he had a shot at jobs at Caterpillar and John Deere, but chose Oscar Mayer, where he stayed for nearly four years.
Davenport’s economic troubles turned severe during the Carter and Reagan eras. Thousands of jobs vanished and the population dwindled as International Harvester, Farmall Works, J.I. Case, Caterpillar and others shut down plants in the region.
Goacher’s passion is cars. He owns a few hundred, many of them acquired in towing deals. Some are rusty wrecks with flat tires. Others are pristine classics, including a 1949 Rock Island county sheriff’s squad car. Goacher bought his first tow truck when he was 18.
As crime rose and property values dropped on Davenport’s west end, Goacher acquired cheap real estate, including a shack once known as Skipper’s Popcorn Palace. Goacher bought it from the estate of an old friend, a chiropractor who’d turned it into a taco stand after doing time for murdering his wife.
A couple things stuck in Goacher’s mind after Trump’s rally. One was the candidate’s vow to build a wall along the U-S.-Mexico border that would be a foot taller than the Great Wall of China. (“Mine’s big,” Trump told the crowd.)
The other was Trump’s statement — four times for emphasis — that Hillary Clinton lacks the strength and stamina to be president. Goacher retold the story almost word for word the next day.
“She does a little campaigning, she goes home, she sleeps for three days, puts her pantsuit back on, and goes again,” Goacher said.
He stopped his tow truck to chat with a friend, Darrel Beauchamp, a former crane operator at a Pillsbury baked goods dock on the river.
“Did you go and see Trump yesterday?” Beauchamp asked from the cab of his pickup.
“Yep, I was right up next to him,” Goacher replied.
“I stood there about three hours,” Beauchamp said.
“What did you think? Like him?”
“He’s something else, ain’t he?”
The two laughed. Later, Goacher said he was happy to have “the basics in life” and didn’t need more.
“But you know what? I just want the world to be a little bit better than what it is, and be safe,” he said. “And that’s why I like Trump.”
©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
Photo: Bruce Goacher of Davenport, Iowa, hoists a repossessed car onto his tow truck on Dec. 6, 2015 in Bettendorf, Iowa. (Michael Finnegan/Los Angeles Times/TNS)