After months of incessant allegations of voter fraud, fake ballots, and hacked machines, after days spent watching Fox News and Newsmax and scrolling through Facebook and Parler, 60-year-old Sandra has become convinced of one thing.
“If Trump doesn’t win, I won’t vote again,” Sandra said. “Because what good would it do? What good did it do?”
With unprecedented false claims of a stolen election, President Donald Trump incited thousands of his supporters to carry out a violent insurrection last week at the Capitol — attacking police officers, looting and robbing buildings, even building a gallows.
In the small city of Weatherford, Texas, what those claims have done to Sandra is much quieter. But for the country, and the Republican Party, it may ultimately be just as damaging. Trump and the Republicans who have echoed his lies about wide-scale election fraud have broken Sandra’s faith in almost everything: in most Republicans, in the election system, in voting, in democracy and the country itself.
Now, Sandra trusts just one person: Donald Trump, who has just made history after being impeached for a second time. And if he isn’t on the ballot, she doesn’t plan to vote again.
Sandra wrote to me in a fit of anger one day in late November of last year, after she read a story I had written about Trump that she thought was biased. She’d never reached out to a journalist before, she said, but — “I was mad that day.”
“This election is so wrong,” she wrote to me. “You know it too.”
I’d gotten a lot of emails like that. But to me, Sandra, whose last name is being withheld for privacy reasons, sounded different somehow — less angry and more anguished, heartbroken almost. I asked her to tell me what she thought was “wrong” about the election, and she listed off a litany of different election conspiracies, all of them disproven.
Then she said: “After this election I’m 60 years old and I’m not going to waste my time in 4 years to vote if the party is going to steal it.”
“I pray for the United States,” Sandra wrote to me. “But don’t believe in it anymore.”
Sandra and I have spoken often since she first emailed me in November, over phone and text and Facebook. It’s not clear how many voters like her there are. But the Georgia runoff elections this month, which handed Senate control to Democrats, showed some warning signs for a party that wanted to use Trump’s election fraud claims to bring its voters to the polls.
Sandra has no doubt that Georgia’s election was stolen too. And it has only solidified her conviction: “What you’re saying is, nothing is fair, so why vote? They’re just going to steal it every year now.”
It was the morning after the presidential election that Sandra first dove deep into a vortex of right-wing election misinformation — one she hasn’t emerged from since. On Fox News, she heard theory after theory about widespread fraud in swing states. On Newsmax, there were reports of Dominion voting machines changing votes from Trump to Biden. On Facebook, there were stories of election workers who stopped counting ballots.
Sandra is almost as deep into the misinformation as many of the Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol. But more than angry, she feels helpless. And hopeless.
Unlike a small slice of Republican voters, Sandra is adamant that she does not support the violent riots that Trump incited at the Capitol building last week, though she doesn’t think Trump had anything to do with them, either. But like that small segment, she does not understand how it is possible for Trump to have lost.
“We could have lost the presidency — Biden could have won, I don’t see how, but he could have — and I’d be all right,” she said. “But to have it stolen, that’s not right. That’s not right.”
Sandra lives with her daughter outside Fort Worth. At the beginning, in 2016, she says, she didn’t even like Trump. The way he talked, the fact that he’d once been a Democrat — it all made her not trust him. But he proved her wrong, she says. She saw the economy boom, especially for her late husband’s construction business. Trump, she said, “proved that he really did care.”
On weekends, Sandra works 12-hour shifts at a nursing home where a dozen residents, she says, have died from the coronavirus. On weekdays, she sometimes picks up shifts in a local school cafeteria.
In her free time, she spends hours immersed in a right-wing news ecosystem. When Fox’s anchors, especially Chris Wallace, started to grind on her, she started watching Newsmax. She even joined the now-suspended right-wing app Parler, tired of sharing Facebook videos and posts that got deleted.
When Sandra talks about the presidential election, it can feel like she is speaking in code, jumping from one election falsehood to another: voting machine algorithms, reams of invalid ballots, rally sizes, dementia, Benghazi payoffs, a note on Mike Pence’s chair at a funeral, a plot to pardon Hillary Clinton. To her, they are all common knowledge — no need to explain any of them.
“Because had it not happened, where they shut everything — all them states shut down, they went with the vote, I could have lived with it,” she told me, referring to a false claim that swing states “shut down” the counting of votes in order to manufacture ballots.
“What I think they did — there were invalid ballots left and right through there, and the machine is crooked as all get-out. With the foreign countries — Texas didn’t have those. That’s what scares me.”
Sandra’s husband died three years ago in a freak construction accident, and she still mourns him. In the days after the election, the more Sandra heard about dead people voting, the more she started wondering. She checked on the state’s voter registry, and she didn’t find her husband’s name, but the thought of it still upsets her.
Sandra still thinks this could happen at any moment, in any future election — her beloved husband’s name, used in a fraud scheme to defeat the president he loved.
She checked her own vote online too, just in case she could tell whether it had been switched to Biden. It was possible, Sandra thought, that her decision to vote in 2020 had actually hurt Trump.
Sandra and I spoke and texted a few times over the course of the last month. I checked in with her after news stories, like Trump’s loss at the Supreme Court. But it was on Sandra’s Facebook where I could see most clearly how the election misinformation was affecting her.
Sandra’s friend Brenda is even deeper into the world of election falsehoods, including the extremist conspiracies peddled by QAnon. When Sandra wavered over the election, Brenda was there, tugging her friend back as she seesawed in and out of the universe where Trump could still win the election.
At first, a few days after the election, as news outlets declared Biden’s victory, Sandra was despondent.
“Well friends I’m done watching news,” she posted on Facebook. “With even Fox going to the left I’m just done. I don’t figure Trump will win when you have the cheaters like the left…. I’m preparing for the hell that Biden can throw at us.”
“Don’t give up,” Brenda wrote in reply. “Trump is going to win. I know it’s hard but this is what needed to happen in order for us to see the corruption. Go see the video I posted about the sting operation.”
Sandra posted more election misinformation: screenshots from Parler, a Change.org petition to “recount or revote” the 2020 election with 2.5 million other signers.
Two weeks later, she was starting to lose faith again. “Not sure what’s going on,” she posted. “I worry about Trump not getting this election honest.”
But the far-right articles Brenda sent reassured her. Five days later, she posted a video from InfoWars called “Learn Why Trump Knows He’s Already Won and Why Biden Is So Scared.” In it, the conspiracy theorist host Alex Jones predicted the Supreme Court would deliver Trump a massive victory, based on a “bat signal” he said the court’s conservatives had sent out through assigning circuit court judges. “Boom, the election is in play,” Jones said.
“Trump is so smart,” Sandra wrote after watching the video, sharing it with her followers. “He’s got this.”
In the coming weeks, the Supreme Court would reject several of Trump’s election challenges. By the end of December, Brenda was holding out hope, posting about competing slates of Electoral College electors. Sandra was too, a little, imagining that Trump might pull out a victory through a challenge on Jan. 6. But she was also simply exhausted.
Brenda posted that Vice President Mike Pence had canceled his overseas trip. “Something big is happening,” she said. “Enjoy the show!” She included a popcorn emoji.
“I hope,” Sandra replied. “I’m tired of waiting for the show.”
When Sandra thinks back on the election, and on the state of this country, she thinks of her 18-year-old grandson, who proudly cast his first ballot in November for Trump.
“It makes me so sad,” she told me. “It did hurt my grandson, to see this happen.” He’s unlikely to vote again either, Sandra said.
“He just says it’s a waste of time — they’re gonna steal every election from now on.” ●