WASHINGTON — In this universe, Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the election many times and in many different ways. Biden won the popular vote by more than 7 million ballots. President Donald Trump’s flurry of legal challenges failed, culminating in the Supreme Court’s rejection on December 11 of a Texas lawsuit challenging the results in several states. On Monday, in what is nearly the final step in certifying the winner of the presidential election, 306 electors cast their votes for Biden in keeping with their states’ results, ensuring that it will be the former vice president who is inaugurated as the 46th president on Jan. 20.
But that’s just this universe. In a parallel universe, the idea that Biden won is not only false but impossible, and the notion that he will be sworn in next month still very much in doubt if not outright laughable. Trump’s lawyers are not bumblers engaged in a hapless quest but heroes fighting to save the republic. The election was stolen in a grand conspiracy involving everyone from the Fox News election desk to the solidly conservative governor of Georgia. Even the Electoral College vote is itself a sham, and Trump’s “alternate electors” should be counted instead.
In the parallel universe where Trump won, the passage of time and the accumulation of facts indicating the opposite result have done nothing to change his most steadfast supporters’ minds. Instead, many seem even more resolute, and their rhetoric is growing more extreme.
Thousands of people from all over the country flooded downtown Washington, DC, on Saturday for demonstrations against the election results, gatherings that made headlines mostly for violence that broke out at night as hundreds of Proud Boys, a far-right group, roamed the streets looking to fight anti-Trump opponents. But the Proud Boys were a minority of attendees. Most of the folks who came out on Saturday to support their president skewed older, and their most dangerous physical act was not wearing a mask in the middle of the pandemic. But even this demographic has begun to expound radical ideas.
Walking down Pennsylvania Avenue, I caught up with Robin Bonner, 62, from Kansas, as she made her way down the street near a rally in Freedom Plaza hosted by the group Women for America First, one of several protests in the city that day. Bonner held a pro-police “thin blue line” flag. I asked Bonner how she felt about Biden being sworn in in January. “He won’t be. I’m sure about that,” she responded without hesitation. How can it be prevented? “We will dismantle the government,” she said. I asked if she meant civil conflict. “If it has to be,” she said, though she hoped not. Instead, she said she’d prefer a peaceful secession.
“Maybe we can go to the Supreme Court and get the blue states disconnected from the red states and have our own president,” Bonner suggested. “I don't know why we can't just kick out the blue states. They don't want President Trump, they don't want the Constitution, and they don't want our freedoms. So why shouldn't we just let them go? And then we'll have all the red states.”
The idea of a secession has indeed circulated in the right-wing ecosystem in recent weeks. Allen West, chair of the Texas Republican Party, responded to the Supreme Court decision with a statement suggesting that “perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.” Rush Limbaugh floated the idea of a secession on his radio show last week, though he later said he was merely discussing an existing sentiment, not advocating for it.
“I think we're gonna have to have a war; we're gonna have to secede,” said Crystal R., 40, who declined to give her last name. However, she didn’t think it was likely. “The best thing that could happen is a war, but it’s not gonna happen.” Her friend Janie Yates, who declined to give her age beyond saying she collects Social Security benefits, had come from Tennessee for Saturday’s protests; they had also attended last month’s “Million MAGA March” in DC. Yates told me I wasn’t asking the right questions. What I should have been asking was about how the coronavirus vaccine will implant people with the biblical “mark of the beast” from the Book of Revelation and allow them to be taken over by Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. This moment is a battle between powerful forces of good and evil.
This is why, Yates said, it was so key to back Trump, who stands in the breach. “Donald Trump is standing against them,” she said. “I've never voted in my life, because I don't believe in the system, but I voted this year because he’s the only one standing between us and that.” Trump had, just the night before, triumphantly announced the FDA’s approval of Pfizer’s vaccine.
The women asked me what I thought of a potential civil war. I told them I am against violence. They scoffed. “How do you think America was born?” Yates asked.
Crystal boiled it down for me: She supports Jesus Christ and the Bible, “and nobody's gonna take that away from me, or we can fight.”
“I'm not prepared to die for this country,” she added, “but I would sure kill somebody if they were gonna try to take the freedom of my God away.”
That it’s come to this — otherwise normal, nonthreatening people comfortable with the idea of a bloody uprising against their fellow citizens — might seem surprising. But it’s a logical consequence of Trump’s refusal to accept his loss, and of Republican leaders and conservative media outlets’ amplification of his claims. It’s hard to know how many people feel this way; Saturday’s march showcased the most committed devotees. But since the election, some trends have become clear: Trump supporters have turned in large numbers to outlets that reaffirm their beliefs, and many have insulated themselves even from mainstream social media platforms, flocking to alternatives like Parler. They are actively shutting themselves off from any information that could challenge their conclusions, and misinformation is circulating unchecked.
Given the gravity of the alleged fraud, compromise is impossible, a dynamic that Richard Hofstadter described in 1964 in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” — the conspiracy theorist’s “conflict between absolute good and absolute evil” that necessitates “total triumph.”
This, Hofstadter wrote, leads to “the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration.” This is the cycle in which the right has trapped itself after the election — yoked to an impossible outcome (Trump staying in the White House) that, after each blow to its credibility, only further catalyzes its adherents’ passion and outrage. Hofstadter was writing about Barry Goldwater’s conservative movement and the conspiratorial fringes that helped it gain traction, like the John Birch Society and Sen. Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade. But his observations apply today as they did then, and the “paranoid style” has become, if anything, more mainstream and acceptable in Republican politics. The targets may have shifted, but the basic preoccupations are the same: a devious global cabal of elites who have schemed to oppress the common man. Yesterday’s communist boogeymen have become today’s shadowy adrenochrome-drinking child sex abusers.
Populist politics rely on a synthesis between the leader and their followers — Trump often tells his supporters, “I am your voice” — and this helps explain why some of the president's base has taken the election loss as a crushing defeat personally and as a group, not just for him. Years of conservative media that place the viewer or reader in an active role in its coverage have also primed the right for this episode. Fox News helped pioneer it — “we report, you decide.” Andrew Breitbart used to tell people in his speeches to hold up their phones and tell them that they were now a part of the new media. Nowadays, this audience has more opportunities than ever before to pick and choose the news it wants to know about, and social media has helped accelerate the spread of conspiracies. In the 1950s and 1960s, the John Birch Society had to send letters in the mail. Today, people can simply log on.
The likes of Newsmax and One America News Network have taken this to an extreme in the postelection crisis. Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy essentially admitted to the New York Times that his network was refusing to acknowledge Biden’s win because it was good business. Newsmax has closely covered every twist and turn in the flailing attempts from Trump and the GOP to remain in power, treating each development with equal seriousness. Trump loyalists in Congress, like Reps. Mo Brooks and Jim Jordan, appear on a regular basis to fill viewers in on the newest scheme to block Biden’s presidency. The efforts of Trump’s legal team have been an important theme of the coverage. On Tuesday night, two of Newsmax’s primetime hosts floated the notion that even at this late stage, the fact that Vice President–elect Kamala Harris has not yet resigned her Senate seat could be an indication that Trump still has a shot.
Even when the most fervent Trump loyalists realize all hope has been lost, it doesn’t seem likely that they will ever accept the legitimacy of Biden’s presidency. It’s a combustible situation — as much or more so than the conditions that led to the 2010 tea party wave — but it isn’t clear where this collective rage will go.
“If somehow Joe Biden were to take the office, I think what we would see come out of it would make the tea party look tiny,” said Dustin Stockton, a former Breitbart writer and tea party activist who is one of the lead organizers of the March for Trump, an initiative to contest the election results run by Women for America First, a group helmed by former Tea Party Express leader Amy Kremer and her daughter Kylie Jane Kremer. In an interview on Monday, Stockton still insisted that Trump could win another term, though he acknowledged that it wasn’t looking likely given the string of losses. He predicted that a new tea party would focus less on intraparty politics and more on “civil disobedience” and “challenging the system.”
“They’re not going to overturn the election, obviously not,” Mike Cernovich, the men's rights activist turned pro-Trump media personality, told me. “Joe Biden’s going to be the president on Jan. 20. That doesn’t mean you can’t pressure politicians for concessions. It doesn’t mean that you can’t form an organic social network in real life.”
It’s difficult to tell how many people will remain in the hard core of the election-denying camp, though surveys have shown that large numbers of Republicans don’t believe the results — which can range from believing there were some irregularities to believing a coup is taking place. And it’s hard to know how much the most intense believers could influence the more ambivalent Republican, particularly as time goes on.
But if this were not an important segment of the party, Republican leaders wouldn’t behave the way they have. Nor would a channel like Newsmax have been able to attract a significant audience. The incentives to keep this going are obvious; supply is meeting demand.
What would the goals of such a tea party 2.0 be? Republicans in Washington by and large played along with Trump; more than 100 members of the House Republican Caucus signed an amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to take up Texas’s lawsuit. Unlike during the 2010 tea party movement, when the midterms provided the focus of ejecting “RINOs” from Congress, there is no obvious goal this uprising could pursue after Jan. 20. What we may see is a kind of ersatz tea party, rooted not in a future objective but in settling scores from the past, an expression of anger for anger’s sake, locked in a vicious cycle of extreme rhetoric. Whatever it becomes, history shows there would likely be ample funding for it. The tea party era was a boom time for conservative groups and media outlets, and the Biden administration could usher in the same. Older conservative voters are reliable small donors. And conservative email lists are churning out appeals for donations to help “stop the steal” from one group or another. Ali Alexander, the leader of the Stop the Steal group that hosted a rally on the National Mall on Saturday, was initially asking for donations for his efforts through his personal website. Stockton told me that his group’s event cost around $250,000 to stage, not including the weeks-long bus tour that preceded it. Trump raised over $200 million in the post-election period.
Saturday saw the streets of DC filled with the familiar iconography of the Trump movement: the red hats, flags with the “thin blue line” and Punisher skull, Gadsden flags, and a multitude of other symbols. A man in a “Trump That Bitch” T-shirt sold pretzels from a cart. At Freedom Plaza, a booming sound system and several large screens broadcast the faces of the speakers, who included Trump world favorites like Sebastian Gorka, Boris Epshteyn, and the recently pardoned former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who told the audience that on a scale of 1 to 10, he had the odds of Trump retaking the White House at a 10. (Later that week, Flynn suggested on Newsmax that Trump could use “military capabilities” to force swing states to hold their elections again.) The gathering might have felt festive if not for the darkness of the conspiracy alleged by the speakers, the notable presence of Proud Boys and far-right “groypers,” and the strident rhetoric coming from many attendees themselves.
“I think the media should be punished,” said Roxana Lawson, 66, of Florida. “I think that Facebook and Twitter also fed misinformation to the Americans. That should be illegal. You cannot slander somebody and get away with it.”
A man from Cleveland, Brad Lynnet, 64, carried a “Wake the Fuck Up!” sign and wore a plastic construction helmet with “Trump” written on it. Lynnet said he didn’t believe the Supreme Court case was the end. It wasn’t a matter of hoping Trump will prevail, he said; “I know it’s going to happen.” Lynnet came all the way to DC from Ohio to protest one thing: “treason.” He had, he said, a multitude of sources who were keeping him informed, though he declined to name them.
It's not clear if Republicans who have deferred to Trump's desperate effort realize that what has been set in motion won't be easily stopped.
After the Electoral College vote, some top Republicans finally admitted that it was over. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged that Biden is now the president-elect. Potentially of more significance, Newsmax announced on Tuesday that it too would now call Biden the president-elect, though one of its star hosts, Greg Kelly, had said the night before that while some outlets might call the race for the former vice president, he “personally feels they’re wrong.” Kelly tried to move the focus to a new date of truth: Jan. 6, when the electoral votes are brought to Congress.
Trump himself has still not publicly accepted the loss, and he likely never will. White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany refused to acknowledge it during her press briefing Tuesday, instead pointing out that Trump was still pursuing legal avenues. Trump may run for president again, a proposition that would give some focus to the movement that is searching for answers in the wake of his loss.
Trump’s defeat despite the extraordinary loyalty he commands among his followers has created a surplus of energy and emotion with nowhere to go. The lie of the stolen election has a momentum of its own. It is calcifying into an article of faith, an ideological litmus test that will divide enemies and friends. The two sides are already too far apart for any hope of a resolution.
“Depending on where you get your information from, you have two different divergent realities,” Stockton said. “[It’s] really dangerous when you have basically half the country and the other half of the country who believe that two dramatically different things happen. And so the most important thing is that we reach some kind of conclusion that can kind of bridge that divergence,” he said. “Otherwise, what comes next is scary. It’s hard to wrap your head around how the country can go on when people believe two such dramatically different things.” ●