What exactly was Trump asking the crowd to do when he spoke, on Monday night, at a rally in Dalton, Georgia? The occasion for the event was Tuesday’s dual Senate runoff elections in the state but no one, not even the Republican candidates—Senators Kelly Loeffler, who joined Trump onstage, and David Perdue, who is quarantining after a coronavirus exposure and appeared by video—pretended that was the main issue. “This President fought for us; we’re fighting for him,” Loeffler said. “President Trump has fought for us and we’re fighting for him, and a fair and accurate election,” Perdue said—a reference to the election, in November, that Trump lost, and to the President’s efforts to throw out its results. “FIGHT FOR TRUMP! FIGHT FOR TRUMP!” the crowd chanted, at various points. But, given that Trump is not on any ballot, how, and with what weapons?
The prelude to the rally was a telephone call, on Saturday, in which Trump threatened Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, with criminal liability—“a big risk to you”—if he did not “find” eleven thousand seven hundred and eighty votes for him—just enough to overcome Biden’s margin of victory in the state—somewhere, anywhere. Georgia’s votes have been counted three times. On the face of it, Trump’s demand was illegal. Raffensperger is a Republican, as are other state officials who have explained, again and again, that the President’s claims—about votes cast by people who were either underage or dead, or mystery ballots being brought in under the cover of a staged water-main break at the State Farm Arena, in Atlanta—are demonstrably false. (Rudy Giuliani pushed the State Farm scenario with the help of deceptively edited security footage; the full video shows that the story is nonsense.) Trump repeated those claims at the rally in Dalton. He called Raffensperger “wacky” and Brian Kemp, the state’s Republican governor, “incompetent.” They don’t know, apparently, that their job is to deliver the state to him, even though he lost it.
In Trump’s view, everyone has a task to perform in the great effort of not letting the legitimate winner of the election, Joe Biden, take office. The runoff may be on Tuesday, but, at the rally, the key date that Trump mentioned was Wednesday, January 6th, when both houses of Congress, meeting in a joint session, will receive the Electoral College votes. The Electoral College itself voted last month: Biden won three hundred and six electors, and Trump two hundred and thirty-two—this is not an election on a razor’s edge. (Georgia has sixteen electors; at the rally, Trump said that it was one of six, or maybe eight, states whose results he is contesting.) More than a hundred Republican House members have said that they will object to the tally. Given that the results have been certified by each state, after the Trump campaign got many days in court, this is nothing other than an effort to disenfranchise millions of Americans. Thirteen Republican Senators, led by Josh Hawley, of Missouri, and, inevitably, Ted Cruz, of Texas, have signed on, too. Perdue cannot join them, because his term is up, but Loeffler, who was appointed to fill a seat left vacant when Senator Johnny Isakson resigned for health reasons, can and will. On Monday, the first thing she said after bounding on stage when Trump summoned her was, “I have an announcement, Georgia: On January 6th, I will object to the Electoral College vote!” (She had actually made the announcement a few hours earlier on Twitter.) Loeffler added, “We’re going to get this done”—“this,” presumably, being the rejection of the legitimate winner of the Presidential election and of the underpinnings of our constitutional democracy. Trump smiled at her approvingly. The next person he invited on stage was newly elected Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, of Georgia’s Fourteenth Congressional District, who has been associated with QAnon conspiracy theories and, after being sworn in Sunday, wore a mask emblazoned “TRUMP WON” on the House floor. Greene pronounced herself “so fired up” by Loeffler’s promise to renounce the electoral votes of their state. “We have to save America and stop socialism. This is the last line!” Greene said. “We’re going to fight for President Trump on January 6th. God bless Georgia, God bless America—let’s do this!”
There were two other Republican Senators at the rally. One was Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, who has wiggled around the question of whether he will vote to reject the Electoral College tally. Graham said over the weekend that the tactic is not really a means of “effectively fighting for President Trump,” raising the question of whether he has some better coup strategy in mind. But Graham added that he would hear Cruz et al. out, and weigh what they had to say. The other Senator at the rally was Mike Lee, of Utah, who has reportedly sent signals that he doesn’t think Congress has the power, under the Constitution, to do what Trump wants it to do. (It doesn’t.) “I’m a little angry at him,” Trump said, adding later in the rally, “I just want Mike Lee to listen to this when I’m talking, because you know what? We need his vote.” Lee’s vote would not change the outcome, but it would contribute to the dangerous myth that this election, which had clear results, is in dispute, and that the people of America were betrayed by a corrupt élite. Indeed, whichever way Graham and Lee vote, their presence in Dalton is a reminder that even many Republicans who have balked at rejecting the electoral-vote tally are standing by Trump in other ways. Perhaps they tell themselves that whatever happens in Congress on Wednesday will just be theatre—Biden will still be sworn in on January 20th. But a belief that an unconstitutional attempt to seize power will fail is no excuse for countenancing one.
Still, Trump wanted to make sure that everyone knew his or her place. “I hope Mike Pence comes through for us,” he told the crowd. This was a reference for yet another scheme, according to which Pence would somehow use his purely ceremonial role as the presider at Wednesday’s joint session to sabotage the Electoral College count. Apparently, Trump expects Pence to pull some stunt or the other, or else, he said, “I won’t like him quite as much.” (On Tuesday, Trump tweeted, “The Vice President has the power to reject fraudulently chosen electors”; this is false.) And others had already lost his favor: “I’m not happy with the Supreme Court,” he said. “They are not stepping up to the plate.”
It may be tempting to wonder whether Trump really thinks that he won, but it’s not productive. For one thing, his definition of winning appears to be somewhat detached from the question of whether he got the most votes. When he arrived at the rally, by helicopter, and surveyed the mostly white, largely maskless crowd, he said, “There’s no way we lost Georgia!” He also cited attendance at his rallies when he instructed Raffensperger to “find” more votes. And both at the rally and on the phone call he lambasted Stacey Abrams, the former gubernatorial candidate who has been at the forefront of efforts to register new voters, many of them Black Georgians, and to prevent their votes from being suppressed. Trump seems to think that he won the votes of the only people he believes have the right to have a voice in deciding elections. When he talks about how everybody knows there is something wrong with the vote tallies in Fulton County, or in Detroit, or Philadelphia, all areas with substantial Black electorates, he can hardly contain his dismay that voters there matter. Trump is not fighting for his legacy but to unconstitutionally and criminally hold on to a position that he has already lost. In typical Trump style, he is doing so, in part, by calling his opponents the real crooks: “The Democrats are trying to steal the White House—you cannot let them!” he said in Dalton.
But what does that injunction mean for Trump supporters who are not elected officials or judges? What plate does Trump expect them to step up to? He wanted them to vote for Perdue and Loeffler, but that wouldn’t be enough. In the course of the rally, he warned that if “we don’t do something fast,” there will never be another free election and the United States will succumb to “communism.” “If you don’t fight to save your country with everything you have, you’re not gonna have a country left,” he said. He appeared to be past caring whether anyone listening heard that as a call to violence. The system is corrupt, he said, it is rigged, his supporters have a mission. “We have to go all the way, and that’s what’s happening,” Trump said. “You watch what happens over the next couple of weeks, you watch what’s going to come out, watch what’s going to be revealed.” The crowd cheered, and did so again a moment later when he said, “They’re not taking this White House, we’re going to fight like hell.” What else did they need to hear?
Read More About the Presidential Transition
- Donald Trump has survived impeachment, twenty-six sexual-misconduct accusations, and thousands of lawsuits. His luck may well end now that Joe Biden is the next President.
- With litigation unlikely to change the outcome of the election, Republicans are looking to strategies that might remain even after rebuffs both at the polls and in court.
- With the Trump Presidency ending, we need to talk about how to prevent the moral injuries of the past four years from happening again.
- If 2020 has demonstrated anything, it is the need to rebalance the economy to benefit the working class. There are many ways a Biden Administration can start.
- Trump is being forced to give up his attempt to overturn the election. But his efforts to build an alternative reality around himself will continue.
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