Georgia Trump Fans Say the 2020 Election Was a Sham. Will They Vote in This One?

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On Saturday, November 7th, the day that news networks called the Presidential election for Joe Biden, groups of Donald Trump supporters gathered in Atlanta to proclaim, without evidence, that the result was a fraud. A couple hundred people went to the Capitol, where Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has espoused the wild delusions of QAnon and who had just been elected to Congress, railed against the “radical left” and promised to fight alongside Trump to keep him in office. A smaller group assembled at the CNN Center, including Chris Hill, the leader of a far-right group called the Georgia Security Force Three Percent militia, who live-streamed the protest. Hill, who often brings a rifle and a pistol to such events—in case Antifa shows up, he told me, adding, “I’ll eat them up as appetizers and spit them out on my way to glory”—would later attend “Stop the Steal” rallies at the governor’s mansion and at the home of Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger. “I think it’s crazy for me to cast a ballot knowing my vote won’t count,” Hill told me. “What counts is who’s doing the counting.” Hill compared the crusade to the plight of women who have been sexually assaulted. “If a woman says they’ve been raped, you need to give her credibility,” he said. “But if a woman says she’s witnessed election fraud, then you throw it out. It’s hypocrisy.”

Two days after the protests, Georgia’s Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, issued a press release. Both politicians appeared headed to runoff elections, to be held on January 5th. Loeffler, who was appointed to her seat by Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, had finished second in a special election that had included nineteen other candidates, behind the Democrat Raphael Warnock. Perdue, who was first elected in 2014, got more votes than his Democratic opponent, Jon Ossoff—and slightly more than Trump—but fell short of the fifty-per-cent threshold required for victory by state election law. Perdue and Loeffler now had the chance to break ranks with a lame-duck President who lost their state and to convey support for local Republican colleagues, including Kemp and Raffensperger, who had overseen the election, and would soon oversee another, in which both senators would likely take part. Instead, they called on Raffensperger to resign. “Georgians are outraged,” they declared, “and rightly so.”

It seemed like a dubious strategy. The two incumbents were, in essence, asking people to participate, again, in a process that they insist did not work the last time. I spoke with Gabriel Sterling, a Republican who helped manage the election in Georgia and who has lately pushed back against the unfounded allegations of fraud and interference. “If I put on my old-fashioned political-operative hat, we all know what happened,” he told me, of Loeffler and Perdue. “The President went to them, and said, ‘If you don’t back me to the hilt on this and call for Raffensperger’s resignation and Biden and all this stuff, I’m going to send out two tweets and kill your campaign.’ ” (Loeffler and Perdue did not respond to multiple interview requests.)

Republicans currently hold fifty Senate seats and Democrats hold forty-eight, including two Independents who caucus with Democrats. If Loeffler and Perdue lose, then the Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris, will, beginning in January, break ties whenever the Senate votes along party lines. For this reason, Sterling still plans to vote for Loeffler and Perdue, though he is disappointed in them. “I have been a Republican since I was nine years old,” he said. “And I cannot, in good conscience, give all levers of power to the Democrats at this point in time.” But he has found it difficult to persuade some acquaintances to vote at all. “I’ve had to argue with people I have known for twenty years,” he said. “I had a back-and-forth on Facebook Messenger with a woman I’ve known for a long time, who was like, ‘I’m not going to vote, because it’s not going to matter.’ ” He has a go-to argument in these situations. “I’m not admitting there is any theft, because there wasn’t,” he tells people. “But if you believe that, hand on a Bible, and you believe it will continue to be stolen, then your best bet is to make it harder for them to steal, and show up to vote.” When we spoke, in early December, he’d become worried that Trump’s increasingly elaborate and thoroughly discredited story that the election was stolen—and the echoing of that fiction by Perdue, Loeffler, and others—was going to cost Republicans the Senate.

The week after the senators called on Raffensperger to resign, I went to the fairgrounds in Perry, two hours south of Atlanta, to hear them speak to a hundred or so mostly white and mostly elderly Georgians. They were joined by Senator Tom Cotton, of Arkansas, who is widely expected to run for President someday. A truck circled outside, bearing a message in large letters: “David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler: Blocking COVID Relief for 200+ Days.” I watched the driver, a Black man in a Yankees cap, get hassled by some of the people who’d come for the rally. “I’m just doing a job trying to feed my family,” he told me. “And these old ladies out here telling me, ‘Fuck you! Fuck you!’ ” Nearby, a man sold shirts bearing the Gadsden flag and the words “Don’t Tread On My Vote.”

Perry is in Houston County, where Perdue, a onetime management consultant who later became the C.E.O. of a series of companies, including Reebok and Dollar General, grew up. His father was the county’s superintendent of schools in the years that those schools were desegregated. One of the county’s largest employers is Robins Air Force Base, and many in the crowd wore items signalling a connection with, or an appreciation for, the U.S. military. I asked John Glover, a veteran of the Second World War, what he liked about the senators. “She backed up Trump a hundred per cent,” he said, of Loeffler. “That’s No. 1, because it helps offset the other side, so to speak.” I asked him what he thought of reports that both Loeffler and Perdue had made suspiciously timed stock trades following private meetings about the coronavirus at the beginning of the year. “So much B.S.,” he said. “I’ve got stocks myself. And I hire somebody to take care of them.” (E-mails show that Perdue may have directed trades himself; the Department of Justice investigated both senators but declined to pursue charges.) Glover was dubious of November’s results but passionate about voting again. “We can’t sit on our butts and expect to win, because we know that Stacey Abrams is pushing very hard on her people, and there’s a lot of shenanigans going on,” he said, referring to the Democrat and former gubernatorial candidate who has worked on voter turnout in Georgia for years. Glover shared Trump’s frustration with Kemp. “I don’t know if they’ve got something on him or what,” he said. “Just follow the money. It’ll lead you right to what’s going on.”

Kelly Loeffler speaks in Smyrna, Georgia, as an attendee holds a sign critical of Governor Brian Kemp and the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger.Photograph by John Bazemore / AP / Shutterstock

Cotton began by announcing that the Lord wanted the good people of Georgia to “hold the line.” He lambasted Warnock, the senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, in Atlanta, for an old sermon in which Warnock said, “Nobody can serve God and the military.” Those comments were part of a Palm Sunday riff on Matthew 6:24—“No man can serve two masters”—though Cotton didn’t mention this. Painting Warnock as an extremist is a key component of Republican strategy. Warnock and Ossoff, the thirty-three-year-old C.E.O. of a small production company that makes documentaries, have similar policy positions, in line with Biden and the mainstream of the Democratic Party. But Ossoff, whom Cotton dismissed as a “pawn for the Democrats, like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi,” has been deemed “too dull” to caricature. As Jelani Cobb has written, “Ossoff is white, Warnock is Black, and this is still Georgia.”

Perdue compared the election to a good war. “I think God has put us in this position, right now, to stand up and tell the world what America is gonna be for the next fifty to a hundred years,” he said. He talked about Democrats stacking the Supreme Court and granting statehood to Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. “That’s four Democrat senators,” he said. “We may never have another Republican majority in the Senate in my lifetime! They want to then get rid of the Electoral College, if you can believe that!” He told those gathered, “It’s not about issues anymore,” and added, “If we win Georgia, we save America.”

Loeffler, the wealthiest member of the Senate, began by connecting with the crowd. She grew up on a large family farm in Illinois, “showing cattle in 4-H,” she pointed out. “I’m so sad there’s not a cattle show going on right now,” she said. After college, Loeffler mortgaged land that her family owned to pay for business school, and, in 2002, she moved to Atlanta to work for the trading company Intercontinental Exchange. Two years later, she married its founder, Jeffrey Sprecher, who, in 2013, bought the New York Stock Exchange. I approached him then about a possible piece in this magazine, and Loeffler, a part owner of Atlanta’s W.N.B.A. team, suggested that we all attend a game together. Afterward, we had fancy pizza and talked about Sprecher’s favorite artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose triptych “Catharsis” hung above the pool table in their home, a fifteen-thousand-square-foot mansion called Descante, which, at the time, was the most expensive residential property in the history of Atlanta. (The Daily Beast recently reported that, in 2016, the mansion’s appraised value dropped by sixty per cent, for no obvious reason, saving the couple around a hundred thousand dollars a year on their property taxes.) Loeffler said she liked that the painting included a crown.

In Perry, Loeffler recited the lines of attack against Warnock and Ossoff. She said, “Every Republican wants to cover preëxisting conditions,” but also railed against “Obamacare,” the legislation that protects that coverage. She repeated the plea “hold the line” eight times. “The American dream is on the ballot,” she said. “Socialism is on the other side of the ballot.” She encouraged early and absentee voting. Neither Loeffler nor Perdue said the name Donald Trump.

The plan, it appeared, was to recapitulate Trump’s claims about election fraud on social media and to campaign on saving America from socialism. But the ongoing saga of those baseless claims kept overshadowing that pitch. The day after the rally in Perry, a federal judge named Steven D. Grimberg dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Atlanta attorney Lin Wood alleging harm done to him as a voter, one of many preposterous lawsuits filed by the “Stop the Steal” crowd. “The fact that Wood’s preferred candidates did not prevail in the General Election—for whom he may have voted or to whom he may have contributed financially—does not create a legally cognizable harm, much less an irreparable one,” Grimberg wrote. Wood, who first received national attention for defending Richard Jewell, and has lately represented Marjorie Taylor Greene and Kyle Rittenhouse, told his more than eight hundred thousand Twitter followers that Georgians who believe that Trump won should refuse to vote for Loeffler and Perdue unless the senators do more to help the President. The next day, Debbie Dooley, the head of the Atlanta Tea Party, made a similar case. “If you have to choose between the Republican Party or @realDonaldTrump,” she asked her twelve thousand followers, “who would you choose?” Most who replied picked Trump. “Republican élitist establishment folks, like Karl Rove, are vastly underestimating the anger that is out there,” Dooley told me. “Many Trump supporters are angry enough they will sit out the runoff.”

The night before Thanksgiving, another lawyer, Sidney Powell—who was at the White House this past weekend—filed a lawsuit riddled with spelling errors accusing Governor Kemp of taking a bribe from the voting company Dominion as part of a conspiracy to throw the election to Biden. (The conspiracy somehow included the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013.) On the following Tuesday, a prominent QAnon conspiracist uploaded videos showing a young Dominion employee transferring data to a computer, and claimed that it was evidence of fraud. (It was not.) Within hours, people on the message board 4chan, where QAnon was born, had identified the employee; one user on another pro-Trump forum shared the employee’s name next to a GIF of a swinging noose. That afternoon, Gabriel Sterling held a press conference at the state capitol. A self-described “process guy” who doesn’t usually attract much attention—his job title is voting-system implementation manager—Sterling strode to the lectern and pulled off his mask. “I’m going to do my best to keep it together,” he said. “Because it has all gone too far. All of it.” After relating what had happened to the Dominion employee, he said, “Mr. President, you have not condemned these actions or this language. Senators, you have not condemned this language or these actions. This has to stop. We need you to step up. If you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some.”

Gabriel Sterling, the voting-systems implementation manager for the Secretary of State’s Office, has pushed back against unfounded allegations of fraud and interference.Photograph by Megan Varner / Getty

The video of Sterling’s comments was widely shared, and Loeffler and Perdue released statements hours later. “Like many officials, as someone who has been the subject of threats, of course Senator Loeffler condemns violence of any kind,” Loeffler’s spokesperson, Stephen Lawson, tweeted. “How ridiculous to even suggest otherwise.” A spokesperson for Perdue said, “We won’t apologize for addressing the obvious issues with the way our state conducts its elections.” He did not say what those issues were.

Later, I asked Sterling about these statements. “Is it that high of a bar as a senator or a President to go out yourself and say, ‘We condemn violence’? It seems like a pretty low bar, and having to do it through a spokesperson just struck me as weak,” he said. He mentioned a rambling Facebook video that Trump had posted the following day, rehearsing his usual falsehoods. “He gave them oxygen again,” Sterling said. “I mean . . .” He sighed. “The disinformation itself is what’s leading to the environment that could lead to violence.”

I spoke with a G.O.P. strategist in Georgia, who asked not to be named, about the way that Loeffler and Perdue were handling this misinformation. The strategist told me a story about two other senators from Georgia, both Democrats, who held office decades ago. “When Sam Nunn first got to the U.S. Senate, he told Senator Herman Talmadge that he got all sorts of crazy letters from constituents talking about seeing space aliens and such,” the strategist recalled. “He asked the senior senator what to do about those. Talmadge said, ‘Sam, you answer every one of those letters. Without the nut vote, you won’t carry a county in Georgia.’ ” The Republican Party in the state is split between those who believe the election was stolen, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, who endorsed Loeffler and whom the strategist described to me as “fucking crazy,” and those who regard the allegations of theft as “absolutely bonkers,” the strategist said. He didn’t think the senators had succeeded in pleasing either side. “Loeffler and Perdue tried to feed the nuts with their attack on Raffensperger,” he said. “The nuts spit it out.”

On December 4th, I drove to Roswell, a town in the north Atlanta suburbs, to shadow canvassers with the Faith & Freedom Coalition, a conservative group founded a decade ago by the Christian lobbyist Ralph Reed. It was raining, and the canvassers, Adam Pipkin and Matthew Fuentez, tucked door hangers in the pockets of their coats as they trudged up steep driveways. We were in an area that leans only slightly Republican; Ossoff-Warnock yard signs outnumbered Loeffler-Perdue signs, although Trump signs outnumbered them all. Pipkin, a genial man in his late thirties and F.F.C.’s state director, drove his F-150 between groupings of target homes. He and Fuentez, a thirty-one-year-old who lost his job earlier this year and was door-knocking part-time, used an app that listed addresses worth approaching. Not all of them belonged to Republicans. “You may have a Dem on here that’s pro-life,” Pipkin said. “That’s why it’s telling us to go there.” He added, “I think we’re hitting more independents than anybody else.”

Seven hundred F.F.C. team members had descended on Georgia, Pipkin said. They were not telling people how to vote, he assured me. But the candidate-comparison charts that they handed out, with such headings as “abortion on demand” and “Confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett,” made their preferences clear, even if “Hi, I’m a canvasser with Faith & Freedom” did not. At one point, Pipkin and Fuentez optimistically approached a woman who had a Warnock-Ossoff sign in her yard. (Her house was not on their list.) Hearing the name of the group, the woman said, “That could be . . . for Warnock?” When she learned that it wasn’t, she tried to give Fuentez some literature of her own.

Tim Head, F.F.C.’s executive director, is a Texan who did missionary work in Asia and Europe before becoming a policy adviser to legislators in his home state. He trailed Pipkin and Fuentez in a red S.U.V. The organization had “four hundred people knocking on doors every single day in Georgia already,” he told me. By January, he said, “we might literally have a thousand people on the streets knocking.” Head described Trump’s focus on election fraud as a “quandary,” but sounded a hopeful note. “I think that his tone and his specific message is actually in the process of slightly moderating,” he said. “Instead of calling into question the veracity of the process, he’s actually going to start engaging people again to engage in the process.” Trump would soon make his first visit to Georgia in support of the campaigns, and Head believed he would visit once more before they were over. “He needs to do it,” he said. “And he will. He’s going to want to have Loeffler’s support, and her super PAC’s support, in two or three years.”

Tim Head, the executive director of the conservative Faith & Freedom Coalition.Photograph by Lynsey Weatherspoon for The New Yorker

Head was confident that Perdue would beat Ossoff. “Based on voting lists and turnout in November, he should win by three points,” he said. (The polls—which, in recent years, have been more accurate in Georgia than in many states—show two tight races, in keeping with November’s results.) He had his doubts about Loeffler, though, and he fretted about the effect that Lin Wood and other conspiracists might have on turnout. “If twenty thousand Republicans in the state of Georgia sit at home and say, ‘I don’t believe in the system,’ or ‘I’m tired of Kemp and Raffensperger,’ that’s enough for Loeffler to lose,” he said. (A few days later, Debbie Dooley tweeted, “GA voters should vote for Perdue but not vote for Kemp’s appointee Loeffler in protest of Kemp being a traitor.”) “Lin Wood’s rhetoric could almost single-handedly move half a per cent, which could shift the outcome in the Loeffler race,” he said.

Pipkin and Fuentez told me that only a few of the people they’d met while canvassing had brought up the claims of election fraud. One person had said, “I just don’t see the point of voting anymore,” Fuentez told me. “I just say, it’s gonna come down to the wire—we need your vote,” he said.



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