DALTON, Ga.-“I don’t do rallies for other people,” President Donald Trump told a rally Monday night nominally in support of two Republican Senate candidates. “I do them for me.”
If that wasn’t already clear, Trump went on to spend the vast bulk of his speech focused not on the campaigns of Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who would face voters Tuesday in a run-off election that will determine who controls the Senate, but on his own defeat in the election in November. Specifically, he spent most of his speech insisting that he hadn’t actually lost.
“The fact is we won the presidential election, we won it big,” he said. “The Democrats are trying to steal the election.”
And like your least favourite uncle on Facebook, he then spent a long time promoting an exhaustive list of thoroughly debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud. It was the VIP grievance treatment Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger had privately received on Saturday, extended publicly to a more a receptive audience on Monday.
It was a cold night, by Georgia standards. Chilly enough that many of those who had waited for hours in the cold to hear the outgoing president wore toques and gloves – though few wore COVID masks – at the outdoor municipal airport. The crowd wasn’t complaining. This may be Trump’s last major rally as president, and the crowd who bussed and hiked in to see it were there for the president, more so than for the Senate candidates. The biggest cheer Loeffler got was when she announced from the stage that she’d oppose receiving the Electoral College votes in the Senate as part of Trumpís no-hope attempt to overturn the election results in congress.
“Fight for Trump! Fight for Trump!” the crowd chanted.
“It should be “Fight for America,” Trump said, in what would count as a rare moment of humility – if you didn’t already have the sense that he deeply believes his interests and the country’s are the same thing.
You can imagine a parallel universe in which an event like this, two weeks before a successor is inaugurated, is a great swan song for an outgoing president. A chance to list accomplishments, thank supporters, and rally them to vote for the party in the still-alive Senate run-off in order to keep the hope, and the legacy alive.
Indeed, perhaps surprisingly, that is the speech Donald Trump Jr. gave. Mugging like a professional wrestler and riffing like a standup comic, the president’s son implored those who supported Trump’s agenda to vote for the Republican Senate candidates as a last line of defence against the whims of a Biden presidency. He suggested the idea of sitting out the election as revenge against the “rigged” process they believe cost his father the election – as some Trump supporters have suggested and one billboard on I-75 urged Georgians to do – was the stupidest idea ever heard in politics.
Yet when his father took the stage, revenge was very much on his mind. President Trump took his traditional digs at Democrats (inspiring one more “Lock her up” chant for the road with his imagining Hillary Clinton whining because no one cheated on her behalf) and Sen. Mitt Romney, but he drew bigger cheers when he vowed to come back to Georgia in two years to campaign against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for not supporting his efforts to discredit the election in Georgia. He expressed his anger at the Supreme Court for its gall in refusing to take up his case. He singled out Republican Sen. Mike Lee in the audience as a target of his anger, imploring him to do as Loeffler had done and join his quixotic attempt to undermine democracy.
And he hinted that his opinion of Vice-President Mike Pence might hinge on whether Pence obstructed Congress from accepting the Electoral College vote on Wednesday. “I hope Mike Pence comes through for us. I have to tell you. I hope that our great vice-president comes through for us. He’s a great guy. Of course, if he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much.”
It was a joke. But like so many of Trump’s jokes, it was meant to be funny because it was true. The White House lawn is littered with the pink slips of those who “didn’t come through” when Trump needed a democratic norm shattered on his behalf.
All of which might be a simple historical footnote – a weird coda to a weird presidency – except that it raises the question of what exactly Trump is planning to do in the coming weeks to try to hold onto the White House, as he insisted again and again in the speech he would. His call with Raffensperger, his suggestions about Pence, the fact that all the former secretaries of defence felt the need this week to come out to pre-emptively oppose military intervention in the election.
And the fact that, though his odds of succeeding seem non-existent, those assembled to hear him speak here and millions more across the country believe he did rightfully win the election and should hold power by any means necessary.
One man in the crowd shouted that it was time for a civil war. Another woman told a news crew earlier in the day she expected to attend Trump’s inauguration in Washington on Jan. 20. “Fight for Trump!” they chanted as giant flags hanging from cranes waved above the Marine One helicopter behind the podium.
“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.”
Edward Keenan is a National Affairs writer.