In this edition: The president's election-rejection tour, the wild charges being made in Georgia's Senate races, and the final election of 2020.

I am proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free, and this is The Trailer.

VALDOSTA, Ga. — Within seconds of taking the stage at his rally here Saturday night, President Trump falsely claimed that he’d “won Georgia.” Before he walked back to Air Force One, he’d played a video compilation of fraud claims, welcomed chants of “stop the steal,” urged a political ally to run against Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, and repeatedly urged legislators and courts to throw out the victory of President-elect Joe Biden.

“They cheated and they rigged our presidential election, but we will still win it,” Trump said. “We’ll still win it. And they’re going to try and rig this election, too.”

Trump’s first real campaign event since the end of the presidential election taped together two political scripts — one that the Republican Party wanted him to deliver, and one that it couldn’t stop him from delivering. He praised Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, described their Democratic opponents as “communists,” and warned that runoff defeats next month would let the far left dismantle America as they knew it.

But Trump spent more time on his own race, fueling Republicans' doubts about the presidential election. The Georgia rally strengthened a feedback loop between the president, his supporters and pro-Trump media outlets that have gained viewers as they've aired conspiracy theories about the Nov. 3 vote. In several dozen interviews over the past few days, at two Republican rallies and around a party-backed hearing on fraud accusations, not a single Trump supporter said Biden would take office on Jan. 20. 

Some of the president's voters said the outcome was up to God. Some expected a friendly court to side with Trump’s campaign and toss ballots and results from key Biden-won states. All of them said a defeat for a candidate who held massive rallies, by a candidate who in their view barely campaigned, defied logic and their personal experiences.

“How did Joe Biden get more votes, supposedly, than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton?” asked Bob Dinius, 52, who had driven 12 hours from Indiana to support the president and who'd personally registered dozens of Trump voters. “They actually worked for their elections. He just stayed in his basement. It makes you wonder: Did they really even work for those votes?”

Dinius wasn't the only Trump supporter who'd trekked to Georgia for the rally. Other attendees came from as close as the Florida Panhandle and as far away as California. On Saturday, and at a Friday rally with Vice President Pence, a dozen or so Chinese American activists from New York arrived in cars bearing anti-communist slogans, handing out anti-communist face masks (“END CCP,” a reference to the Chinese Communist Party), and collected signatures on anti-communist petitions. 

It was jarring, but it blended in. The baseless idea that the CCP had rigged the 2020 election to oust Trump had been percolating in pro-Trump media ever since the election and been advanced by attorney Sidney Powell, who had been pushed away from the official Trump operation but continued to file lawsuits alleging a conspiracy to put Biden in office for the benefit of China and Iran. A pre-election memo from the intelligence community said that China would “prefer” a Biden win and Iran might use social media to sway votes but not that either could meddle with election integrity. 

Democrats, baffled but unsurprised by Trump's refusal to concede, have hoped that Republican anger could lead some Georgia conservatives to stay home when Senate control is on the line Jan. 5. Perdue and Loeffler faced chants of “fight for Trump,” after they barely discussed the fraud allegations in their short speeches in Valdosta. (“We're gonna fight to make sure you get a fair square deal in the state of Georgia,” Perdue said.) At Friday's rally with Pence, Rep. Earl L. “Buddy” Carter said he'd been talking down Republicans who worried that the runoff would be stolen.

“I’ve heard many of you ask me: ‘Well, why should I vote? It’s rigged,’ ” Carter said onstage. “You have to get out. The president is out there, making sure this was a transparent and honest election.” 

Trump's rally was designed to smother any concerns about Republican enthusiasm, and in interviews voters tended to rationalize them. Although pro-Trump attorney L. Lin Wood had urged conservatives to boycott the runoffs, some of them interpreted that as hyperbole, designed to keep pressure on the state's election officials. There's precedent for that. Democrats had gone through their own agonies two years ago: They blamed voter roll purges, long lines in precincts with large Black populations, and disqualified absentee ballots for the defeat of gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, then they buckled down to win the next elections.

“The way I hear Lin Wood, who I respect, he was talking about what we should threaten to do unless they fix this system,” said Don Gentile, 74, a Georgian who came to see Trump in Valdosta.

The trouble for Republicans has been that their party is in full command of Georgia's electoral system, and it handled the Nov. 3 election with only minor problems, only to be subsumed by allegations of fraud and vote theft. Perdue and Loeffler had called for Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to resign, and Republicans watching Biden's win get certified again and again asked why state legislators had not stopped that.

“We all need to start mailing representatives calcium pills so they can find their backbones,” said Lea Payne, 40, who'd driven up to the rally from Florida. (In Georgia, state legislators have no role in selecting electors, and state GOP leaders have rejected calls for a special session for a legally dubious effort to change the rules.)

Voters were offered free copies of the Epoch Times, a Falun Gong-funded newspaper that offers devoutly pro-Trump news and covers the presidential election as if the results are still uncertain. They were approached for interviews by the Falun Gong-funded New Tang Dynasty Television and Sound of Hope radio network, which shared that editorial line.

Once inside, Trump voters faced the cameras, and met the celebrities, of other pro-Trump networks. Anchors for Right Side Broadcasting, One America News and America’s Voice were quickly recognized in the crowd, and high-profile Trump supporters zipped between them. The surrogates took the same line as those networks: Trump could, and probably would, take the election back from Biden.

“If you pull down Georgia, Pennsylvania and crooked Nevada, nobody has 270,” MyPillow founder Mike Lindell told Right Side Broadcasting, urging Kemp to get the Nov. 3 results invalidated. “Then it goes to the December 14 vote, and then Donald Trump wins the election.”

Commentary and coverage like that has drawn hundreds of thousands of Trump supporters to these outlets and given them a role in the “stop the steal” protests and legislative hearings to air fraud allegations that haven't survived legal scrutiny. On Thursday, One America News and the Epoch Times were among the only outlets with access to Georgia's election hearing; on Saturday, Trump and the crowd watched a compilation of Newsmax and OAN clips on the rally's giant screen. One clip claimed that a video of cartons being moved from under a counting room's table showed election fraud and that a truck driver who'd dabbled in ghost-hunting had proof of fraudulent ballots being delivered to Pennsylvania.

Holding out hope of a miracle comeback has helped Trump and Republicans raise more than $250 million since Election Day, as the president noted from the rally stage. The pro-Trump media's coverage has covered each rumor or allegation as something worth taking seriously. Scott Presler, a 32-year-old activist with more than 900,000 Twitter followers, said that the alternative media had helped fuel the “stop the steal” protests. If Trump supporters had watched the skeptical coverage of networks such as Fox News, which have relegated the fraud allegations to a few opinion-side shows, they wouldn't have been activated.

“I don't think people would be showing up at hearings at the Capitol buildings without this,” Presler said. “Ultimately, I think that there would be a veil over our eyes, and a lot of people would be less outraged because they wouldn't know what to be outraged about. Ultimately, I think it strengthens our democracy to have multiple sources of information.”

For all of Trump's brio onstage and on social media, he had been winless in his attempts to get a state to throw out a Biden win. Every time he mentioned what Democrats would do with total control of Washington, he hinted that Biden would assume the presidency. But every action he'd taken discouraged his supporters from imagining that day, or picturing the Democrat putting his hand on the Bible to be sworn in. Asked what would happen that day, some Trump voters had no answer. Some were ready to resist what, they were told, could be an all-out assault on their freedoms. He recalled a quote attributed to a Japanese general, in 1941, about how any attempt to invade America would find rebels behind every tree and blade of grass.

“It ain't going to be pretty,” Gentile said. “We're fixing to get our stuff and stand behind our blade of grass.” 

Reading list

The wider scene from Valdosta.

Talking Republicans back into voting.

The resistance to admitting defeat, or crossing Trump.

The cost of the legal challenges.

Surprises in the Trump operation's FEC report.

A deep look at what Americans chose to believe over the past few years.

On the trail

VALDOSTA, Ga. — “Save America” is the name of the PAC created by President Trump after his election defeat last month. The slogan appeared on signs handed out at Saturday night's rally with both Republican Senate candidates, which was fitting: Both candidates and the Georgia GOP had been using it for weeks, inverting Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer's pledge to revelers in New York that winning Georgia would help them “change America.”

The din of the presidential contest, and Perdue and Loeffer's awkward attempts to channel the president's anger at state Republican officials, has sometimes obscured the rhetoric and dynamics of the Senate race. That's despite a full-tilt, turned-up-to-11 conservative campaign, which portrays the race as literally the last chance to rescue the country from socialism. 

As Democratic nominees Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock campaign for a few ambitious deliverables — an updated Voting Rights Act, a new round of stimulus — Republicans describe them as Marxists who will defund police departments, ban private health insurance and make it impossible for conservatives to ever take power again.

“The country is counting on us,” Loeffler said in short remarks before the president arrived in Valdosta. “We are going to stop socialism in its tracks, and together we are going to save America.”

Loeffler and Warnock will face each other tonight, in the only debate expected before the runoff. (Perdue has declined to face Ossoff again, which will give the Democrat free TV time, with no opponent, earlier in the evening.) In the run-up, they've been arguing past each other in TV ads. Turn on a TV in any Georgia media market, and you're likely to see a Loeffler ad attacking Warnock for a sermon where he said people cannot serve both “God and the military,” an ad from Warnock talking about his father's military service and saying he was taken out of context, and then the Loeffler ad, again.

Both sets of campaigns are running with what they have. Republicans believe that Warnock and Ossoff, having never established themselves in elected office or had chances to break with the Democrats, can be portrayed as irredeemably far left. Democrats believe that Loeffler and Perdue are vulnerable on corruption. At a Thursday rally in the Atlanta suburbs, Ossoff pounced on a just-published New York Times investigation of Perdue's stock trades, telling reporters that the senator had never been truthful about his investments.

“David Perdue's defense at this point now amounts to the fact that he was not criminally indicted,” Ossoff said. “The fact that he was not prosecuted by the Department of Justice does not clear him of wrongdoing. He has been lying all year. How many reporters, how many news organizations, received indignant statements on the record from David Perdue or his spokespeople denying that he managed his own stock portfolio? Then we find out he does, in fact, order trades himself.”

Perdue, meanwhile, has portrayed Ossoff as a cipher who'll do whatever left-wing politicians tell him to do, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee calls him a “trust fund socialist.” Like Trump's attacks in Valdosta, they ignore the careful navigation that the candidate has done around his party's activists — skeptical of the Green New Deal and Medicare-for-all, opposed to “defunding the police” — and insist there's no daylight between them.

“You just have to listen to what they say,” Perdue said in Valdosta, “they” being Democrats such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. “How many of us want the Green New Deal? How many of us want to defund the police? How many of us want open borders?”

Perdue has made hay of an interview by Ocasio-Cortez where, like Schumer, she accurately stated the stakes of the race: Controlling the Senate would mean Democrats would not have to “compromise” on everything, or rely on a few Republican votes to confirm any nominee. Republicans have occasionally gone further, clipping a video of Ossoff saying that Trump allies needed to get “beaten so badly” that they could “no longer run or show [their] face in public” and splicing it with footage of violence breaking out at street protests — a pretty common tactic of the past few years, where Democratic trash-talk gets portrayed as literal calls for violence.

The Loeffler-Warnock battle is even more intense, with the Republican focusing on the most left-wing comments in his sermons to portray him as an anti-military “Marxist” who would let violent criminals out of jail. The latter accusation takes a quote Warnock delivered, specifically, about legalizing marijuana: “It’s not enough to decriminalize marijuana; somebody’s got to open up the jail cells and let our children go.” Without the first six words, the clip sounds like a call for total prison abolition, something Republicans are on safer ground discussing when they attack Warnock's opposition to cash bail.

Ossoff and Perdue are unlikely to meet in person before Jan. 5. Tonight's debate will probably be the only chance for Loeffler and Warnock to defend themselves and levy attacks before the battle returns to TV and rally speeches, delivered miles apart.

Ad watch

NRSC, “Power.” Most Republican advertising in Georgia's runoffs has portrayed the Democratic nominees as radicals, or at least as puppets for their party's most left-wing forces. “Who are you really putting into power?” a narrator asks voters, as footage of anarchist protests plays on-screen. “Nancy Pelosi, AOC and Bernie Sanders.”

Jon Ossoff, “Look.” The Democratic candidate has alternated between two themes in his race, both of them quickly recapped here: A Democratic-controlled Senate would deliver “direct relief” during the pandemic, and Sen. David Perdue was too focused on personal profit to do anything when the virus hit. “Our lives have been turned upside down, but they're doing nothing in Washington,” he says in this music-free spot.

Money watch

During his Saturday night speech in Valdosta, the president began to warn Republicans about the money flooding into Georgia to help Democrats. Then he changed course.

“You see the money these people have raised?” Trump asked. “It's very, uh — well, of course, I just raised $250 million, I should tell you. I didn't raise it, it just came in!”

That statement was almost true, but not quite. Democrats have piled up money and continue to hold an advantage in ad reservations in Georgia's two races. Trump had raised $250 million from the final week before the election through the end of November, between donations to the Republican National Committee, his presidential campaign and his new leadership PAC Save America. 

The stretch was in Trump suggesting he didn't really try to raise that money. Since the election, Trump donors have been bombarded by appeals for cash, almost always suggesting that it can make the difference in his election challenges and recount requests. On Saturday alone, Trump donors got three text messages with the president's name on them, all directing to a splash page promising to help stop “fraud.” 

It has been wildly effective, though just a fraction of the money has gone to election contests. The Trump operation has paid around $8.8 million toward that effort, including $3 million for recounts in Wisconsin (which actually added votes to Biden's lead) and $2.7 million in legal fees. An additional $2.2 million went to fundraising itself, as first reported by Bloomberg News's Bill Allison.

That has left tens of millions of dollars for other Republican causes, which weren't hurting for money anyway. As first reported by Politico's James Arkin, the Georgia Battleground Fund, a joint committee created to boost both Republicans, raised $31 million in its first three weeks of existence and has been beating its fundraising goals each week. 

In the states

The last House race of 2020 wrapped up Saturday, with Republican Luke Letlow cruising to victory in Louisiana's 5th Congressional District. A former lobbyist who served as retiring Rep. Ralph Abraham's chief of staff, Letlow clobbered state legislator Lance Harris by 24 points after a short all-Republican runoff that attracted little national money or attention.

In New Orleans, an all-Democratic race for district attorney ended with a win for Jason Williams, a defense attorney who ran as a criminal justice reformer — the latest such candidate to triumph in one of these races, a major 2020 trend. Runner-up Keva Landrum, like Williams, pledged not to pursue the death penalty. Williams not only promised to stop pursuing marijuana possession charges but to drop all of the city's current charges for that crime.

Countdown

… two days until the “safe harbor” date for states to choose electors
… eight days until the electoral college votes 
… 30 days until runoffs in Georgia 
… 45 days until the inauguration