The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A surreal, submerged, conspiratorial, Trump-centered political universe still thrives

Supporters applaud Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) at an “America First” rally on May 27 in Dalton, Ga. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)
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For more than five years, the rallies never stopped. It was a rally in Phoenix in July 2015 that elevated Donald Trump’s presidential campaign into real contention. Trump’s rallies over the next 16 months became cultural events, manifestations of the undercurrent of support that ended up tipping the scales that November. Even after Trump won, the rallies continued; less than a month after the election was called, Trump was back speaking before adoring audiences.

Over the course of his presidency and even during the coronavirus pandemic, Trump kept holding rallies. To the very last day he was president, Trump was rallying his supporters. That last rally, held as he left Washington on Jan. 20, was muted, overshadowed by President Biden’s imminent arrival. It was also muted by the events that surrounded Trump’s second-to-last rally — the one that preceded and stoked the violence that occurred at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Rallies were central to Trump’s politics and political identity. They served as a nexus for a variety of Trump-adjacent universes, from supporting other Republican candidates for office to offering a visibility platform for the dangerous and deluded QAnon conspiracy theory. In the summer of 2018, QAnon stepped from the Internet to the real world thanks to advocates holding signs and wearing shirts at Trump rallies; by the time Trump’s team began clamping down on those tactics, the damage was done.

Trump’s rally habit slowed after he lost the 2020 election, allowing his acolytes and other opportunists to fill the void with rallies largely aimed at promoting the false claim that he had actually won. Trump encouraged this franchising of his political energy, given that it shared his goal of somehow restoring him to power. The Jan. 6 rally he attended wasn’t his own. It was, instead, a third-party effort co-opted by Trump.

That reinforced a pattern, though, in which even nonofficial pro-Trump rallies were seen as legitimate. The MAGA rallyverse was shown to be expansive and the energy of the supporters more malleable than might have been expected. So with Trump receding to Mar-a-Lago since January, others have worked to fill the void.

The most prominent effort to co-opt the Trump rally vibe has come from Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), both fervent Trump supporters who can claim to have been blessed by the former president. The pair have held a series of rallies (despite the obvious shakiness of Gaetz’s political position) that echo Trump’s rallies in branding (“America First”), aesthetics and energy.

The rallies are also loosely aimed at the same falsehood that Trump has worked to promote since his ouster: that he didn’t lose last year. At a large retirement community in Florida early last month, Gaetz and Greene encouraged the audience to recognize Trump as the legitimate president, which he isn’t. Another stop on their slapdash tour landed them in Arizona to promote the bizarre and tainted election review effort being conducted on behalf of some Republicans in the state. It’s not just that they’re leveraging Trump’s style; they’re leveraging the new energy of the Trump movement, energy centered on wild and obviously untrue claims about the election.

Compared with other efforts to leverage that energy, the Gaetz-Greene efforts are refreshingly rooted in some version of reality. Over the weekend, multiple other events held to rally the Trump base were distinctly constrained in that way.

In Florida, a group called Women Fighting for America (WFFA) held a “Patriot’s Day” rally attended by a rogue’s gallery of conspiracy theorists and Trump loyalists. The headliner was longtime Trump ally Roger Stone, who was convicted of obstructing a congressional investigation before being pardoned by Trump. Receiving secondary billing: Patrick Byrne, a tech executive who worked his way into Trump’s inner circle apparently by virtue of promoting the false claims about the election, and Simone Gold, a doctor who has promoted conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and who was arrested as part of the Capitol riot. Other speakers included a who’s who of Trump-adjacent names, such as former Twitter enthusiast Bill Mitchell and Maurice Symonette, who became famous for attending Trump rallies, standing behind him holding a sign reading “Blacks for Trump.”

To sponsor the WFFA rally, held at a fairgrounds (touted by organizers as a “new larger location”), one could spend anywhere from $1,000 to $35,000. That, of course, is a key part of the point: leveraging the Trumpworld energy for some cash. Greene and Gaetz weren’t touring the country just for kicks or attention. They were also raising campaign cash, something Greene has had little trouble doing since emerging as the country’s leading elected conspiracy theorist earlier this year.

Then there was the rally/event in Texas. It was organized by QAnon adherents and included QAnon-specific branding as part of its look and feel. (The logo features a cowboy hat with “WWG1WGA” on its band, a reference to the QAnon slogan, “Where we go one we go all.”) But thematically, there wasn’t much different than what happened in Florida with Gaetz and Greene or later with the WFFA rally. The QAnon rally — the For God & Country Patriot Roundup — was also centered on “patriotism” that manifested as a defense of Trump’s claims that the election was stolen. The only difference was in scale: The Texas rally obviously went much further into the conspiratorial rabbit holes than the others.

Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn made the most headlines from the event by endorsing the idea that the country “should” have a coup like the one in Myanmar that deposed that country’s elected leader. (Flynn later tried to walk this back, unsuccessfully.)

But Flynn wasn’t the only one making extreme claims. Former Trump attorney Sidney Powell — whose claims about election fraud were so laughably ridiculous that Trump booted her from his legal team and her own attorneys later admitted that no reasonable person would believe them — claimed that there was some unnamed process by which Trump might be returned to power.

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.) also spoke at the event, downplaying the Jan. 6 violence. (His office tried to claim that he had not attended, according to a local reporter.) Flynn, meanwhile, also helped auction off a Q-emblazoned quilt at the Texas rally, one that organizers said would be signed by Lin Wood, a Powell-esque legal ally of Trump’s, and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO whose forays into election investigation have proved more than a little eccentric.

What’s important to recognize about all of this is how it all overlaps. There’s a line from Matt Gaetz to Sidney Powell and from Gohmert to Simone Gold. It’s this big soup of conspiracy and opportunism and attention-seeking and fundraising and falsehoods.

And at the center, as always is Trump. Maybe he’s not directly involved in all of this, but it revolves around him and clearly has some sort of at least informal blessing from him. Trump wants very much to believe that Powell is right and that he might somehow become president again. The New York Times’s Maggie Haberman reports that he has been telling people he will somehow be returned to the White House by August, a time frame that Lindell has championed.

It’s easy to dismiss all this as a grift, which, to a significant extent, it is. But it’s also a mass delusion reflected in polling that shows most Republicans think Trump didn’t actually lose the election and that millions of people think QAnon theories have legitimacy. Just as people waved away Trump’s rallies in 2015 as some bizarre subset of the political universe that bore no connection to any actual power or electoral significance, people now wave away Flynn’s weirdness or Gohmert’s assertions or Greene’s ability to raise money as aberrant.

We probably shouldn’t.