Republicans have a standard recipe for winning elections: They preach law and order, and they smear their opponents as anarchists. That message worked for them in 2020, and it’s central to their final push of the year: the campaign to hold Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats, which, in a runoff election on Jan. 5, will determine control of the upper chamber. But President Donald Trump’s defeat, and the refusal of his supporters to accept that result, have turned the Republican narrative on its head. The anarchists aren’t on the left anymore. They’re on the right.
The new anarchists don’t smash windows or loot stores. They scream “Stop the Steal.” Hundreds of them gathered in Atlanta on Saturday to demand the overthrow of the incoming Joe Biden administration. They claimed that Trump won Georgia (he didn’t) and that Democrats, by “stealing in every way you can imagine”—fabricating ballots, impersonating voters, digitally manipulating the tally—had rigged the outcome. (All these fantasies have been debunked.) They threatened to purge the state’s “traitor” Republicans—Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger—for refusing to triple-investigate and block certification of the results.
The new anarchists pretend to support law enforcement. But when the law doesn’t go their way, they threaten violence. “Victory or death!” the crowd in Atlanta chanted. One speaker at the rally vowed to “fight for Donald Trump until our last dying breath.” Another warned, “If they seat an illegitimate government, we’ll remove them.” A third said Trump would stay in power because “the Deep State doesn’t have the military on their side.” When police asked the rally’s leaders to finish up and end the event—after letting them rant for two hours without a permit—a speaker shouted at the cops: “We backed the blue. Thank you for nothing!”
These insurrectionists—not antifa or Black Lives Matter, which the right accuses of destroying the country—are the new threat to America. They’re talking about tearing down our democracy, with emphatic support from the president and his allies. Trump made that support clear after the Atlanta rally, by endorsing it and posting a link to the livestream. “Big Rallies all over the Country,” he tweeted. “This was a LANDSLIDE!”
Trump and his cronies have been sowing lawlessness in Georgia since the beginning of the year. In January, his operatives tried to get Raffensperger to co-chair the president’s campaign in the state. Raffensperger declined, arguing that it would be improper, since he was overseeing the election. That prompted a warning from Trump’s emissary: “We’ll see how helpful you are in November.”
November arrived, and Georgia began to count its ballots. Trump’s initial lead dwindled, and Raffensperger refused to intervene. So the president’s allies attacked. On Nov. 5, Donald Trump Jr. went to Atlanta to lead a “Stop the Steal” rally. He accused Democrats of “cheating” and declared that his father would “fight each and every one of these battles to the death.” Another speaker at the rally, Rep. Doug Collins, demanded that Georgia’s attorney general investigate the election. State Rep. Vernon Jones, a featured speaker at this year’s Republican National Convention, told the crowd, “We’re getting ready to start shooting.”
On Nov. 11, Raffensperger announced that his office would audit the results but that he saw no evidence of systemic fraud. That wasn’t good enough for Trump and his goons. Sen. Lindsey Graham got Raffensperger on the phone and, according to witnesses, suggested that Raffensperger could “throw out the ballots”—all the ballots—from counties with the highest rates of mismatched signatures, no matter how low those rates were. (The signature on each absentee ballot envelope has to match the voter’s prior signatures, including the signature on the ballot application.) Graham’s idea made no sense legally or morally. But it made sense mathematically, as a way to nullify enough Biden votes to award the state to Trump. When Raffensperger rebuffed the idea, Trump attacked him on Twitter. “Georgia Secretary of State, a so-called Republican (RINO), won’t let the people checking the ballots see the signatures for fraud,” the president tweeted. “Everyone knows that we won the state.” Trump said Democrats “knew they were going to cheat,” and he demanded that Kemp intervene on his behalf.
As Raffensperger and other Georgia election officials received death threats, Trump turned up the heat. He pressured Kemp to scrutinize and invalidate voter signatures so the state would “flip Republican.” Vice President Mike Pence flew to Georgia, where he told rally crowds that “our election contests continue” and “this president will never stop fighting.” As MAGA zealots chanted “Four more years” and “Stop the steal,” Pence smiled and nodded. Sidney Powell, a lawyer working with the Trump campaign, said Kemp and Raffensperger were “in on” a scam to steal the election from the president. She called Georgia “the first state I’m going to blow up.”
The Republican senators running for reelection on Jan. 5, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, could have defended the rule of law. Instead, they joined the insurrection. On Nov. 9, they challenged the honesty of the election and demanded Raffensperger’s resignation. Perdue said Democrats couldn’t win the state legitimately: “They know [that] to win in this runoff, they’ve got to do something illegal.” On Monday, he repeated his call to oust Raffensperger and told a crowd, “We’re calling for lawsuits right now.” Loeffler, in a series of Fox News appearances, issued the same demands and referred, without evidence, to “election fraud.”
Much of the “fraud” demagoguery has targeted Latinos. In the last two weeks, Perdue has repeatedly alleged that Democrats “want illegal immigrants to vote.” At a campaign rally on Monday, he falsely accused Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor, of saying that she intended to win the state with the help of “undocumented voters.” (Abrams actually said that Democrats should represent “those who are … undocumented,” not that people without documentation should vote.) At the Saturday rally, one speaker put the ethnic angle more bluntly: “The only votes that should count are American votes! No habla ingles? Then I.C.E.!” The crowded laughed and cheered.
Three weeks after the election, Trump continues to insist that it was “stolen” and a “hoax.” He refuses to concede, retweets appeals for military intervention, and demands that Georgia’s election officials step in to help Perdue and Loeffler. “He’s the political equivalent of a street rioter,” says the president’s former national security adviser, John Bolton. But this rioter controls a party that, for the next two years, will hold at least 50 seats in the United States Senate. It shouldn’t be trusted with two more.