How ‘Stop the Steal’ Captured the American Right – The New York Times

The movement to reinstate President Trump has gone far beyond him — and now threatens the future of American elections.
The protest outside the Pennsylvania Capitol on Nov. 7, 2020, the day news organizations began calling the race for president for Joe Biden.Credit…Mark Peterson/Redux, for The New York Times
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The Pennsylvania State Capitol, in Harrisburg, is a Beaux-Arts landmark that on its eastern side echoes the west terrace of the U.S. Capitol, and the scene there on Nov. 7, 2020, four days after Election Day, strikingly prefigured the one in Washington two months later. On the plaza below, more than a thousand strong, were the Donald Trump faithful, in MAGA hats and every possible variation of red, white and blue clothing, waving the banners of the campaign. “Stop the steal!” they chanted. “Stop the steal!”
That morning, as Joe Biden’s lead in the state grew to more than 30,000 votes, news organizations began calling the race for him. By noon, crowds were gathering on behalf of both candidates at the Capitol in Harrisburg. The larger, louder pro-Trump contingent included many of the same groups, and in some cases the same people, who would later be investigated for their role in the events of Jan. 6. There were men with assault-style rifles and forearm tattoos pledging allegiance to the Proud Boys and the Three Percenter antigovernment movement, and the Groypers, supporters of the young white nationalist Nick Fuentes’s America First group. There were also Republican congressmen, Scott Perry of Pennsylvania and Jim Jordan of Ohio, and members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, among them a state senator named Douglas V. Mastriano.
“This is a republic,” Mastriano declared from atop the Capitol’s terrace over a public-address system. “I know the Democrats want to play a game with our republic. They keep calling it a democracy. ‘And to the democracy for which it stands,’” he recited mockingly. “Come on, really? Come on, man!” Behind him, someone waved a large America First flag. Another rallygoer held up a sign with Mastriano’s own slogan: WALK AS FREE PEOPLE.
“It seems like it’s in their nature to lie,” he said. “Every time I turn around, there’s another lie, another excuse, another cheating.” He went on: “We’re appealing to God. We’re speaking life over the state; we’re speaking truth. Those who lied and cheated and stealed will be exposed and thrown in jail.” The crowd roared its approval.
In retrospect, the path from Harrisburg on Nov. 7 to the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 is a direct one. Harrisburg was among the first protests in what would come to be known as Stop the Steal: a series of rallies in solidarity with Trump and his claims of a stolen election, snowballing until the last of them crashed through the doors of the Capitol in a blur of bear spray and body armor. Mastriano chartered buses to take demonstrators to Washington and is visible in video footage passing by police barricades along with the mob. (He has said he did not actually enter the Capitol, and no evidence has surfaced that he did; his campaign did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
But it is also possible to see the path from Harrisburg to Washington as a small part of a much longer arc: one that began before Trump and will outlive his presidency, whether or not he tries to reclaim the office in 2024. This has become clear in the past year, as the particulars of his final perilous months in office have emerged amid the wash of reporting, documentary evidence and testimonies to the House committee investigating the events around Jan. 6. Clearer, too, is the view of what became of Stop the Steal after its climactic battle was lost.
Gone, for now, are the big rallies, with their open calls for violence and ostentatious displays of military-style kit, and many of those who organized them. Gone, too, are most of the election audits and other inquiries into the results convened by Republican-controlled state legislatures and local governments, investigations that failed to produce evidence of meaningful fraud. What is left in their place is an insistence — a belief, a lie or an act of motivated reasoning, depending on whom you’re talking to — that the election was stolen, which has fed a new wave of post-Trump activism on the right.
In 17 of the 27 states holding elections this year for secretary of state — the top elections officer in 24 states — at least one Republican candidate is running on the claim that the 2020 election was illegitimate, according to States United Action, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for free and fair elections. In four of the eight Republican primaries held so far, that candidate has won.
Scores of groups have organized at the state and local levels to conduct partisan audits of the 2020 election results, support officials and candidates who would do the same and run or volunteer for local positions that operate or monitor elections: the thousands of obscure pressure points in a system that most Republicans profess to believe was turned against them in 2020. Providing the oxygen for these efforts, and often working to connect them, are a cohort of national right-wing media figures and activists, many of them tied to the postelection efforts to stop the transfer of power.
It could properly be said to constitute a movement, but one that no longer gathers under the banner of “Stop the Steal,” preferring the good-government language of “election integrity” — though the movement has next to nothing in common with earlier efforts to shore up genuine vulnerabilities in the American election system. It is in essence a new iteration of Stop the Steal, one whose attentions have shifted from the last election to the next one, and the one beyond that.
The movement’s progress has been uneven, but it has been progress nonetheless — as exemplified by Mastriano himself. A retired Army officer, he was not even two years into his political career at the time of the Harrisburg rally. But his appearance before the Stop the Steal crowd was a preview of his ambitions: He would later announce a campaign for governor of Pennsylvania, and in May he won the Republican nomination. If he succeeds in November, he will control the state election system that he claims deprived Trump of his rightful victory in 2020. (In Pennsylvania, the equivalent position to secretary of state is appointed by the governor.)
Democrats and the remaining handful of anti-Trump Republicans — and probably Trump himself — have read this as an indication of Trump’s enduring hold on the party. But the politicians who have thrived in the new movement have not necessarily been the ones who are most unstinting in their personal devotion to Trump, but rather the ones, like Mastriano, who have placed Trump’s election claims in a context much larger than Trump himself. If the quest to overturn the election was the central fact of Mastriano’s political ascent, the ascent itself happened because Mastriano told a story about politics in which the supposed theft of the election was proof of a dispossession that went beyond Trump.
The language of Mastriano’s speech at Harrisburg, and his speeches since, reflect the partitioning of American politics over the past decade and a half. They are full of references that are often opaque to anyone outside the base but immediately significant to anyone within it. The insistence on America as a “republic” but not a “democracy” is a tendentious reading of James Madison popularized by the John Birch Society, the conspiratorial anti-communist organization — a justification for governing the country according to conservative values and policy prerogatives, even when the numerical majority of its people did not vote for them. “Speaking life” is contemporary evangelical parlance, which infuses the efforts to overturn the election at every level; it means to speak positively over something in accordance with God’s word. The liars, the cheaters, their exposure and imprisonment? That, of course, comes from the Book of Trump.
History, faith, crime, retribution: These are the rudiments of a new strain of Republican politics, shaped by the last year of Trump’s presidency — the second impeachment trial, the coronavirus pandemic, the campaign — but destined to extend far beyond it.
Since Biden took office, pollsters have found with remarkable consistency that only about one-fifth to one-quarter of the Republican electorate considers his presidency legitimate. Republicans will point out that this is not entirely unprecedented; in 2018, Gallup pollsters found that 78 percent of Democrats believed that Russia changed the outcome of the 2016 election. Those views were formed, however, amid an investigation into the matter by Trump’s own Justice Department and warnings from even Republican state election officials about Russian interference. What is striking about the movement around the supposed theft of the 2020 election, by contrast, is how much of it — the ideas, and rhetoric, and even the people involved in it — predated Trump’s presidency, and in some cases even his candidacy; how much of it, indeed, was in place in the earliest days of the presidency that preceded his.
Shortly before Inauguration Day in 2009, Amy Kremer, a flight attendant turned blogger in the Atlanta suburbs, published an anguished post with the headline “Congress Certifies the Electoral College Vote.” “Several months ago, I had hope that this would all come to light and someone would have the balls to object to certifying the vote,” Kremer wrote. Congress, she insisted, was “aware of the lawsuits” challenging the legitimacy of the incoming president. “All of our Senators and Representatives,” she wrote, “are more concerned with their own agendas and political careers than they are with doing the job of representing the constituents that sent them to Washington in the first place!”
Barack Obama had just won the election by a popular-vote margin of more than 9.5 million. The lawsuits Kremer alluded to were not about these votes but about Obama’s eligibility to run for the presidency in the first place. Several legal complaints filed in state and federal court (all of them dismissed) asserted that Obama was not born in the United States and was thus barred from seeking the presidency — a false claim that, as late as the end of Obama’s presidency, 41 percent of Republicans said they believed.
In the months after she wrote the blog post, Kremer would emerge as an early leader of the Tea Party movement. Seven years later, she would surface again as an organizer of an early super PAC aligned with Donald Trump, and during his presidency, she would present him as the direct heir of the Tea Party. Leading a later group called Women for America First, she was a principal organizer of the Jan. 6 rally at the Ellipse that preceded the attack on the Capitol. “I come from the Tea Party movement, and I’m asked all the time: What happened to the Tea Party?” Kremer told the crowd. “Well, we’re still here. We just grew and morphed into something bigger and better — the MAGA movement.”
The echoes from the earliest days of the Tea Party are instructive. The movement’s advent in early 2009 quickly piqued the interest of Theda Skocpol, a Harvard political scientist who has studied grass-roots organizing for decades, and Vanessa Williamson, her graduate student. In its profusion of local groups, its library public-room conclaves, the Tea Party harked back to a kind of civic activism that had gone largely dormant in American politics. Skocpol and Williamson began attending Tea Party meetings in several states and interviewing dozens of participants.
The movement arrived at a moment of crisis for the Republican Party. Its elites, and many of their foreign and domestic policies, had been battered by the unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration; voters had broadly turned against the party at the national level, and even its own base seemed demoralized. The Tea Party, arising in the first days of Obama’s presidency, offered the promise of reinvigoration, and almost immediately an array of well-funded conservative and libertarian organizations — Americans for Prosperity, FreedomWorks — backed by major donors and staffed by Beltway Republican lifers jumped on its bandwagon. With their own priorities in mind, they tried to cast it as a people’s uprising on behalf of well-established conservative fiscal objectives: austerity in budgeting, the rollback of entitlement programs and the reduction of taxes.
But in their 2012 book, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Skocpol and Williamson argued that most of these views were not what drove the grass-roots activists. These activists represented the Tea Party’s novel contribution to politics — what distinguished it from the professional, top-down organizing that had dominated liberal and conservative activism for half a century, and its real source of political strength. They were overwhelmingly white baby boomers and retirees who were relatively well educated, disproportionately evangelical and only occasionally direct casualties of the financial crisis that had, in the popular understanding of the Tea Party, prompted the movement. Though they made common cause with the political professionals’ tax-cutting agenda, their concerns were otherwise less economic than social and cultural.
“As a general rule, the participants in the Tea Party seemed like sweet grandmotherly and grandfatherly types who had watched an awful lot of Fox News,” Williamson, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me. Their specific preoccupations varied, but they boiled down to a profound pessimism about the future of the country, a sense that it was imperiled by the left, the young and the nonwhite. Local organizers and activists were often quick to distance themselves from the most baldly racist derisions of Obama. Far more common, and openly sanctioned, were anti-immigrant sentiments and Islamophobia, which informed not only the conspiracy theories about Obama but also the panic about the supposed threat of Shariah law being imposed across the country and the plans to construct an Islamic cultural center near ground zero in Manhattan.
Two particular themes of the Tea Party’s politics struck Williamson at the time and loomed larger to her after the 2020 election. One was the conspiracism that characterized the views of many grass-roots Tea Partyers, despite the best efforts of the more mainstream-oriented leaders. It drew from a wide range of sources: vintage ones like the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign — alumni of both often turned up in Tea Party meetings — and newer strains like Alex Jones’s Infowars media empire and the wild-eyed quest for Obama’s “long-form” birth certificate. Where those sources met was in a narrative of dispossession in which true Americans were losing their country to actors from outside the proper bounds of public life. This was the other big theme: “the idea,” Williamson told me, “that a substantial part of the American public were not legitimate actors in American politics.”
This idea reached its purest expression in the conspiracy theories about Obama, whose presidency was so unsquarable with what the Tea Partyers believed to be the true nature of America that to some it seemed, ipso facto, to represent a crime. Even those who in interviews did not espouse conspiracy theories like the birth-certificate claim confided to Skocpol and Williamson an uneasiness about the new president that went beyond normal partisanship. “I think that he’s actually not what he seems to be,” one Virginia Tea Partyer told them. Several interviewees told them that Obama planned to give amnesty to illegal immigrants in order to secure 10 million extra votes for his re-election — enough to allow him to “continue to ignore the interests of real Americans,” Skocpol and Williamson wrote.
Not all Tea Partyers claimed that Obama had actively defrauded the electoral system. But even those who distanced themselves from the most overtly conspiratorial claims often argued that he had revealed the system’s vulnerability. The nation was imperiled by “the cult of multiculturalism, aided by leftist liberals all over, who don’t have the same ideas about America as we do,” Tom Tancredo, a former Republican congressman from Colorado and a star of the new movement, declared at the first Tea Party convention in Nashville in early 2010. “People who couldn’t even spell the word ‘vote,’ or say it in English, put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House.” He went on: “This is our country. Let’s take it back.”
Trump’s 2016 campaign marked the moment that the Tea Party’s intimations of illegitimacy were converted into a leading presidential candidate’s political strategy. Trump rode into politics during the Obama years on the birth-certificate conspiracy theory and the uproar over the Islamic cultural center in Manhattan, and from the moment he descended the escalator at Trump Tower, he offered the 2016 Republican field’s fullest expression of the cultural-pessimist id of the movement. When the Monmouth University Polling Institute released the results of its first regular tracking poll conducted after Trump’s announcement, it showed that his favorability ratings among self-identified Tea Party voters had jumped 65 points from the month before.
Among the eclectic cast of characters that attached itself to Trump’s campaign was the veteran Republican operative Roger Stone, a longtime Trump associate and legend of the darker arts of American politics. When the 2000 presidential contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore came down to a disputed recount in Florida, Stone would claim a central role in assembling the “Brooks Brothers riot”: a protest organized by the Bush campaign at a Miami-Dade County elections office, where young Republican operatives chanted, “Stop the fraud!”
Stone seems to have coined the phrase “Stop the Steal” — not in 2020, but in 2016. The URL www.stopthesteal.org was registered on Feb. 24 of that year — the day after the Nevada Republican caucuses, and the approximate moment when it began to sink in that Trump could actually win the nomination. After a loss to Ted Cruz in Iowa (which Trump claimed, baselessly, was fraudulent), he scored clear victories in the next two primaries. His lead lengthened in March, though Cruz did manage to eke out a few more wins that month — at which point remarkable claims began appearing on stopthesteal.org.
By now the site was playing host to something called the Trump Ballot Security Project. It featured little more than a picture of Trump, a toll-free number and some vague allegations about voting irregularities in the recent primary elections: 600 complaints in six counties in Texas, 300 in Oklahoma, more in Kansas and Maine. “The political establishment will stop at nothing to stop Trump,” it warned. A fund-raising button facilitated donations to the Committee to Restore America’s Greatness — a political-action committee that Stone registered in October 2015 after his exit from the Trump campaign.
To the political class, it seemed an obvious stunt. PolitiFact tried and failed to corroborate even one of the claims with any state election authority, party official or news report. Stone declined to substantiate them himself. (He did not respond to several requests for comment for this article.) None of it seemed of much consequence until April, when Ted Cruz swept the Colorado caucuses.
Days after the state Republican convention, a couple of hundred people assembled on the steps of the State Capitol in Denver. “Stop the steal!” they chanted. “Stop the steal!” They had assembled to protest the process by which the caucuses had allotted delegates to Cruz, demanding that the state party hold a new straw poll.
Watching videos of the demonstration now is like watching a dress rehearsal for the events of four years later. Rallygoers waved a Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and sported Infowars apparel. A man in camouflage pants held up a hand-lettered sign with an apocryphal Thomas Jefferson quotation: WHEN TYRANNY BECOMES LAW, REBELLION BECOMES DUTY. The crowd chanted in call and response: “Do you want your freedom back?”
Yes!
“Was your freedom stolen?”
Yes!
At least one Stone associate was on hand for the rally, and it was egged on by Trump himself, who retweeted a video of a Colorado supporter setting his Republican party-registration form on fire in his kitchen. But the demonstration did not originate with Stone, or with Trump, but rather with a couple named Erin and Matt Behrens.
Erin Behrens, the main organizer, was a 28-year-old college-educated stay-at-home mom living in the Denver suburbs. She was deeply religious and fervently anti-abortion and had initially found Trump vulgar and cruel, she told Colorado Public Radio.
Her view of him changed, she explained in the interview, because of something that happened on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany, which jarred her understanding of the stakes of the 2016 election. That evening, a crowd of a thousand or so young men, most of North African or Arabic descent, who had gathered in the square between the city’s central railway station and cathedral, suddenly began sexually assaulting women who were celebrating the new year. More than 500 sexual-assault complaints, nearly 30 concerning rape or attempted rape, were made to the police.
Similar incidents occurred in other German cities that night. The whole episode — its origins, its organization or lack thereof — remains largely unexplained. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and the German police, in their initial statements, played down the extent of the attacks and avoided mention of the ethnicity of the perpetrators. The attack and its aftermath ricocheted through the global far right, which argued that it confirmed two things: the threat of Muslim immigration and the complicity of a global elite in covering up the threat. In the United States, the veteran right-wing activist Phyllis Schlafly warned in an interview with the conservative media outlet WND that America could face similar waves of sexual violence if it did not close its borders. “There are globalists in this world,” she said, and “they put achieving globalism above every other value.”
Trump’s speeches had been virulently anti-immigration for months; this was the most important point of contact, Vanessa Williamson argues, between Trump and the Tea Party base. Now Trump began to denounce the crimes in Germany: “Hillary Clinton wants to be America’s Angela Merkel,” he declared often that year. Erin Behrens was among those he reached. “Maybe we should have this guy who is strong and will take control of the situation and correct our path,” she told Colorado Public Radio. “Let’s save our country and save Western civilization, and then we can argue about social issues all we want.”
During his time as a Trump campaign adviser, Stone urged the candidate to run on immigration, and now he linked these views to the plots that he claimed were afoot to deny Trump the nomination. In the Republican primaries, Trump was “a nationalist in a field of globalists,” Stone said in an interview that April with Stefan Molyneux, a Canadian alt-right podcaster. If the globalists failed to steal the primaries outright, there would be a “naked attempt to steal this from Donald Trump” at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Stone declared. “The fix is in.”
Addressing Trump supporters, he advised: “Come to Cleveland. March on Cleveland.” He went on, “We will disclose the hotels and the room numbers of those delegates who are directly involved in the steal.” He added, “We urge you to visit their hotel and find them.” Steve House, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party, whose phone number was posted online amid the fight over the state’s caucus, reported receiving thousands of calls and emails, some threatening him and his family. “All I can say is pray you make it to Cleveland,” one email read. “The fix is in, and the American people will eliminate anyone who gets in the way.”
At the convention, a couple of last-ditch procedural moves were made to swing delegates to Cruz. But they were small and lacked the support of the party leadership, and in the end Trump accepted his nomination without serious obstacle or incident. Trump and Stone then shifted to warning of a Democratic plot to steal the election in November. When Trump won in November too, the narrative did not end. It simply shifted again — this time to the popular vote, which he lost. There had been “serious voter fraud in Virginia, New Hampshire and California,” Trump claimed in a tweet, and in another he declared, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
These were no longer discrete claims, really, but a story: about those who were entitled to something, and those who were always conspiring to take it from them. It was a story of we and they, a story that Trump told through his first legislative setbacks in Congress, through the Russia investigation, through the midterms, through his first impeachment and, inevitably, through the next election. “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged,” he told a rally crowd in Oshkosh, Wis., in August 2020. “The only way they’re going to win is that way. And we can’t let that happen.”

The morning after Election Day in 2020, a new Facebook group appeared. Like Stone’s 2016 effort, it was called “Stop the Steal,” and one of its moderators was Amy Kremer, the Tea Party activist.
Kremer had jumped on the Trump train early in 2016, starting a pro-Trump political-action committee, Great America PAC, that like Stone’s raised money off warnings that the “G.O.P. establishment” would steal the nomination from Trump. (Kremer could not be reached for comment.) It was the first of a string of Trump-aligned groups that Kremer would lead throughout his presidency, culminating in 2019 with Women for America First. That group had ridden the swells of outrage and enthusiasm on the right, from Trump’s first impeachment to the protests of Covid-19 lockdowns in the spring of 2020 to the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett. After the election, it pivoted immediately to Stop the Steal.
Others took up the same call — most notably Ali Alexander, an associate of Roger Stone who, through his own Stop the Steal website and social accounts, assembled other major demonstrations preceding the Capitol attack. Kellye SoRelle, the general counsel for the Oath Keepers militia — whose leader has been indicted on charges of seditious conspiracy relating to the Jan. 6 attack — told the House Jan. 6 committee that Stone, Alexander and Infowars’ Alex Jones were “the center point for everything” in the rallies.
Kremer’s “Stop the Steal” Facebook group acquired 320,000 members in its first 22 hours. Facebook banned the group almost immediately, when its planning for demonstrations in swing states was quickly subsumed in threats to kill liberals and calls for civil war. Women for America First took its organizing offline, planning a bus tour called the March for Trump that would culminate in a rally in Washington. One of its organizers was Dustin Stockton, a veteran activist Kremer met a decade before when they were both working on the Tea Party Express, an organization that toured the country by bus, rallying crowds on behalf of Tea Party candidates.
When I asked Stockton whether he had applied the lessons from his time on the Tea Party Express bus to his months on the Stop the Steal bus, he replied that it went far beyond that. “We were using a lot of the same people who organized our Tea Party rallies to organize the bus-tour rallies,” he told me. Traveling across the country a decade before had given him a detailed knowledge of the atlas of American anger. Revisiting its geography on a new bus, for a new cause, he saw not just the same local organizers but also crowds that he reckoned were perhaps two-thirds Tea Party veterans.
Their ranks were swelled by new recruits radicalized by the Covid lockdowns, which many of the Stop the Steal organizers, including Kremer, had also rallied against. Those protests had also drawn in a cohort of far-right evangelical leaders, who had portrayed the lockdowns — which imposed prolonged restrictions on church attendance — as a secular elite campaign against Christians. Their rhetoric would carry over to Stop the Steal, which accused many of the same Democratic governors and state officials of rigging the election against Trump with the expansions of absentee voting during the pandemic.
The bus tour has since been cast as a chronicle of an insurrection foretold. Its speakers, often local politicians and Republican activists, on multiple occasions invoked violence in their exhortations from the stage. “I jokingly told some folks in the Tea Party, see, we’d solve every problem in this country if on the Fourth of July every conservative went and shot one liberal,” a local Tea Party activist and county commissioner named Bob Cavanaugh told the crowd at a stop in North Carolina in December.
If speakers like Cavanaugh evoked the old Tea Party rallies, they also suggested how much further that movement’s bloody-minded rhetoric had gone by now, with Trump’s encouragement. One regular tour speaker was a New Mexico county commissioner named Couy Griffin, who founded a group called Cowboys for Trump in 2019. He warned at a Jan. 3 rally in Bowling Green, Ky.: “If we allow this election to be stolen from us, we will become a third-world country overnight. The elitist, gross, wicked, vile people that are in place will continue to wage war on America. Because there is a war, mind you. I promise you that.”
Three days later, Griffin was in the crowd outside the Capitol. He was arrested by the F.B.I. later that month for unlawful entry, after he vowed at a county commission meeting to take firearms to Biden’s inauguration. (He now says he intended to take the weapons for self-defense.) But Griffin had been making similar pronouncements since well before the election. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat,” he told a crowd to cheers the previous May, before adding: “I say that in the political sense.” When Cowboys for Trump posted video of the statement on Twitter, Trump retweeted it.
As the tour crisscrossed Trump country, it was not just gathering the anger that would be set loose on the Capitol on Jan. 6. It was also providing a stage to the local politicians who would carry on the movement beyond that day. Among the most promising recruits was Doug Mastriano, who first came to prominence in Pennsylvania in the lockdown protests of the spring.
In late November, Mastriano requested that the Senate Majority Policy Committee of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly hold a hearing looking into the election. Its star witnesses were Rudy Giuliani and the Trump campaign legal adviser Jenna Ellis, who were leading a frenzied last-ditch effort to overturn the presidential election by ostensibly lawful means.
The idea originated with John C. Eastman, a constitutional law professor who claimed that state legislatures — which, in Pennsylvania and other contested states, were controlled by Republicans — were entitled to take control of an election if it had been compromised by fraud or other illegal activity. The idea was based on what even Eastman seemed to acknowledge was an imaginative reading of the law; a former counsel to Vice President Mike Pence told the Jan. 6 committee that Eastman admitted that it would probably “lose 9-nothing” in the Supreme Court. (Eastman could not be reached for comment.) But if theoretically upheld, it would utterly transform the legal and political machinations over elections: State lawmakers who distrusted the outcome of a presidential election could simply refuse to certify the results or send their own electors to Washington.
Giuliani and Ellis lobbied lawmakers in several states Trump lost, including Pennsylvania, to call their legislatures back into session to act on Eastman’s theories; none did. But Mastriano — who would later be involved in a scheme to submit a slate of “alternate” electors from Pennsylvania to Pence — was able to persuade the policy committee chairman to hold the hearing the day before Thanksgiving at a hotel in Gettysburg. The nod to history was impossible to miss.
The committee was an arm of the Republican caucus, not the Legislature, and the witnesses were not sworn in, nor did they provide legally binding affidavits affirming their testimony. The claims presented were by then largely familiar. Trump’s lawyers had failed to prove them in court, when they had tried to prove them at all; several had been investigated by Trump’s own Department of Justice officials and found baseless. “Honestly, the Trump legal team was not exactly stellar at PA’s hearing,” one of Mastriano’s allies, the Republican state representative Russell Diamond, conceded in an email to Eastman.
As political theater, however, it was a resounding success. Clips of the hearing, amplified by the Trump campaign’s social media accounts, went viral. Mastriano visited the White House with other state lawmakers — though his time with Trump was cut short when, midmeeting, he received a positive coronavirus test result. The hearing had also brought him to the attention of the Stop the Steal rally organizers. “That’s what put him on our radar,” Stockton told me. Women for America First invited Mastriano to speak at the March for Trump rally in Washington on Dec. 12.
“I can’t believe,” Mastriano said from the stage, “they have a party willing to set aside freedoms and this republic for power.” He continued: “Are we going to stand aside as these shenanigans go on in Philadelphia and Atlanta and elsewhere? Are we going to stand aside and watch our republic be ripped out of our hands?”
“No!” the crowd shouted.
“What,” Mastriano demanded, “are you going to do about it?”

Jan. 6 marked the explosive end of the self-described Stop the Steal movement — but it also marked a sort of rebirth. It had showed direct action of even the most extraordinary scale to be, for now, a dead end. Many of the participants in the protests and the Capitol riot returned home and redoubled their efforts to work inside the system rather than just hurling themselves against it.
Well before Jan. 6, the movement’s allies in state legislatures, like Mastriano, had started agitating for state- and county-level election audits that they believed would lead to the decertification of the 2020 outcome; the highest-profile was in Arizona’s Maricopa County, where Republican state legislators oversaw a recount of the county’s 2020 ballots by contractors with ties to the postelection schemes to keep Trump in power.
Even operating under partisan oversight, and staffed with staunch advocates of Trump’s election claims, no audit to date has claimed in its official reports to have found proof of meaningful election fraud. (The Arizona audit found that Biden had won the county by several hundred more votes than were initially recorded.) Their greater value was as a cause — a specific demand that local activists could make of their legislators and state officials.
Those activists had begun assembling, by early 2021, in almost every state. They came together in local organizations like the Election Integrity Force in Michigan and Audit the Vote PA, holding rallies for audits and canvassing door to door hunting for anomalies in the voter rolls. In their contours, these groups resembled the earliest Tea Party organizations. In some cases, they were Tea Party organizations now pointed toward a new cause.
One of the more concerted efforts to harness this outpouring of energy toward a specific purpose emerged in 2021, in the form of the Election Integrity Network. The network was a project of the Conservative Partnership Institute, a policy group led by Jim DeMint, a former Republican South Carolina senator and onetime Tea Party star, and partly funded by one of Trump’s PACs. (Mark Meadows, Trump’s former chief of staff and a key figure in the events of Jan. 6, is a senior partner.) The network was the brainchild of Cleta Mitchell, a veteran election lawyer and conservative activist.
Mitchell was a player in the previous decade’s legal battles between Democrats and Republicans over voting rights. In 2019, motivated by legal actions filed by Democratic campaign lawyers in anticipation of the 2020 election, she visited Trump campaign lawyers to discuss legal countermeasures. Nothing resulted from the meeting.
The following year, the pandemic prompted many states to significantly expand alternatives to voting in person, allowing more widespread use of mail-in ballots and drop boxes for delivering them. In July 2020, Mitchell again brought up the subject of legal preparations, this time to Meadows. The conversation led to a phone call with Trump, who she says was sold on the idea. He gave his blessing, she said, for a project to build a legal scaffolding for postelection challenges.
“I wasn’t part of Stop the Steal,” Mitchell said when I spoke to her recently. “I didn’t attend a single Stop the Steal rally.” But Mitchell was significant to that movement all the same: She had recruited Eastman, whom she had known for two decades, to draw up his legal theory for giving control over the election to state legislatures. “A movement is stirring,” she wrote, asking him to write a memo laying out the theory. “But needs constitutional support.”
Mitchell argues that the changes made to voting procedures in several key states in the lead-up to 2020 were in violation of their election laws. This view has been partially upheld in a high court in a single instance: Wisconsin, where the conservative majority of the state’s Supreme Court ruled this month that the use of most drop boxes is not in accordance with state law. But the challenge to their use that reached the court had been made only long after the 2020 election. And in Wisconsin and the other closely fought states, many key decisions that facilitated or expanded absentee voting happened with the consent of Republican officials: a bipartisan election commission in Wisconsin, the Republican-led Legislature in Pennsylvania and the Republican secretary of state in Georgia.
Mitchell attributes this to the flat-footedness of Republican officials, campaign strategists and lawyers. This included the Trump campaign, which, she said, never actually followed through on her legal project that Trump had authorized. It was only the day after the election, she said, that Meadows called and asked if she could go to work in Georgia. (Meadows and Trump could not be reached for comment.) In December, Mitchell and a team of lawyers filed an election challenge in Fulton County, alleging that thousands of ballots were cast illegally; they withdrew their challenge in January after the state’s electors were certified. She raised money for the Maricopa County audit that spring, and by the summer, she had turned her attention to the Election Integrity Network.
The organization has held training sessions for activists across the country, recruiting volunteers to serve as poll workers and election monitors, often in connection with both national conservative organizations and Republican Party committees. “The best thing I could do,” Mitchell said, “was try to channel that energy in positive and productive ways.” Much of the group’s guidance is conventional poll-monitoring instruction, of the sort that both parties’ partisans have offered for years. But mixed in are more unusual tactics: suggesting that volunteers check the accuracy of voter rolls themselves, for instance, and research local election officials to determine whether they are “friend or foe.” She has appeared often on the former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, which aggressively promoted the Stop the Steal rallies leading up to Jan. 6 and has since become a sort of signal relay post for activism around the 2020 election. On a June episode of “War Room,” Mitchell told Bannon, “2020 — never again,” adding, “That’s our goal.”
“Never again,” Bannon agreed.
Other efforts have aimed higher up the ladder of election authority. In 24 states, elections are overseen by an elected secretary of state — a partisan position, but one for which candidacies have rarely been overtly political and officeholders have generally adhered to strong professional norms of impartiality. This made several secretaries of state targets of Trump’s rage during his attempts to overturn the election. One of his first endorsements in the 2022 election cycle, announced less than three months after Jan. 6, was of Jody Hice, a Republican congressman in Georgia who declared a primary challenge to Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state who resisted Trump’s pressure to overturn the state’s election. For the same position in Arizona, he endorsed Mark Finchem, a state legislator who championed the Maricopa County audit, and in Michigan he endorsed Kristina Karamo, who made several claims about witnessing election fraud in 2020 (claims that were either unsubstantiated or later debunked).
It is highly unusual for a former president to endorse candidates for secretary of state, and Trump’s choices seemed to occupy an ambiguous space between strategy and personal retribution. With his vast audience, he was able to conjure heroes and villains in races that few voters on the other side were even particularly aware of. “I’m looking forward to communicating the clear choice citizens will have in what their democracy is going to look like in the future,” Jocelyn Benson, Michigan’s Democratic secretary of state, told me in December. “I’m worried that not enough people will pay attention to that choice.”
In early May, the rally tour that Trump had maintained with few interruptions since his first presidential campaign touched down at a fairgrounds in Greensburg, Pa., in the hill country southeast of Pittsburgh. It had been raining for most of the night and morning of the rally, and before the gates were open, the outlands of the venue were already boggy and wet.
In the first hours, nearly everyone I met drifting down the muddy pop-up boulevards with TRUMP WON flags and kiosks selling LET’S GO BRANDON T-shirts had been following Trump’s rallies from state to state, on and off, for months or years. When I asked what they thought about the last election or the next one, most cited one or another strand of the Trump-centric QAnon conspiracy theory. “It starts with the British royal monarchy and the Vatican that are controlling everything,” Jill Wood, a rallygoer from Ohio, told me. “There’s only two teams: Team Jesus and Team Lucifer. And it’s very easy to pick a side.”
The Greensburg rally, like all Trump-centric events, was an open-air marketplace for the full range of election theories currently in circulation. A large LCD screen was playing “2,000 Mules,” a new, slickly produced film advancing (but failing to prove, even on its own terms) the claim that the election was stolen by “ballot harvesters” depositing thousands of fraudulent votes in drop boxes. When I asked a man watching it what he thought had happened in 2020, he replied, “I wonder what happened to that tractor-trailer full of ballots?” — a reference to a claim made about a shipment of trucked-in absentee ballots that Trump’s Justice Department officials had investigated at length and decided was baseless. When I pressed further, he shrugged. “I don’t know. If people can cheat, they’ll cheat. That’s my idea of human nature.”
In the middle of it all, figuratively and literally, was Mike Lindell, standing among the Trump supporters, his loafers and pant cuffs caked in mud. The chief executive of MyPillow, the bedding company whose infomercials are ubiquitous in the odd hours of the cable schedule, became a Trump supporter and donor in 2016. He had factored peripherally in some of the longest-shot schemes to keep Trump in power after the election, and a week after Jan. 6, he was photographed at the White House with a sheaf of papers on which the phrase “martial law if necessary” was visible. (Lindell has said that these were not his papers and that he hadn’t read them.)
Since Biden’s inauguration, Lindell had plowed himself into the election cause with unmatched energy and, by his own account, millions of dollars. He had bankrolled documentaries, lawsuits, public-records acquisitions, grass-roots organizations and canvassing efforts scrutinizing voter rolls for indications of fraud, one address at a time. He has said he contributed money to the Arizona audit. He hosted an August 2021 “cyber symposium” in Sioux Falls, S.D., in which he promised (but failed) to reveal data showing definitive proof of election fraud. And late last year, he started his own “election integrity” organization to provide support and guidance to state-level groups. He called it Cause of America, after a Thomas Paine quotation.
The sheer frenzy of this activism had made Lindell one of the most influential figures in the movement — influence that he, like Trump, was now trying to wield in the Republican primaries, endorsing candidates for secretary of state and other positions. “Tomorrow I’m going down to Georgia,” he told me in Greensburg. The state’s Republican primary, later that month, was widely viewed as a test of the political potency of Trump’s election claims. It was the only hotly contested state where a Republican governor (Brian Kemp), secretary of state (Brad Raffensperger) and attorney general (Chris Carr) had stood directly and deliberately in the way of Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. Trump had thrown his support behind challengers for all three offices who backed his claims and cast the race as a referendum on the issue. “We’re going after the Triple Crown of crime!” Lindell told me. “Then I’m going to South Carolina for another event, and then — I don’t know. Every day it’s somewhere. Because we’ve got to save our country — save the American dream!”
But unlike more disciplined and strategic figures like Cleta Mitchell, Lindell and his works often seemed in peril of spiraling off the field of effective political action. He was committed with evangelical zeal to the particular 2020 theory that held that the country’s voting machines had been subjected to a sweeping, coordinated hacking operation — a theory for which no evidence had been produced, despite Lindell’s millions. “We have the reality that there are a lot of systems that are not as secure as they should be, and then we have the science fiction that there’s somehow credible evidence that the 2020 election result was a fraud,” said J. Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan and an authority on election security whose work is sometimes very selectively cited by election conspiracists.
Chasing Lindell’s theory came with some legal risk; two of the voting-machine companies in question have sued members of Trump’s legal team, right-wing media companies and Lindell over their claims, and Lindell told me that he had been blackballed from interviews by several conservative media outlets for fear of further liability. A subtler problem, for activists and party organizers, was that Lindell’s particular obsession did not convert so easily into partisan advantage. Early data from the election indicated that absentee ballots were disproportionately used by Democratic voters, but this was not true of the electronic voting machines that Lindell hoped to abolish.
When I brought up Lindell with Mitchell, she noted that she had avoided mentioning voting machines in her Georgia lawsuit. “I do have concerns about the voting systems,” she said, but “nobody has yet been able to establish that factually.” She regarded his evangelism, the crowds he drew, as more energy in need of an application. “To anyone who goes to his symposium,” she said, “I’d say, Come to me, and I’ll put you to work.”
The places on the political map where Lindell had the most sway also seemed to be the ones where the Stop the Steal politics had become most esoteric and self-defeating. In April, Lindell appeared at an “election integrity” rally in Colorado alongside Tina Peters, a county clerk who has been charged with seven felonies and three misdemeanors. According to the indictment, she breached voting machines under her supervision, in what she said was an effort to uncover evidence of election fraud. (She uncovered no fraud and has pleaded not guilty.) Peters had appeared onstage at Lindell’s cyber symposium and told The Times that he had donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to her legal defense. While she was under grand-jury investigation, she announced that she was running for secretary of state. Joining her at the rally was Ron Hanks, a state representative and Republican primary candidate for U.S. Senate who was also endorsed by Lindell.
But they were obviously weak general-election candidates, and in the primary in late June, Republican voters decisively rejected each. Peters failed to win in even her own county. She blamed election fraud.
Stop the Steal’s power at the ballot box was tested in the spring primaries: In the high-profile Georgia contest, Kemp, Raffensperger and Carr all defeated their challengers. But prominent movement figures like Jim Marchant in Nevada and Kristina Karamo in Michigan won easily. And in a safely red corner of the map, Couy Griffin, the county commissioner from Otero County, N.M., and founder of Cowboys for Trump, embarked on a bold experiment in election nullification at the local level.
In June, Griffin was sentenced on misdemeanor charges relating to his appearance at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. He had not gone inside the building himself and most likely would not have been charged but for his own numerous public statements, including telling federal agents in an interview that while he hoped the country’s leadership could be changed “without a single shot being fired,” there was “no option that’s off the table for the sake of freedom.”
Because he refused a coronavirus test after his arrest, Griffin spent weeks in solitary confinement, a tribulation of which he has spoken often since. It seemed to deepen his sense of purpose. In January, insisting that Otero County’s 2020 results had been fatally compromised by hacked voting machines, he and the other two commissioners enlisted a subcontractor from the Arizona audit to review their own county’s election. The project included a door-to-door canvass of the county’s voters, led by familiar figures from the Stop the Steal circuit. The subcontractor conceded in a letter to the county that this work had turned up no conclusive evidence of voter fraud. Undaunted, all three commissioners refused to certify the county’s 2022 results on the grounds that the 2020 issues remained unaddressed.
Maggie Toulouse Oliver, New Mexico’s Democratic secretary of state, sued the county commissioners, and the State Supreme Court ordered the commission to certify that election. Griffin’s two co-commissioners relented, voting to certify the election, but Griffin himself remained unmoved. “It’s not based on any facts,” he told his colleagues. “It’s only based on my gut feeling and my own intuition, and that’s all I need.”
Although Biden won New Mexico in 2020, Otero County voted overwhelmingly for Trump. But in a podcast interview in May with Joe Oltmann, a right-wing activist in Colorado, Griffin placed his outwardly quixotic actions in the context of a sort of domino theory of how the 2020 election might still be overturned. “What I’m hoping that I can do through my position,” he said, “is get a blueprint started that could carry over to other conservative counties. And if we can show enough fraud in the conservative counties, then we will further leverage the bigger, more liberal counties to audit their elections, and we can produce the evidence that we need in order to decertify the elections.”
When I ran this theory by Toulouse Oliver, the secretary of state, she sighed. “We already do postelection audits after every election,” she said. “They’re mandatory. And we have done that since 2008.” Griffin’s own audit, she pointed out, had not revealed any fraud. “But OK — we decertify the election. Then what? We don’t have a new election. That’s not a provision in state law.” If the State Supreme Court had sided with Griffin, she said, they would in effect have had to “make up a process that doesn’t already exist in state law.”
This did not actually seem so far off from Griffin’s own theory of the case. Like many in the movement, he seemed to be searching for a hidden door that would open onto some untouched secret chamber in America’s divinely inspired architecture, placed there by the founders in anticipation of a future darkness, a sacred place from which the republic could be made new again. This was the leap of imagination that John Eastman had made, setting down a new path along which Griffin and Mastriano and the rest had walked. The leap was what distinguished their movement from the Tea Party, which had shared a vision of an America stolen from its rightful owners but had tried to avert it through the ordinary business of winning elections.
In November’s general election, Toulouse Oliver will face Audrey Trujillo, a Republican who has publicly described Biden’s victory in the 2020 election as a “coup” and supported the Otero County audit. “She’s a great friend,” Griffin told me in Washington, outside the federal courthouse before his sentencing. “She’s a great patriot.” He said that he had discussed his refusal to certify with her and that he believed she “would be willing to at least consider the position of the county commission board.”
The Otero County episode had unsettled Toulouse Oliver’s understanding of the terrain on which she was standing as secretary of state. It had happened at such an obscure node in the election system: The county commission’s certification of the election results had to this point been little more than a formality, one of many thousands of similar acts performed across the country in any given election year without ceremony.
But the country was full of people who believed what Griffin did. Many of them held similar posts or were now running for them. The theories they put forth would not long ago have been the province of genuine fringe actors, not elected Republicans. In their simple willingness to throw the basic machinery of elections into chaos, they possessed an ability to make their vision real. Who knew what a hundred, or even a dozen, Couy Griffins might be able to accomplish?

“I truly do believe that we’re past the point of being rescued politically,” Griffin told Oltmann in the May interview. In the failure to restore Trump’s presidency, he saw a message from on high: “If God wanted to bring our nation back through the realm of politics, President Trump would be sitting in office right now.” Instead, he said, “it’s almost like we started forming this golden calf with Donald Trump, thinking that he was going to be our savior.”
Elsewhere in the movement, there was open talk of moving past him for more secular reasons. “Donald Trump is disconnected from the base,” Amy Kremer told Politico after Trump rescinded his endorsement of Mo Brooks, the Alabama Republican congressman then running for U.S. Senate (and who had appeared at the Women for America First rally at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, wearing body armor, exhorting the crowd to “do what it takes to fight for America.”) “We were here long before President Trump came along,” Kremer said, “and we’re going to be here long afterward.”
In the end of Trump’s presidency, Griffin told Oltmann, there was a lesson. “God wants to use us on the local level,” he said. “God will begin to raise Davids up all across the United States in a powerful way. And I think that we will get our country back.”
This was the space where Griffin and Mastriano met, the ground on which each had been walking when they passed through the security barriers on the Capitol grounds on Jan. 6. It was what made Mastriano’s rallies feel different from Trump’s — not an imitation of them but a step beyond them. He and Griffin were lesser politicians than Trump, but they possessed a register that Trump did not and that the Tea Partyers before him did not.
Trump had jolted American politics, probably irrevocably, by urging his supporters to see themselves as an American people distinct from the American population — a people whose particular loyalties, identities and values designated them as the nation’s true inheritors, regardless of what the ballots might have said. If this vision was enabled by his ego, which took him to places no other American president had dared to go, it was also constrained by it, limited by Trump’s inability to imagine much of anything outside himself. This was the paradox of the final, desperate act of his presidency: The hole he punched in American democracy, out of sheer self-interest, had allowed his followers to glimpse a vision of the country restored to its divinely ordained promise that lay beyond that democracy — but also beyond him.
Mastriano’s last rally before Pennsylvania’s primary election, in May, was in Warminster, outside Philadelphia. Mastriano had made a practice of kicking journalists out of his recent events, and in the parking lot a small security team, all scowls and exaggerated special-ops poses, was detaining anyone they recognized as a member of the news media.
“We have a movement here that the left, the media and the RINOs, they’re terrified of,” Mastriano told an audience of 500 or so supporters gathered inside. “What are they afraid of?”
“Jail!” shouted an elderly white woman seated a couple rows ahead of me.
Still, the mood, from Mastriano and the crowd alike, was more ebullient than angry. The latest polls had shown Mastriano well ahead of his rivals. Trump had issued his own endorsement that morning; “There is no one in Pennsylvania,” his statement read, “who has done more, or fought harder, for election integrity.”
Mastriano’s speech mentioned the former president and his greatness, but it did not linger on him. The story he told was much bigger than Trump, and bigger than himself. It began in the Scriptures and wound its way through the words of Benjamin Franklin and Abraham Lincoln, words that had consecrated the ground of Pennsylvania and by extension America as the land of a certain people who were meant to live in glory: a life and glory that had been taken away from them but could yet be reclaimed. Tucked along the margin of the Mastriano yard signs that had been placed on our seats, in tiny letters, was “JOHN 8:36”: If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.” That was Jesus, fresh off a debate with the Pharisees, coaxing his earliest and still half-skeptical audience to consider a law beyond the old laws of Abraham. It was the verse Mastriano was referring to in the slogan held aloft on the Capitol terrace in Harrisburg on Nov. 7 and invoked in his many campaign speeches since: Walk as free people.
He concluded with the story of United Flight 93, of the passengers who managed to overcome their Qaeda hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001, before crashing the aircraft in Stonycreek Township, west of Mastriano’s State Senate district. “And we know Todd Beamer’s last words, after saying the Lord’s Prayer?” he asked.
“Let’s roll!” the crowd shouted back, getting to its feet.
“Pennsylvania, this is our day! This is our hour!”
Three days later, he would win the Republican nomination for governor by a margin of more than 20 points.
In the parking lot after the rally, Marianne Reimer and Eileen Goldstein, retirees in their 60s from the neighboring suburbs, were loading Mastriano yard signs into the back of an S.U.V. in a light rain. “That last election was rigged,” Goldstein told me. “It’s such a conspiracy. Nobody cares.”
For all that, Reimer said, “No one’s trying to overturn the 2020 election — although that would be a miracle.”
“A miracle,” Goldstein echoed.
“Just acknowledge it,” Reimer went on. “Learn the lessons. And we never let it happen again going forward.”
“And say, ‘The people who say it was robbed were right — it was robbed,’” Goldstein said.
“We just want confirmation that we were right,” Reimer said.
“What would you do if they did the audit,” I asked, “and the audit found that Biden had won fair and square?”
“Accept the results,” Reimer replied.
“Republicans deal with things calmly,” Goldstein said. “The other people riot — burn down statues that they don’t even know who they are or where they stood in history. And they set towns on fire. That is the difference. They’re animals. Absolute animals.”
The conversation drifted among the other abominations they saw around them, or on Fox News, the only outlet Goldstein said she watched. They spoke of legal abortion, the free tampon dispensers in men’s bathrooms that Goldstein heard they have in Washington State now, the “socialist” regime of the current Pennsylvania governor, Tom Wolf.
I asked the women what they expected Mastriano to do if he won. They thought for a moment. “I see him stepping in and going back to the Constitution — putting God back in things,” Goldstein said. “He’s about bringing everything back,” she went on. “Everything back. And with that,” she said, “things will fall into place.”
Charles Homans is a staff writer for The New York Times and The Times Magazine. Mark Peterson was awarded the W. Eugene Smith grant in 2018 for his work on white nationalism. The National Gallery of Art owns one of his images from the Jan. 6 insurrection.

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