How ‘Stop the Steal’ Captured the American Right

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!”

Game