KENNESAW, Ga. — As Wednesday dawned, Republicans in this state assessed the wreckage of their party’s failure in the Georgia Senate races, in which Democrat Raphael Warnock was declared the winner over Republican Kelly Loeffler, and Democrat Jon Ossoff defeated Republican David Perdue. It was a stunning double loss that will give Democrats unified control of the House, the Senate and the White House after Joe Biden is sworn in as president on Jan. 20.
Then the spotlight swung to Washington, D.C., to the violent takeover of the US Capitol by rioters consumed by the fantasy that the 2020 election was stolen from President Trump.
But attention to the images of the mob shattering windows in the Capitol, scaling its walls, and roaming its corridors, could overshadow a dark truth about America in 2021, one that was clear as Republicans in Georgia went to the polls the day before.
A key belief that fueled the insurrection on Wednesday — the unyielding commitment to the lie that massive voter fraud cost Trump the election — is not only the provenance of the mob that occupied the building where this country makes its laws. It has become a widely accepted orthodoxy in the Republican Party, fostered by top officials and held not just by fringe extremists but rank-and-file voters who live everywhere from rural to urban America — a fact that will pose a grave risk to the fabric of American democracy long after the Capitol was cleared.
“I have written letters to my congressman saying, ‘Look, this is impossible, it’s just abhorrent that you would let this go on,’” Theresa McMillen, 64, an insurance saleswoman, said outside her polling place in Kennesaw on Tuesday, in a county that used to be a stronghold for moderate Republicans, after she voted for Loeffler and Perdue. “Never, ever, ever, ever give up.”
Trump seeded the idea of a rigged election during his 2016 campaign, and sent it into overdrive this year after he lost the November election by 7 million votes, turning it into a weapon to erode his supporters’ trust in the system that denied him a second term. Most elected officials in his party encouraged him and insisted that his evidence-free claims be heard in court.
The Georgia Senate runoffs demonstrated the political consequences of that lie. Some Republicans blamed Trump for turning the state into a set piece for his grievances and blotting out the campaigns of two candidates who narrowly lost in this once deep red state.
But, perhaps more significantly, they also illustrated how broadly the lie had permeated the psyche of the Republican electorate. In more than 20 election day interviews with Georgia Republican voters — from the conservative foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Dalton, through Cobb County, once a stronghold for moderate Republicans, and into Atlanta — they repeated baseless claims about the stolen election and vowed not to trust the system ever again.
“That belief has taken hold,” said Jason Shepherd, the chairman of the Republican Party in Cobb County, in a Wednesday interview before the Washington rallies spiraled out of control.
At Trump’s rally in Dalton on Monday night, Meredith Nahabedian, a 41-year-old who voted at least once for President Obama, insisted she was “not some conspiracy theorist” as she calmly — and incorrectly — explained Trump had not lost the election.
“I just don’t think so much that he did,” she said.
The next day, in Kennesaw, Charline Race, 91, walked to the polls with a companion just a couple of days after leaving the hospital following a stroke.
“It’s just the worst thing that ever happened, almost,” she said of the purported election fraud.
For two months, ever since Trump lost the election, some Republican elected officials have insisted that false allegations — not proof — of fraud are enough of a reason to upend American democracy, and even to overturn an election in which an unprecedented number of Americans had their say.
“The problem isn’t whether there is or isn’t massive fraud,” said Peter Korman, a member of the Fulton County GOP’s executive committee who believes Trump’s claims, “it’s that people believe it’s gone beyond suspicion.”
For years, Republicans have capitalized on those baseless suspicions to enact new hurdles to voting under the guise of stopping fraud. Now, as some tried to block the certification of Biden’s victory in the presidential election, many voters are with them.
As he emerged from his minivan with a bumper sticker reading “All aboard the Trump Train,” Robert Higgins, 50, a truck driver, said he was angry at Republicans like Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell who were not supportive of the effort by some Republicans to challenge the results of the election on Wednesday.
“I want to see what the people that I vote for, and see if they’re gonna represent me, or be like Mitch McConnell and just accept it,” Higgins said. “We have a real concern with all these different things that happened during this election that never happened before.”
In Dalton, which is represented in Congress by QAnon-conspiracy theory sympathizer Marjorie Taylor Greene, voters were quick to repeat the false claims about voting machines and absentee ballots that have been made by Trump and amplified by other members of his party.
Brinda Clayton, 60, a retired educator in a tie-dyed mask and shirt, said she “absolutely” wanted the state’s Republican Governor Brian Kemp voted out of office in 2022 for failing to do more to investigate Trump’s baseless claims of fraud.
The stew of disinformation and conspiracy theories left Ashley Steele, 32, a mother who backed the Democrats on Tuesday, feeling frustrated and scared.
“We have friends and family members who believe him,” she said of Trump. “If he keeps it up, and the senators are backing him and heating it up, could we be in for another civil war?”
She added: “It has dire consequences.”
As the insurrection unfolded in the Capitol on Wednesday, McMillen, the insurance saleswoman in Kennesaw, said she was disappointed Trump had not condemned the violence. She had thought about driving to Washington for the initial protest, but she insisted she would not have joined the riot.
She could not, however, disavow the belief she shared with the mob.
“I do think there was fraud,” she said. “I do think the election was taken from him.”