SIOUX CITY, Iowa – Two years after declaring victory in an election he lost, former President Donald Trump made it clear in Iowa Thursday night that he would never accept the result and that neither should any of his followers.
“Your favorite president got screwed,” Trump told the crowd, apologizing to the children in the audience for his language.
Trump took the stage in Sioux City, his first in a final wave of rallies ahead of the November 8 midterms, on the second anniversary of the 2020 election. His refusal to admit defeat has since been fully embraced by the Republican Party and set the stage for Trump-aligned candidates in communities across the country to potentially refuse to concede next week.
Trump became visibly irritated as he described a recent Pennsylvania court ruling regarding undated mail-in ballots. Trump claimed that if that same decision had been applied to ballots in 2020, he would have won instead of Joe Biden.
“It’s a very unfair thing to your favorite president, but damn it, I’ve been treated so unfairly,” Trump said.
This sense of grievance over the last election was palpable at the rally. Charles Hibbs, 67, who traveled to Iowa from White River, South Dakota, described Nov. 3, 2020, as “the night it was stolen from him and stolen from us.” The retired college football coach said Republican secretaries of state and key state governors should have done more to reverse the election results. If Trump were still president, Hibbs said, “we would be a nation free from federal government slavery.”
Trump spoke for more than an hour wearing a red “Make American Great Again” hat as brisk winds blew from the Iowa plains into Sioux City Gateway Airport, whipping flags, billowing the smell of nearby Porta Pottys on crowds and flickering Trump’s teleprompters.
“I get seasick,” Trump joked.
He advocated for a widespread overhaul of the way elections are conducted across the country, calling for replacing electronic voting machines with paper ballots and allowing voting only on Election Day except for “legitimately ill” people.
“If you vote on Election Day, that’s better, it’s a lot harder for them to cheat,” Trump said. “We are only five days away from the most important midterm elections in American history.” He urged the crowd to “volunteer as a poll worker, poll watcher or poll challenger.”
Trump’s comments come at a time of heightened tension around the election, as local officials across the country brace for candidates and their supporters to potentially question the legitimacy of the outcome and a possible escalation in political violence. In Arizona, a federal judge has set limits on how citizens can act around the ballot box after armed individuals were found to intimidate voters. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul, was discharged from hospital on Thursday after undergoing surgery for a head injury, the result of an intruder who hoped to interrogate and torture the Speaker l attacked with a hammer.
Read more: What to know about the attack on Paul Pelosi
Trump’s lies about the election began long before 2020. Four years earlier, after winning the presidency by garnering the most electoral college votes, he soon began spreading a lie that millions of immigrants to the United States had illegally voted for Clinton, as a way of explaining why his popular vote tally was higher than his. In the run-up to the 2020 election, he falsely claimed that mail-in ballots were more vulnerable to fraud, sowing unwarranted mistrust of ballots counted after those cast on Election Day in some states . After losing his re-election bid, Trump spread a series of lies about tampered voting machines, stuffed ballot boxes and legions of dead people voting for Biden. None of his claims have withstood scrutiny by a court or by Bill Barr, his own attorney general in the election.
Years of Trump’s election lies have helped twist America’s political system to his advantage, while leaving millions of his supporters suspicious of provable facts. Election denials have seeped into American politics at every level over the past two years. Six in 10 U.S. voters will see the name of at least one Republican who denies the 2020 election result on their ballot on Nov. 8, according to a tally by FiveThirtyEight.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson epitomized that party-wide change when speaking with reporters in Wisconsin this week. Johnson not only refused to say he would accept the results on Tuesday, regardless of the outcome, but his response took a conspiratorial turn. “Is anything going to happen on election day?” he mused, according to the Washington Post. “Do the Democrats have something up their sleeves?”
Significant damage to American democracy has already been done, says Jessica Levinson, professor of constitutional law at Loyola Law School. “In many ways, our democracy is not what it was ten years ago. It’s not your grandfather’s democracy,” says Levinson. She describes the argument of Trump and some current Republican candidates as follows: “If I win, trust the vote. If I lose, there is massive fraud. That, says Levinson, “is not an argument that you can argue in a truly democratic system”.
Jamie Deeds, who brought his son, 11, and daughter, 13, to the rally, knows something about how elections are run. She was a poll worker in Iowa during the 2020 election and is confident the count she helped oversee was accurate. “We cannot leave this polling station until all the numbers are correct. If there is one less number, you have to count everything again,” she says.
She has less faith in the 2020 vote in “big cities.” The way vote totals swung late toward Biden on election night, as had been widely predicted once mail-in ballots were counted, caused her to question the result. She said she had seen reports of fake votes and dead people voting and thought it was “incomplete”. Even after those claims were tried in court and largely dismissed for lack of evidence, she was still unconvinced.
She says she will vote this year and trust the local results, but that trust does not extend to the national level. “I don’t think we can ever trust another presidential election,” Deeds said.
The upcoming presidential election was on Trump’s mind Thursday night. Along with encouraging the crowd to “vote Republican in a giant red wave” and endorsing Republicans on the ballot, including Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds, he also teased his intention to announce a third run for the presidency, as he has done in previous rallies. But even then, Trump felt compelled to once again remind those present of his views on what happened the last time he was on the ballot.
“I ran twice, I won twice,” Trump said. “And now, to make our country more prosperous, I will very very very very likely do it again.”
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