Trump’s Erratic Election-Eve Rally

Donald Trump speaks in Georgia.
Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty

During an election-eve rally in Dalton, Georgia, tonight, President Donald Trump offered a wide range of lies, conspiracy theories, and hogwash, but he also said one thing that was unimpeachably true.

“I don’t do rallies for other people,” he said. “I do rallies for me.”

Ostensibly, Trump was in Georgia to campaign for Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the two Republicans vying to keep their seats in runoffs tomorrow. He went through the motions, praising each of them and calling on Georgians to cast their votes in the races, both of which analysts have rated as toss-ups. (Loeffler spoke alongside the president, but Perdue, who is quarantining after exposure to someone with COVID-19, was not present.) But overall, Trump stuck to his favorite subjects: himself, and the imagined wrongs done to him. Speaking for roughly 90 minutes, he kept circling back to those themes.

“There’s no way we lost Georgia,” he said, repeating a debunked claim. “That was a rigged election, but we’ll see what’s going to happen.” He insisted that he would have graciously accepted a genuine loss to President-elect Joe Biden—“but when you win in a landslide and they steal it and it’s rigged, it’s not acceptable.”

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None of this is true, and Trump’s claims of fraud have come up short in every venue they’ve been pleaded save the right-wing media. This wasn’t just Trump venting: At times he was obviously reading from prepared remarks.

Nonetheless, the event was a chance—perhaps one of the last—for Trump to revel in a large campaign rally, COVID-19 be damned. From the moment he announced his candidacy at Trump Tower in the summer of 2015, he has loved occasions like this one. They are a chance for him to listen to his own voice as long as he wants, free-associating all the way, and to bask in the glow of adoration without reality intruding.

Trump held rallies right up to Election Day 2016, commenced holding reelection rallies almost immediately upon taking office, and now continues to hold them even after losing the election. He never showed much interest in the hard work of governance, whether that was negotiating with Congress or fighting the coronavirus. The Dalton rally will be one of the last big rallies of Trump’s presidency, and it was a classic of the form: sometimes entertaining, often incoherent, always erratic, and entirely terrifying.

Consumed by narcissism, Trump is heedless to the damage he is doing. There is the damage to the republic he is inflicting by undermining faith in elections and setting an example of unchecked election interference. There is also, however, the damage he may have done to Loeffler’s and Perdue’s reelection chances. State and national Republican Party officials have cringed at his approach to the runoffs. Initially, he was disengaged from party efforts, too busy wallowing in his own loss. Then his demand that Congress cut $2,000 stimulus checks—a demand quickly embraced by Democrats—put the senators in a difficult political bind.

Now he is getting involved in the race, but it’s not clear whether his bull-in-a-china-shop approach does more harm or good. By continuing to claim that the November election was rigged, he risks dampening enthusiasm among Republican voters, who might feel that their vote won’t count. He has also exacerbated internecine battles within the GOP. Tonight he promised to return to Georgia to campaign against Republican Governor Brian Kemp, who has declined to assist Trump’s attempts to overturn the vote in the state. (If he follows through, it will only be because that would give him a chance to talk about himself, not Kemp’s challenger.)

The question is whether this election is likely to turn out more like 2018, when Trump wasn’t on the ballot, held many rallies, and saw his party pounded, or like 2020, when Trump was on the ballot, held many rallies, and lost even as his party did well in congressional races. Perhaps he will end up helping the Senate candidates more than he hurts them—he’s certainly shown better raw political instincts than other Republicans before—and perhaps the Republicans will win despite his blundering.

Either way, the runoffs remain an afterthought for Trump. He spent much of the last half hour of his speech reciting the same lies he told during an hour-long conversation with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, on Saturday, a recording of which Raffensperger’s office shared with the press. The president also suggested that Vice President Mike Pence, who serves a largely ceremonial role overseeing the count of Electoral College votes on Wednesday, might try to swing the result to Trump, though he didn’t specify how.

“I hope our great vice president comes through for us. If he doesn’t come through, I won’t like him quite as much,” he said, grinning. “He’s going to have a lot to say with it.”

The voting is over, though, and Americans elected Biden. The people have decided, the states have certified their counts, and the courts have rejected Trump’s challenges. Continuing to claim that there is any question about the result is a lie, and anything that would overturn Biden’s win would constitute a coup. Yet at this late date, the president has not accepted this, and a growing number of members of his party are moving to stand with him. During the rally, Loeffler proudly told the crowd that she would join with other GOP senators in challenging the tally on Wednesday.

“We’re known for elections, and now we’re being laughed at around the world for this last election,” Trump said. Once again, the president said something that was inarguably true—just not in the way he meant it.