How a Georgia Republican Hit His Breaking Point With Trump

Gabe Sterling spends every day with “horrible cognitive dissonance.” But he says he’s committed to doing his job.

Jessica McGowan / Getty / The Atlantic

In Donald Trump’s America, anyone who crosses him will be famous for 15 minutes. A lifelong Republican and self-proclaimed “functionary” reached his breaking point this week. That’s Gabe Sterling, who holds the impressively bureaucratic title of Georgia’s voting-system implementation manager. Sterling went viral for holding a press conference in which he called out the president for stoking false and pernicious conspiracy theories that have created an atmosphere of online harassment and threats of physical violence. “It has to stop!” Sterling shouted.

He gave a voice to what’s been bubbling up in many Americans as they’ve watched Rudy Giuliani and other members of Trump’s legal team perpetuate wild conspiracy theories over the past month. “I did say the words If you want a position of leadership, show some. And that seems to have resonated with a lot of people,” Sterling told me in an interview that can be heard in full on the latest episode of The Ticket.

Listen to our conversation here:

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Sterling voted for Trump. In next month’s Georgia runoff elections, he’s still going to vote for both of the Republican senators whom he also condemned, and who have disappointed him even more in the days since his statement. (He still has a lawn sign for one of them outside his home, which is now under police protection because of the threats he has received.) Sterling knows that cognitive dissonance has come to define his life. Being after what he’s been in the middle of the last few weeks, Sterling said he’s worried about where the country is headed.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Edward-Isaac Dovere: When did you start to get the sense that this election was going to be a weird one for you?

Gabe Sterling: It wasn’t Election Night. In fact, on Election Night we were doing sort of a victory lap, considering what had happened in June with the new system. A couple of counties really screwed the pooch, which reflected on us, so we worked really hard to avoid getting [long] lines. We worked really hard to get people to do pre–Election Day voting. We were really churning and burning. The results are coming in and we’re doing great. It was Wednesday afternoon/evening when I knew. I was talking to people in the office and said, “Look, this is going to get hard.” Why is that? Because given what’s out there right now, the president is going to lose by about 10,000 votes.

Dovere: Would what has happened since have made sense to you a month ago?

Sterling: It doesn’t make any sense to me now. I’d say, “What are you talking about? We just had a great election. Everything’s great.” At some point, you start dealing with irrationality. [When we did the hand recount] we figured, okay, if we do this and it came out that good, surely this will kill the idea that these machines did something untoward. We were wrong. Facts and data don’t seem to really matter.

Dovere: You have your job that you are sworn to do. But you are a Republican. You voted for Donald Trump. This is not what you wanted to happen. How do you reconcile those two things that are pulling at you?

Sterling: The whole idea of these nonpartisan panels—there’s no such frickin’ thing. Everybody has their own feelings and their own thoughts. People who say they are completely independent or nonpartisan are not being honest with themselves. It’s also not necessarily easy, but if you’ve got a job to do, you just do the job.

Dovere: It’s sort of like with journalists, who of course have their own thoughts, there’s a way to separate what your personal thoughts are from what the job is.

Sterling: Absolutely. And it is hard, because in my state, I’m a known partisan. It’s not like I’m just a random person. I mean, I’ve run for office as a Republican. I am a known entity. To try to say that I’m not would be ridiculous. Almost as ridiculous as saying that Dominion voting machines flip votes.

Dovere: You call yourself a functionary, but the president and others have made you the center of attention because they don’t like where the votes landed. How has it been to be a functionary thrown into the middle of this?

Sterling: It’s unfortunate. I was a lot more eloquent when I was angry, but I did say the words If you want a position of leadership, show some. And that seems to have resonated with a lot of people. When I went up there, I had no clue what I was going to say. I’m never scripted. I found out about an hour earlier about the young man who had just taken a job as an election technician for Dominion. And these crazy conspiracy-theorist guys took videos of him doing an innocent part of his job, of taking a report off an election-management computer and taking it over to a county computer. Because we’re notoriously cheap and we don’t want to pay for a license for Excel on the election-management computer, so you move it over to a county computer so you can read a report on the batch as a check and balance for the recount. And they said he’s manipulating votes, he’s changing things. We’ve got you! He’s committing treason.

These QAnon crazies put that out on Twitter and wherever else they put it. And within minutes, they got the guy’s name. They start harassing his family members. And I talked to the Dominion project manager, and she was audibly upset when I talked to her on the phone. There had been a tweet that said with the kid’s name: “You’ve committed treason. May God have mercy on your soul,” with a GIF with a noose just swinging slightly. I mean, it was creepy. It was scary. At that point, it was like: I’m done. I mean, I took a high-profile job. I’ve had police protection outside my house for a couple of weeks. The secretary [of state] ran for office. He’s had people trespass. They’ve had caravans go around. His wife’s gotten sexualized threats. I’m not saying it’s par for the course, and no one should accept it, but when you put yourself out there, that’s going to happen. This kid just took a job and he does not deserve this. Neither do the hundreds of thousands of other election workers around the country who are being questioned about what they’re doing. They’re just doing their jobs.

Dovere: What does it tell you about what’s going on in politics? You are a longtime Republican. I think it is hard to say that this is a “both sides” issue, though some Democrats entertained their own conspiracy theories about the 2016 election and others. But not at this level.

Sterling: Stacey Abrams still has yet to concede [the 2018 governor’s race in Georgia]. The lawsuits and the arguments are eerily similar to the Trump people’s arguments now. You see the extremes on both sides; they both get that loopy conspiracy thing. There’s something about the human brain that I think is always there. But right now you have the president of the United States—who ought to be a legitimate figure at this point, and responsible—go on a 46-minute video essentially rereading every internet rumor and idea that has been debunked, knocked down, disproven with data and physical evidence. I have family members I have to argue with about this. “We love you, Gabe. We know you’re right, but what about this?” And I’m like, “Guys, it’s all a load of crap. Why are you even believing it?”

Dovere: But even when Abrams didn’t concede, no one needed to get police protection like this.

Sterling: Not like this. However, we have had protests outside the governor’s mansion, bricks during the height of the BLM situation. Not as much rioting in Atlanta, but it’s there. We should never be in a situation in our country where rioting or violence feels like the only outlet you have. A problem right now with the president is if you undermine the elections ... A friend of mine who’s left-leaning says the reason we have ballots is so we don’t have to deal with bullets. If you’re saying, “Well, the ballots don’t matter anymore,” what’s the next logical step?

Dovere: After you spoke out, Senator David Perdue had a spokesman say that he condemns violence of any kind against anybody, period. But he’s sticking by questions about the election, so not condemning the thinking that leads to the violence or threats of violence.

Sterling: Well, he didn’t say it; a spokesman said it. And that’s part of the problem I have with this. Senator [Kelly] Loeffler sent a spokesman. Senator Perdue sent a spokesman. President Trump sent a spokesman. President Trump then said the opposite of what the spokesman said with a tweet right after it. Senator Perdue and Senator Loeffler, I feel bad for them. They’re stuck in a box and the president put them in it: You’re going to toe this line with me or I’m going to torpedo your campaigns.

Dovere: You’re a Republican voter in Georgia. You are seeing what’s going on. Can you in good conscience vote for senators in the runoff elections who you think are not being leaders in the way you want them to be?

Sterling: Well, yes, because I think the other senators are in worse shape on that front and some things. But yeah, I have one of their signs in my yard even though they asked my boss to resign. Yes, it’s horrible cognitive dissonance. I get it. It’s going to be hard for anybody to reconcile in their head. But I’ve been a Republican since I was 15. I’m going to fight for the sanity and sanctity of my party. And you don’t do that by walking away from it. You do that by trying to get people to do the right thing. And I think that Senators Perdue and Loeffler would get more votes if they follow a line that was a little more based on reality and not so much based on the fact that they’re terrified of pissing off the Trump-base voters.

Dovere: Does it worry you, as someone who wants to see them reelected, that the people who are protesting the count now are saying, “Don’t vote Republican; don’t vote in these runoff elections”?

Sterling: It’s loony tunes! It’s frickin’ loony tunes. Lin Wood and Sidney Powell got up there and said, “You should protest and not vote at all.” I mean, Lin Wood hadn’t voted in a Republican primary since 2004. And these people are listening to him because he’s wearing a MAGA hat and he won some really big verdicts. He called me out by name in the last rally, saying we’re not going to sell our votes to China. I don’t even know what the hell that means. So it’s crazy.

Dovere: Here we are, finishing this major, historic election like this. What do you think that means for the future?

Sterling: I think it’s going to take a lot to rebuild trust. And the problem is, when people get alienated from the process ... We’ve already seen a bifurcation—culturally, socially, economically—on a lot of these things. And populists on both sides can stoke those situations. As institutions continue to get undermined, everybody gets hurt in the long run, especially on the functionality side. From our point of view, we run good elections. We run safe and secure elections. That’s what we have to do and that’s our job. We’ll continue to follow the law. We had a state senator ask us today: “How could you certify this election with these signature matches and everything else?” And our general counsel looked at him and said, “We followed the law that your legislature passed. That’s what we did.” So we will continue to do that.