WILKES-BARRE, Pa.—Donald Trump’s rally on Saturday night was his first major public appearance since the FBI searched his Florida home—and you could tell. A kind of manic, vengeful energy circulated among the throngs of supporters in the blue stadium seats at the Mohegan Sun Arena. Fans wore T-shirts reading YOU RAIDED THE WRONG PRESIDENT and THREAT TO DEMOCRACY, in a reference to President Joe Biden’s speech last week in Philadelphia. The audience of thousands screamed in agreement when Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who’s become a regular warm-up act at these rallies, declared that the FBI had “violated our president’s rights.” And later on, the crowd exploded into one resounding, ricocheting jeer when Trump, finally on stage, addressed the matter himself.
“There can be no more real example of the very clear threats to American freedom than just a few weeks ago,” the former president said, when “we witnessed one of the most shocking abuses of power we have witnessed from any administration in American history!”
Trump is back at the forefront of American politics, just two months ahead of the midterm elections. This time, the former president is in a strange new position: He’s backed into a corner by legal trouble. And his ever-loyal fans have joined him in a defensive crouch. “We came because of the Mar-a-Lago raid,” Mike Rutherford, a truck driver from East Stroudsburg, told me. He sat near the stage in a folding chair alongside his wife, Pat. “We’re here to support him,” Pat said, nodding. “I can’t believe how brave that man is.”
Pennsylvania found itself smack-dab in the eye of the midterms hurricane this week. Trump’s rally was intended to give a boost to the flagging campaigns of the gubernatorial candidate and State Senator Doug Mastriano and the Senate candidate Mehmet Oz, both of whom have endorsed Trump’s election lies and received his endorsement in exchange. Just two days ago, Biden spoke 100 miles to the south before an eerily lit Independence Hall, and was more direct in his warnings than he’s been in previous addresses: “Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic.” The Darth Vader optics of his speech may have interfered with its intended effect, but Trump and the candidates he’s endorsed are a threat to democracy because they appear to believe in only two kinds of election outcomes: Either they win or the system is rigged.
Pennsylvania has become a hub for “Stop the Steal” candidates thanks, in part, to Mastriano, who spoke ahead of Trump on Saturday night. The Republican state senator and former Army colonel was outside the Capitol when rioters broke in on January 6; he helped lead the state efforts to overturn the presidential election in 2020; and he’s been subpoenaed by the January 6 committee for his alleged involvement in organizing an alternate set of Electoral College electors for Trump. (Last week, Mastriano sued the panel to avoid testifying.)
Both he and Oz offered versions of their stump speeches and declared solidarity with their party leader in his moment of need on Saturday. Other headliners included Greene, the Georgia representative who’d descended the arena steps earlier in the afternoon as “She’s a Beauty” by the Tubes played over the loudspeakers, and the Pennsylvania congressional candidate Jim Bognet, who quipped that America should hire “87,000 more border patrol agents, not IRS agents!”
When Trump emerged shortly after 7 p.m., backed by the usual Lee Greenwood soundtrack, he meandered through his standard repertoire: the Russia investigation “hoax,” Biden’s failures, the death penalty for drug dealers. He even managed to encourage a mass heckling of the press seated in the back of the stadium on at least five occasions. But it was Trump’s FBI comments that got the crowd most riled up. “The FBI and the Justice Department have become vicious monsters, controlled by radical-left scoundrels, lawyers, and the media, who tell them what to do,” he told them. Audience members whooped, and a few shouted out “Defund the FBI!”
The Trump’s fans I’d spoken with earlier, standing near the Dippin’ Dots ice-cream stall and in line for Chickie’s & Pete’s chicken cutlets, all had his back. “It’s politically motivated,” Jim Shaw, a barber from New Milford, told me when I asked what he made of the search at Mar-a-Lago. “If Donald Trump wasn’t looking like he was the [leading] Republican candidate for president, I don’t think it would have happened.” Every one of the dozen or so people I talked with offered some defense of the former president: The search was a setup; the evidence was planted; Biden’s DOJ was trampling on Trump’s constitutional rights to keep him from running for office again.
I detected a touch of desperation in many people’s responses—a sense that, if Trump-endorsed candidates don’t win in November, America as they know it will cease to exist. Here in northeast Pennsylvania—just 20 miles down the road from Biden’s hometown—was a gathering of people not just pessimistic about the future of the country under his leadership, but deeply fearful too. “At this point right now, I’m worried about being targeted by the FBI because I’m a Christian, I’m conservative,” Pat Rutherford said. “I know they won’t find anything, but I am going to need a lawyer to prove I am innocent.” The DOJ “is like a militia for the Democrats,” Linda Hess, from Selinsgrove, told me. “I think our First Amendment rights are basically gone as conservatives. I really do.”
Trump and his loyalists are eager to fan these fears. “Your president called all of you extremists!” Greene told the rally when she was on stage. “Joe Biden has declared that half of this country are enemies of the state!” (The president, in fact, made a clear distinction: “Not every Republican, not even the majority of Republicans, are MAGA Republicans.”) “Save us, Trump!” one woman yelled from the crowd during his speech.
Fear can be a winning political tactic. It helped candidates like Mastriano sail to victory in the Republican primary. But general elections are different. The president’s party usually fares poorly in the midterms cycle, and just a few weeks ago, the fundamentals would have indicated that Republicans were about to have an excellent November. Recently, though, the numbers have shifted in the Democrats’ favor. Inflation is down, and so are gas prices; new job numbers are high, and unemployment is still low; and Democrats are already seeing signs that their voters are highly motivated by the overturning of Roe v. Wade. In the latest polls, both Mastriano and Oz are trailing their respective Democratic opponents, Josh Shapiro and John Fetterman.
Still, 10 weeks is a long time in American politics. Republicans could gain back an edge between now and then. Some experts predict that both races will probably end up much closer than they are now. The risks of electing an election denier such as Mastriano are clear: As governor, he’d have the power to appoint the secretary of state, and together, the two officials could muddy the waters after a close election or, allied with the Republican-dominated state legislature, even change election rules to benefit their party.
That danger extends far beyond the Keystone State. Other “Stop the Steal” candidates are running all over the country. In 2020 battleground states, candidates who’ve endorsed Trump’s lies about election fraud have won nearly two-thirds of GOP nominations for state and federal offices with election-oversight powers, according to a Washington Post analysis.
Whether these specific candidates win or lose, election denial has become the most important litmus test for the MAGA base. “Stop the Steal” is an expression of a deepening distrust in government and institutions—a mantra to remind its adherents that they, not their political opponents, are the rightful inheritors of America. The phrase is a metaphor, the sociologist Theda Skocpol told me last month, “for the country being taken away from the people who think they should rightfully be setting the tone.”
When their candidates lose, it can be only through trickery. When their leader is investigated for squirreling away cartons of national secrets at his country club, it’s a targeted attack by the “Regime,” to use Florida Republican Governor Ron DeSantis’s word—and capitalization.
After Mastriano had finished speaking, and before Trump took to the stage, an elderly white man stood up behind me and shouted, “Whose country is this?” The people nearby in the bleachers joined him in response: “It’s our country!” Later, Trump affirmed the sentiment. “No matter how big or powerful these corrupt radicals may be, you must never forget that this nation does not belong to them,” he told his supporters. “This nation belongs to you!” The people in the stadium roared their approval.