Rallies have always been the lifeblood of Donald Trump’s campaign strategy. To the president and his staunchest supporters, the often-raucous events were the secret sauce that propelled him to his surprise victory in 2016. But even after most networks called the race for Joe Biden, MAGA sentiment prevails among the president’s biggest fans.
Thousands of Trump supporters flocked to Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C. on Saturday to protest the mainstream media, rail against the Democratic Party, and contest President Trump’s electoral defeat to Joe Biden. The rally was reportedly an amalgamation of several different grassroots events that circulated online before November 14, including “March for Trump,” “Stop the Steal,” and the “Million MAGA March.”
The event kicked off at Freedom Plaza at noon on Saturday and featured a litany of GOP firebrand speakers, including newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia’s 14th District. “You see, I’m not a politician—I’m a proud American woman,” Greene said during her speech, shouting over a nearby “BLM sucks” chant. “The Democrat Party is no longer an American party. They’re the party of socialism! The party of riots! The party of burning businesses! The party of AOC’s Green New Deal!” The prospect of environmental progressive takeover prompted a loud chorus of boos from the crowd.
Almost all of the rally attendees The Dispatch interviewed said they believe Trump won the election. Many cited debunked conspiracy theories, a few believed that God had chosen Trump, and all were worried about a Biden administration implementing socialism.
“He won, hands down,” said Dawn Cline, who cited Trump’s lead on Election Night as foolproof evidence that Joe Biden stole the election. “Tuesday night when we went to bed, he was winning and then we woke up, and they stole it.”
When pressed a bit further, Cline insisted that her theories about widespread voter fraud would be proven by the end of the day. “They found the Dominion software,” she said in reference to the debunked conspiracy theory that Dominion Voting Systems—a company that makes vote counting machines—intentionally manipulated vote counts in Joe Biden’s favor. “So it’s gonna all come out today, according to Trump’s lawyers,” Cline said. “So I’m just gonna sit back and wait for that to unravel.”
Other rally attendees spent the day proselytizing about the evils of socialism. “I’m here to support my president, I’m here because Alex Jones told me to be here,” said Joshua Sparks, who came to the rally from North Carolina. “You know, a lot of stuff they say about election fraud, voter fraud is true. But that’s been going on for years. This is really much deeper than that. This is something serious. It’s about the new world order.”
Sparks spent the next few minutes expounding on the Bilderberg Group conspiracy theory, which alleges that a cabal of elites—including George Soros and Bill Gates—are engaged in a plot to take over the world. He warned that “depopulation, slavery, communism, one world government,” and “globalization” will destroy our civilization if these elites get their way. “That’s why I’m here, because I believe President Trump is our best bet to stop that.”
Satanism, he said, is at the core of the Democratic Party’s policy agenda. “The people need to not be afraid to think that there is evil in this world. Look at this,” Sparks said as he pointed to the inverted cross tattoo on his right cheek. “I started on the wrong side until I—that’s how I found God. ‘Cause I found evil first and then he exists and it is coming for us. A ‘New World Order’ is real, man.”
Wendy Dominski, from Niagara Falls, warned of Satan’s alleged stranglehold over the media. “The news media is horrible,” she told The Dispatch. “We’ve been to almost all of his rallies and they cut and paste what they want people to hear. And it’s not what he said. And it’s just a lot of lies. And that’s what Satan does. He has come here to kill, steal, and destroy this land, which is the promised land that God gave to us.”
“But guess what?” she continued. “The light is shining through. If you look around right now today, God is everywhere.” Dominski, who called herself a “prayer warrior,” said she is confident that God’s light will secure Trump another four years in the White House. “He’s got it. Stand strong, buddy. ‘Cause we’re standing right behind you.”
Many Trump supporters felt as though they owed the president. “President Trump for the last four years has always fought for us,” said Austin Scott, a 22-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee. “So we thought we’d come out and fight for him. Trump supporters don’t really get out in the streets like this, but we decided it was necessary this time. We had to do something.”
“He’s always been there for us,” 21-year-old David Jones chimed in. “So I had to come out here and be here for him.”
Neither Scott nor Jones could wrap their heads around how Joe Biden cut into Trump’s lead overnight on Election Night. “I do think he won with the votes stopping late at night and then everything changing,” Scott said. “He was winning big and then when everyone was asleep, then Biden got like a 100 percent of votes out of nowhere and just took over.”
Others explained it away by blaming fraud and conspiracy.
“We all know that they’re stealing the election because there was information about the Dominion voter machines that are flipping the votes and a Hammer program is taking votes away from Donald Trump and giving him to Biden,” Mark Bryngelson of Stafford, Virginia said in reference to two more debunked conspiracy theories that were propagated by the president himself on Twitter. “There’s no way that Joe Biden got more votes than President Trump and then more votes than Obama,” Bryngelson said. “I mean, it’s just impossible. He couldn’t get anybody to his rallies.”
Joe Biden traveled sparsely and held mostly drive-in rallies where attendees stayed in their cars, in keeping with his campaign’s strict adherence to COVID-19 precautions. After a brief hiatus at the beginning of the pandemic, the Trump campaign consistently held large in-person rallies on the campaign trail. Most of his rallies had crowds in the hundreds or even thousands.
Bryngelson told me that he worries about the polarized state of our country. “A divided house falls, and that’s what the Democrats want, ‘cause they’re a bunch of Marxists and communists. They want to divide our country, split it up.” But he was enthusiastic about Trump’s healing powers. “President Trump is bringing us together. We all love a good pep rally. We all love a good game,” he said. “We’re all together cheering for America. And I think that’s what President Trump does for us.”
David Ferguson, a Massachusetts resident who just recovered from throat cancer, was not worried about the many unmasked rally attendees. “I’m 57, I’ve got a compromised immune system,” Ferguson said through labored breathing. “I just went through chemotherapy for throat cancer. If I get it, I will die.” He said that every month since his diagnosis two years ago, his ENT cancer doctor has been imploring him not to get sick.
“Now, do you think I should be walking around with a mask on or quarantined, you know, if I was right-minded, right? Of course.” Ferguson joked. “But because I value my freedom of choice, my own ability to think and make my individual decisions … God-given right to choose, to be able to walk out of my house or to go work.”
I asked David about his T-shirt, which was emblazoned with a red, white and blue “Q” logo. “I don’t know if I’m an off-the-charts believer [in QAnon],” he explained. But he said that what he’s followed has been “eerily accurate” so far. “Either I’m being played or it’s real, it’s that simple, it’s one or the other,” Ferguson said.
Rebecca Schmidgall, who flew up from Naples, Florida on Friday, was not concerned about mask-wearing either. “I haven’t sort of been a mask person. I keep my distance. If you want it to keep your distance, you certainly could. I’m not going to invade anybody’s space,” Schmidgall said. “But it’s up to me to decide what I want to put on my body, my consequences …”
Schmidgall said the rally was not so much a Trump rally as it was a demand for accountability from the media. “It’s an honesty rally. The media has lied to us and has not told us what we need to know.” Schmidgall was dressed head to toe in MAGA attire but insisted that she has her disagreements with the president. “We don’t want 100 percent Trump all the time. That’s not what we’re asking for. We don’t want everyone to be ‘rah, rah.’ What we want is people to look at things objectively and to tell us what the facts are, and then let us make up our own mind.”
“Nobody’s won the election,” Schmidgall said. “If Donald Trump didn’t get the votes, then he should concede. And the same on the other side, but nobody is the president. Nobody is the president-elect right now. That’s not a thing.”
Many of the Trump supporters I spoke to had traveled hundreds of miles to participate in the march. Charles Gilbert told me he came all the way from Georgia to make a stand for freedom. “I really believe that the media is trying to suppress the American spirit and they’re testing the American spirit,” he said as he began marching toward the Supreme Court, carrying a “Prevent Socialism” Smokey the Bear flag. “And so we came here today to say the American spirit for freedom is alive and well.”
Gilbert’s friend Mark Roberts, an Alabama native, added: “That’s it. I’ve actually never been proud of a president before. … Donald Trump is the first and only one that I can say that I am truly proud of. He’s just an American who loves this country, I think. And we’d like to return the favor if at all possible.”
The march attracted hundreds of members of the Proud Boys, the all-male far-right brotherhood Trump told to “stand back and stand by” during the first presidential debate in September.* Decked out in their signature black and yellow garb—with helmets and bullet-proof vests—none of them would speak to me, saying merely that the group’s leader, Enrique Tarrio, is the only one permitted to speak to the press.
I listened as some of the group’s leaders warned about interacting with counterprotesters. “[They’re trying to] instigate us, just to cause an incident. Be better. Be smarter,” he said. “Proud of you boy,” he said to the crowd, who hooted and hollered in agreement.
Another member, wearing a Proud Boys offshoot of a Boy Scouts vest, grabbed the megaphone. “Boys, find your chapters!” he ordered. “Make sure everyone’s here, we don’t wanna lose nobody behind enemy lines!”
The women gathered at the fringes of the Proud Boys huddle were enamored with the group. “It’s a great group of guys. It is, it really is,” said North Carolinian Shannon Lewis, whose husband is a member. “We’re just out here expressing our opinion and our rights. And we’re keeping it peaceful.”
“These guys, I love them with all my heart,” said Susan Miller, a teacher from New York. “They’re patriots, they’re Americans. They love our president. They are nonviolent. And if they saw you as a woman being hurt, they would run and encircle you to protect you. I love them and I stand with them.”
She, too, was confident that Trump would remain in the White House for another four years. “I can’t tell you what I know,” Miller said. “But I can tell you we’re gonna win. When the voter fraud and basement Joe — China communist Joe Biden — for many years, with Little Hunter ….They’re going to find out where they’re going to go. Okay? Voter fraud is all over the country and mainstream media blocked it out because they’re in bed with the Democrats.” Miller told me she would take a bullet for the president.
Soon after the rally ended, violence broke out in the streets. At about 2 p.m. Saturday, I saw counterprotesters taunting Trump rally supporters while driving by in a parade of cars. They blasted the YG song, “F*ck Donald Trump,” while screaming obscenities at anyone wearing MAGA paraphernalia. The violence escalated later that evening. According to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s spokesperson, LaToya Foster, at least 20 people were arrested and two Metropolitan D.C. police officers were injured after violent skirmishes between rally attendees and counterprotesters. One person was also stabbed, according to a D.C. fire official.
The few counterprotesters I saw during the day drew ire from the crowd during the march. “Pedo supporters!” chanted Aristotle Maragas at a pair of counterprotesters who were marching on the outskirts of the crowd while carrying “Trump Lost” signs. “If Joe Biden wins legally, I will congratulate Joe Biden, but right now there’s so much cheating,” said Maragas, who came from the Oklahoma City area.
Maragas believes the election will end up at the Supreme Court. “When you supposedly find 139,000 ballots in Michigan and only Biden is selected, and none of the down-ballot stuff is selected? That’s fraud. That is cheating. That’s lying. And I’m sorry, it’s wrong.”
Maragas appeared visibly distressed about the integrity of our elections. “[Voter fraud] makes our electoral system a joke, and it creates division and even more division,” he said. “And if we can’t trust our elections, then there’s one choice: civil war. And I don’t want that.”
Correction, November 16: The piece originally described Trump’s statement to the Proud Boys as “stand down and stand by.” He said “stand back and stand by.”
Header photograph by Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call/ Getty Images. Other photographs by Audrey Fahlberg.