COMMERCE, Ga.—All this time later, there’s still really nothing like a Trump rally. It’s like attending a county fair, or the world’s oddest rock concert. It’s acres of lawn parking at the Banks County Dragway, where the cars and trucks are dotted here and there with TRUMP WON bumper stickers or hand-lettered with the QAnon slogan WWG1WGA. It’s funnel cake and donut stands, and pop-up stall after pop-up stall of Trump-themed merch. There is in fact a critical mass of merch. Not everyone’s wearing a LET’S GO BRANDON hoodie or a Mike Lindell badge or an IF YOU DON’T LIKE TRUMP, YOU WON’T LIKE ME shirt, but everyone who owns one is, in concentrations roughly the same as you’d expect at any sporting event. Show up only six hours early—more than seven hours, it turns out, before Donald Trump will actually take the stage—and you’re out of luck: No more seating, standing room only.
It can feel like a silly game for pundits and political junkies—trying to suss out to what degree Trump’s once-commanding grip on the Republican electorate has slipped. But it’s anything but a theoretical question here in Georgia, where former senator David Perdue is banking on Trump’s ongoing star power to carry him to victory in his primary challenge against GOP Gov. Brian Kemp this May.
For Trump, the 2022 midterms are about one thing: punishing Republicans who failed to support his claims of a stolen election when he lost to Joe Biden in 2020. And Kemp—who despite Trump’s 2018 endorsement declined to involve himself in Trump’s efforts to overturn Biden’s win in Georgia—may be enemy number one.
Trump has therefore selected Perdue as his instrument of vengeance, and in return Perdue has lashed himself more completely than ever to Trump’s stolen-election lies. In the immediate aftermath of the 2020 election, when Perdue was forced into a runoff election he would ultimately lose to Democrat Jon Ossoff, he drew scattered boos at a November rally with then-Vice President Mike Pence when he referenced something “President Biden” would do—before an audience that was anything but convinced Biden would be inaugurated president at all. In the face of a “Stop the steal!” chant, Perdue uncomfortably suggested that “what we have to do right now is hold the line.”
No such waffling now. In fact, Perdue has recently begun to claim that not only Trump’s, but also his own election victory was stolen in 2020. “Let me be very clear,” Perdue says at the Commerce rally. “In the state of Georgia, thanks to Brian Kemp, our elections were absolutely stolen.”
Since Perdue jumped into the governor’s race last year, he has consistently trailed Kemp in fundraising and in the polls. This has permitted Kemp to largely ignore Perdue thus far, focusing in speeches on the ultimate threat of Stacey Abrams, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. But with a significant number of Republicans still unaware Trump is backing his candidacy, Perdue’s hoping that events like Saturday’s will give him the boost he needs to get over the top.
It’s hard, though, to shake the feeling that the Trump show in 2022 is a bit like the current state of the Rolling Stones—there’s something missing that nostalgia can’t quite recapture. “Standing room only,” for instance, is a relative term: There’s only about a thousand seats in the outdoor venue, meaning the majority of attendees have to congregate over by the portable toilets, straining to see Trump even on the pair of mounted screens. The crowd is substantial, some 5,000 strong—it’s hard to imagine another political figure pulling these sorts of numbers in this small town 90 minutes northeast of Atlanta—but only a fraction of the size of events Trump’s done in the state in prior years.
When the former president appears a little after 8 p.m., the odd feeling of faded nostalgia intensifies as he plays the hits from rallies past—the list of grievances of how Democrats had tried to erase his 2016 victory through the Mueller investigation and two impeachments, the macho boasting about how he had cowed world leaders into doing his bidding, the obligatory invitation for the crowd to turn around and boo the media on the press risers at the back.
An hour or so into his freewheeling speech, the crowd will have shrunk considerably, with people heading for the exits thanks to some combination of the late hour, the cold and wind, the difficulty of seeing what’s going on from the standing-room section, and the instinct shared by all dads to leave a little early and beat the rush.
So it’s fortunate for Perdue that Trump has his grudge against Kemp front of mind. During his presidency, it wasn’t uncommon for Trump to show up at an event with a candidate he was endorsing and reel through nearly his entire speech before remembering to say a few nice words about the candidate at the end. Not so here: “That’s a big crowd of people,” Trump says right out of the gate, “and they love David Perdue.” And for the next 15 minutes, it’s one unbroken diatribe against the governor: “Before we can defeat the Democrat socialists and communists, which is exactly what we’re running against at the ballot box this fall, we first have to defeat the RINO sellouts and the losers in the primaries this spring.”
“If there’s one thing the people of Georgia need to know about this race, it’s that Brian Kemp, he sold you out,” Trump says. “He didn’t look, he didn’t wanna look. He didn’t want anything to do with it.” More: “Brian Kemp is a turncoat. He’s a coward and he’s a complete and total disaster.”
You get the idea. The problem with Trump’s attack is that, basically any time it turns to particulars of what Kemp has supposedly done, it’s pretty much nonsense. Take his dismissal of SB 202, the elections law Georgia Republicans passed and Kemp signed over fierce Democratic opposition last year. “You don’t have a strong bill—you don’t even have signature verification,” Trump sneers. “I don’t know if you know that—wouldn’t it be nice to have signature verification on an election bill? But you don’t have it because of Brian Kemp.”
This is a funhouse mirror distortion of what the relevant provision of SB 202 actually did, which was replace the labor-intensive signature-matching process for absentee ballots with a new absentee voter ID system—a change, in other words, that made absentee voting more secure. Georgia elections official Gabe Sterling explained the change to The Dispatch more than a year ago: “A signature is a subjective thing. We’re trying to get to where there’s objective measurements that are easier for our county elections officials to train and execute. It’s easier to train the $10-an-hour temp employee to say, does this number match this number, than does this loop on the beginning of a cursive thing—now being done less with ink and pen and more on a digital pad—match this other one you’re now seeing with ink and pen?”
Of course, Trump’s point isn’t to pin Kemp down on particular weaknesses of his election policy—it’s to brand him an enemy of the MAGA agenda for failing to bend the knee. The big question: Will enough voters buy it?
Speaking to rally attendees earlier in the day, it quickly became clear that a fondness for the former president and support for the Republican Party in general was about all they had in common. This was no wall of Perdue support—plenty of voters said they thought Kemp had done a good job during his first term, although they were open to hear what Perdue had to say.
“I’m not a hundred percent on board with Perdue at the moment,” said Grant Funk, a local electrician. “You know, I think Kemp’s done a fairly good job through the pandemic and whatnot. I’m leaning Kemp, but Perdue easily can take over—but I just hate that we were put in this position as conservatives. Now we’re pitting one against the other—it’s just gonna weaken us for Stacey Abrams to possibly take over.”
“I’m here to let him win my vote,” said attendee Jeannie Hendrix of Perdue. “I’m a teacher, and Governor Kemp has been pretty good for teachers. But … he didn’t do what he needed to do for the election.”
(For Team Perdue, of course, this might be exactly the demographic they hoped to see at the rally, given how their strategy turns on Trump’s endorsement swinging new voters their way.)
Several attendees, however, had instead found themselves intrigued by a different candidate altogether: Kandiss Taylor, a schoolteacher running on a platform of “Jesus, Guns, and Babies” who despite bringing up a distant third in every poll had cannily parked her campaign bus at the entrance to the rally.
“I’m voting for Kemp—unless I vote for this lady right here,” said attendee Randall Cowart. “I hadn’t heard of her, but she’s got my attention now.”