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US midterms: The Trump voters who see a coming storm

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The upcoming midterm elections for US Congress, the first nationwide vote since Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol nearly two years ago, have many Americans on edge. The BBC’s Katty Kay has been finding out why.

Karen and Steve don’t want to take up arms. But if Republicans lose in November this elderly Arizona couple say a civil war is coming and, yes, they will fight. They have discussed it between them, and feel that taking up arms is their best option. It was at this point that our conversation grew a little dark and my faith in the strength of American democracy grew a little shaky.

I met the Slatons at their Trump paraphernalia store in Show Low, Arizona. It was one of the first stops on a month-long road trip that I took around America this summer, a journey to understand why the upcoming elections feel so consequential, perhaps even a little ominous.

The couple were delightful hosts. They were funny and generous. They took me on a tour of their extensive stock of whacky Trump merchandise and explained that, yes, there really are people who want a $100 life-size cut-out of the former president dressed as Rambo to put in their living rooms. Quite a lot of people actually. Trump as Rambo is one of their best selling items.

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We talked about history, the economy and even abortion. But it was only when I questioned their belief that the 2020 election was stolen that things got tense. Wasn’t it possible, I asked, that millions of Americans just didn’t like President Trump and so Joe Biden won the election?

It was Karen who responded, with a distinctly steely glint: “If you’re a crazy liberal, we’re just not interested. The central news, let me call them, I’m not going to call them fake news, but it is fake news to say that America doesn’t like Trump. America loves Trump.”

Trump cutout

The BBC is not fake news, but I let that pass. The idea of war, however, demanded clarification.

“It will start on a small scale, it will be like town against a town, state against a state,” Steve had clearly thought this through. People have been tossing this idea of a second American civil war around for a couple of years now, ever since the 2020 election, ever since the violence of the Capitol Riots on 6 January, 2021.

I find it hard to believe – maybe I lack imagination – but the idea of Americans going to war over a lost election still seems implausible. But that’s Steve’s take on what happened last time: “When Lincoln won, that triggered the South.” That’s not the only view of the origins of the American Civil War, but this wasn’t the moment for a history debate; it’s the present that needs attention.

As I said goodbye to the Slatons, Steve threw out a warning. It was said with a habitual American friendly smile, but it was chilling nonetheless: “This could turn really nasty.” Just how nasty was what I was trying to find out.

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Watch the documentary Trump: The Comeback?

You can watch Katty’s hour-long film in the UK on iPlayer.

In the US and Canada, it is available on BBC Select.

And it will be broadcast on BBC World News on 8 and 9 October. Click on the links for details.

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Americans cast their ballots for control of Congress every two years. The congressional elections that fall in years when they aren’t voting for president are called midterms. Because the White House isn’t up for grabs, midterms generally don’t get much attention and turnout hovers around 40%, lower than the 50-60% that vote in presidential elections. But this year feels different.

This is the first national election since the storming of the Capitol and will test whether America can hold an election without violence. And, to be clear, the war talk from Americans like the Slatons is not normal pre-election rhetoric. In two and a half decades in America I’ve covered 10 US election cycles, I have never heard voters talk about politics in this violent way.

Karen Slaton in her Trump merchandise store in Arizona

Karen and Steve’s views are not fringe views either. The belief that the 2020 election was stolen has seeped into the mainstream like a virus that now infects the entire democratic process. Polls since the election suggest that about 70% of Republicans believe Joe Biden is not the legitimate president. That’s about one third of the American electorate, or more than 50 million people – not far off the population of Britain.

This summer on a tour of Arizona, Wyoming, Georgia and Pennsylvania, I spoke to dozens of voters who are convinced Joe Biden is not America’s legitimate president. If you felt an election had been stolen from you, you’d be angry too. Indeed, maybe you’d feel it was something worth fighting for. The problem is there is no evidence to support the stolen election claim.

More than 60 lawsuits were brought by Trump’s lawyers claiming election fraud. All but one was dismissed for lack of evidence. Some of the suits were even heard by Trump appointed judges, and they, too, tossed the cases out. Key Republican election officials in battleground states, like Arizona, and Georgia, also said the election process had been fair and accurate. There is no evidence of fraud that would have overturned Joe Biden’s win.

Baseball cap that says God, guns, Trump

That hasn’t stopped the fraud conspiracy virus from spreading. Trump may have launched it, but it has now spread across the country and taken on a life of its own. It is different from policy issues like gun rights or taxes. People have strong beliefs about those things too – Steve and Karen Slaton certainly did. But disagreements on those issues have facts that both sides can debate.

The “election was stolen” is not a debatable issue. There are no facts on that side of the argument. In that way it’s more like an unshakable belief system, and from my interviews I’m not sure the faithful would change their minds even if Trump himself were to suddenly say Biden won fair and square.

‘I wasn’t scared, I was mad’

The impact of this conspiracy on the US voting system was made clear to me in Georgia, in the election offices of Paulding County, where public officials are gearing up for the midterms with some trepidation.

Deirdre Holden is an unelected civil servant with the job of Supervisor of Elections and Voter Registration. She is in charge of the mechanics of voting, making sure polling stations operate smoothly, ballots are collected safely and counted accurately. Holden doesn’t tear up easily, but when she rereads the threat letter she received after the 2020 election she chokes, for just a second.

“This election is effing rigged,” it reads. (Deirdre is exceptionally polite, she has that wonderful Southern gentility, and she wants to spare me the profanities.) “Detonations will occur at every polling site in this county. No one at these places will be spared. If you think we’re bluffing, eff-ing try. You’ve been warned. We will end you all.” Deirdre puts down the letter and wipes her eye.

If I got that message, I’d be afraid to come into work, but what I’m seeing isn’t fear, it’s anger. “I never was scared. I was mad. Mad that someone tries to threaten us, to threaten the people that just want to cast their vote. That didn’t sit very well with me,” Deirdre says.

Deirdre Holden

When her office in Paulding County (which by the way voted for Trump, though that really shouldn’t matter) received that threat after the 2020 election, they passed it onto the FBI. Agents told her she ought to start parking her car outside her office window; it would help limit the force impact of an explosion, they explained.

Deirdre wasn’t the only election official to be targeted after that vote. The select committee investigating the Capitol Riot interviewed several witnesses who had been threatened, along with their families. After Al Schmidt, Philadelphia’s elected Republican city commissioner, defended the election’s integrity and confirmed Biden’s win, he got one text that read, “You lied. You [are] a traitor. Perhaps 75 cuts and 20 bullets will arrive soon.”

The Brennan Center for Public Justice examined the aftermath of the 2020 election and concluded that threats against both elected and unelected election officials reached unprecedented levels. According to their findings, one in three election officials said they felt unsafe doing the job. Little surprise that large numbers quit after 2020.

The question is why so much mistrust and anger now? Americans have been polarised for decades and this is not the first conspiracy theory to take hold here. But we haven’t seen a storming of the US Capitol before, nor so many threats to election officials, nor so much attention paid to trying to change the election rules.

The answer, most political observers suggest, is a confluence of events that allowed the election denying conspiracy to spread, thereby weakening the whole system.

First, Trump started saying the vote would be rigged against him, long before the election even happened. He undermined trust before a single ballot was cast. Then, election rules changed in 2020 to accommodate Covid restrictions. Election deniers say those changes, which included more early voting and more postal votes, left the system open to widespread fraud (though there’s no evidence of that.)

The Brennan report also points to the impact of social media. “In 2020, political actors ramped up the lies about election processes, often on social media” the report found. “This disinformation has indelibly changed the lives and careers of election officials.” Almost 80% of election officials, according to the report, say the rise of misinformation has made their jobs more difficult. Over a half say it has made them more dangerous.

“People just have lost their trust. And that’s what breaks my heart,” says election official Deirdre Holden. And like the Slatons, she leaves me with a warning – November’s midterms are going to be worse.

Trust in elections ebbing away

Deirdre is non-partisan. I spent a few hours with her and I can honestly say I have no idea how she votes. That’s exactly as it should be. The running of democratic elections should be in the hands of officials who have no bias. The people who organise the voting, count the ballots and certify the results should not inject their own politics into the process. When they do, trust is lost.

And in this respect, the dispute over 2020 has shown the American system to be uniquely vulnerable. The US is the only Western democracy where the senior election officials are not civil servants. At the state level, it is the post of secretary of state that runs the election. And that person is elected, as a Democrat or a Republican.

This November there are some 200 Republicans on the ballot who say they believe the 2020 election was stolen. In at least seven states there are election deniers on the ballot who could have a direct impact on voting systems. In a close election in 2024, those people could be key in deciding who wins the White House.

One of those critical posts is a state’s secretary of state. In the past it was a post that got very little attention in election campaigns. It was almost an afterthought and certainly not a position that would get national or even international press attention. So the fact that I found myself flying over the desert in a private plane interviewing Arizona’s candidate for secretary of state this summer, is a telling indication of how this midterm election is different.

In a world where election results are contested, the secretary of state suddenly becomes very important. They have the ability to change the way people are allowed to vote and even change the rules around the count.

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Trump fully understands the significance of this post – on 2 January 2021 he famously called Georgia’s Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger, and urged the Republican to “find” him an extra 11,780 votes so that Trump could win the state. Raffensperger denied Trump’s request. Now the former president wants to make sure that he has allies in the job of secretary of state, so that if he runs in 2024, he can count on them to help him out.

In the run-up to the midterm elections, money and attention, from both parties, is pouring into the secretary of state races in half a dozen battleground states. Which is why I spent the day, and a terrifyingly bumpy plane ride, with Mark Finchem. And also why he had a private jet at his disposal in the first place.

Joe Biden won Arizona by a mere 10,000 votes. Finchem is a staunch election denier who believes Trump was robbed in the state and would like to overturn the 2020 result. If he’s elected this November, he plans to ban voting by mail (the preferred choice of 80% of Arizona’s electorate), ban early voting, and do away with electronic voting machines – all by 2024, the next presidential contest. He says he just wants to eliminate any chance for fraud.

His critics say Finchem is a threat to democracy who wants to control the voting process in a way that could swing the vote in Republicans’ favour. One Republican state representative has even broken with Finchem and is backing his Democratic opponent in the race.

Finchem has a mix of charm and vehemence that is disarming. He told me he doesn’t believe Democrats could ever win Arizona, not in 2020, not in 2022 and not in 2024. He is running against Democrat Adrian Fontes and appears well positioned to win the race. In September, a poll by OH Predictive Insights showed Finchem leading Fontes 40%-35%.

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So, a man who says the last election was rigged and who also doesn’t believe Republicans can lose the state could well end up in charge of running elections. It’s not hard to see where this could go. If Finchem, and other candidates like him around the country, change the voting system in ways that make it almost impossible for their side to lose, then, come 2024, Democrats, with some reason, won’t trust the results either. They will say they were robbed of victory. It won’t be many voting cycles before no one trusts election results here.

As I travelled thousands of miles across the country it was clear both sides believe America’s democracy is in peril, for very different reasons. Each side blames the other.

There’s no obvious solution to this spiral of mistrust. Across the nation I heard anger, anxiety, even talk of violence. We are watching these midterms so closely, in part because of the attack of January 6th and in part because they will help set the stage for whether Donald Trump runs again. 2024 is just around the corner. It is likely to be a tumultuous couple of years.

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