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NEW RICHMOND, Wisconsin —At just over seven months since Donald Trump lost the presidential election, just how strong is the siren song of “stop the steal” conspiracy theories within the Republican base? An answer of sorts could be found in the thousands of people wearing Trump-themed “patriot” gear who streamed into a grass field on Saturday to attend a “free speech festival” organized by one of the leading lights of election fraud misinformation: MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
While Trump was scheduled to address the predominantly white crowd via Jumbotron, Lindell, who dubbed the event a “free speech Woodstock,” inexplicably threatened to end an interview with The Daily Beast when asked if the rally could be seen as a show of strength of the Trump movement generally.
“I’m the one who paid for this whole rally, I’m the one who put this on. I paid for everything out of my pocket,” Lindell said. “You asked me what it means? Every single person in this country, Democrats, Republican, everybody that has been canceled, just people in general, that have been canceled out. You can’t talk about machines, you can’t talk about election fraud, you can’t talk about vaccines… you can’t talk about anything or they cancel you out.”
But Trump was clearly on the mind, shirts, hats and signs of the attendees. There was a distinctive festival-like feel, with a line leading to a patriotic face paint tent (lots of reds, white and blues, with some fireworks), just down the way from a corn dog stand, itself located next to a parade float with large letters spelling out “Trump 2021.”
A 13-year-old boy from Chicago came dressed in a “mini” Mike Lindell costume, complete with an oversized fake mustache and Make America Great Again hat. The boy walked past Bikers for Trump, who mingled in the crowd in their leather vests and patches. When Lindell spoke, four World War II era planes with Pilots for Trump did a low fly-by in a tight formation, white smoke trailing behind them.
Most attendees estimated that the crowd numbered about 10,000, less than the 20,000 Lindell had predicted the day before. (Organizers put the number much higher, at about 18,000, though they did not have an official count.)
But Emily Hartigan-Stein, 36, a conservative activist from Shoreview, Minnesota, said the showing still represented a return to the large, conservative rallies last seen regularly when Trump was still running for office.
Hartigan-Stein said she was encouraged by the showing. In Minnesota, she said, “Stop the Steal” rallies following the election were hampered by bitterly cold temperatures and were sparsely attended. She said she had just returned from a Trump themed flotilla in Florida last week, and was uplifted by the attendance there and the field of full chairs at Saturday’s rally.
“It’s encouraging to see people get involved again. Now people are finally starting to get it and get on board,” she said.
Another attendee, Pam Putzier, said she had no illusions that the election would be overturned, and she admitted that the crowd made up a small minority. But she is hopeful that a military coup will lead to the arrest of members of Congress and the reinstatement of Trump.
“Kick them all out. Surround the place and put them all in jail… I can’t even imagine it, but I’ll tell you what—I pray every night,” she said.
Intertwined election fraud and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories were common themes in speeches by conservative A listers like Charlie Kirk, Chris Cox, and Dinesh D'Souza. They addressed the crowd while standing on a stage featuring a large Jumbotron where Trump was set to appear— “We have the biggest Jumbotron I think I’ve ever seen,” Lindell exclaimed —with two smaller Jumbotrons on either side and a gigantic American flag hanging from a pair of construction cranes on stage right.
“We’re going to have the American flag, the biggest flag that I know of,” he said.
The lineup included three Black speakers—the duo Diamond and Silk, who used to appear regularly on Fox News until they began promoting anti-vax theories, and former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, the firebrand conservative known for his inflammatory rhetoric against Black Lives Matter and the mistreatment of inmates at the county jail until he resigned from office in 2017.
The three focused mostly on fanning the flames of the “critical race theory” panic that has become a rallying cry on the right, with Diamond and Silk repeating a refrain of “Keep your hands off our children” and labelling education about race a “conspiracy theory.” Clarke most directly addressed the murder of George Floyd. “I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of hearing about George Floyd,” he said to applause. Later, he added: “The sooner we can put George Floyd in our collective rear view mirror, the better.”
Anti-media sentiment was also rampant, though most of the ire was directed at Fox News—with whom Lindell had a spectacular falling out after the network opted to steer clear of him and his bonkers election fraud claims.
In April, Lindell told a podcast hosted by Steve Bannon that he had hired private investigators to find out why Fox News had stopped booking him. “Where is Fox News? Shame on you Fox News!” Lindell yelled into the mic at the beginning of his speech, calling it “disgusting what they’ve done to our country.”
The direct sun, with little shade available, took a toll on the audience, with the energy in the crowd dipping until Lindell introduced Donald Trump—who he described as the “real” president—on the Jumbotron, prompting a loud cheer. The crowd jumped to their feet, and collectively moved closer to the stage. Groups of people that had been off to the sides came toward the center to hear the former president return to two of his favorite themes: his baseless claim the election was stolen from him and his demonization of immigrants at the border.
“They want to silence us because of the election,” Trump said from the enormous screen. “They know the results. They know what really happened.”
He touched on what he argued was his administration’s great success with the COVID-19 vaccines, before returning to the kind of anti-immigrant rhetoric that is his hallmark: “They are killers, they are thugs, there are people being released from the jails of other countries,” he said, repeating the familiar talking points that he has used countless times since his 2016 campaign.
Lindell spoke last, returning to his particular brand of election conspiracy theory. Since his infamous meeting with Trump just days before the inauguration of Joe Biden, when a photographer snapped a photo of him carrying notes calling for the implementation of martial law, Lindell has alleged that he has evidence proving China conducted cyberattacks on Dominion voting machines to swing the election in Biden’s favor. The evidence he has provided so far has been thoroughly debunked, and he’s been hit with two massive defamation lawsuits for repeatedly peddling conspiracy theories about Dominion and Smartmatic.
In his mind, however, the lawsuits amount to “cancel culture” and a conspiracy “to suppress free speech and extort silence.”
On Saturday, he repeated those claims before going a step further and vowing to hold a mock election that he said would prove his hack theory. He ended by flogging his new social media site, frankspeech.com, which has been riddled with glitches even though he said he spent more than a million dollars on it. He asked the crowd to share videos on the site, despite the fact that posting features have yet to be enabled. By then, the crowd, which had begun to filter out after Trump’s speech ended, had already significantly dissipated.