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In between aggrieved tangents about his loss in the presidential election, President Donald Trump briefly swore at a campaign rally on Saturday night that he really did want to talk about the ostensible reason he was in Georgia. But even then, he all but admitted he was doing so begrudgingly.
“I wanna stay on presidential, but I gotta get to these two,” said Trump at one point, motioning to Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA), for whom he was meant to be campaigning.
“I don’t like doing it for other people,” he said later, noting that he wasn’t sure if anybody was going to show up for the rally.
Regardless, the president quickly dove back into the presidential election anyway, and into the web of far-fetched conspiracies and long-debunked lies that he’s used again and again to explain his loss to Democrat Joe Biden, over the course of a nearly two-hour rally in the southern Georgia city of Valdosta.
Trump did spend some time dutifully delivering his lines to buck up the two GOP senators, who need to win their January runoff elections in order for the party to retain control of the Senate. And he reprised his favorite attacks on the “radical left” to go after the Democratic candidates running against them.
But the president, and the crowd there to see him, were clearly most invested in the election that just happened rather than the one ahead. Trump, ultimately, spent far more time launching repeated broadsides on the integrity of the voting system in Georgia, and torching the state’s GOP officials for not doing enough to fix a “rigged” election, than he did talking about Loeffler and Perdue or even their opponents.
“You know we won Georgia, just so you understand,” were the president’s first words when he took the stage, to massive cheers and applause. His opening remarks were trimmed with references to conspiracy theories about the state’s election that have grown popular on the right—allegations that ballot boxes were stuffed or that some votes for him disappeared, none of which have been substantiated by election officials.
When the time came for Perdue and Loeffler’s brief turn to deliver their own remarks, the crowd shouted them down with cries of, “fight for Trump!” Struggling to be heard over the chants, Perdue offered this line: “We're gonna fight to make sure you get a fair, square deal in the state of Georgia. God bless you, Mr. President."
For weeks, concern has grown within the GOP about Trump’s relentless rhetoric undermining his supporters’ faith in Georgia’s election system ahead of the most pivotal congressional election in recent memory. And while top Republicans reportedly urged Trump to visit Georgia to rally his base ahead of the runoffs, there was apprehension that the president would use the spotlight to air his grievances and continue fomenting distrust in the election system.
Trump ended up doing all of the above. But he also attempted to cement a cognitive dissonance among his supporters—that the election may have been stolen from him, and that Georgia’s system has been helplessly rigged by feckless Republicans and cheating Democrats, but that voters must nevertheless go out and vote anyway.
Doing so, he suggested, would avenge him. “They’ll get in,” Trump said of Perdue and Loeffler, “and we’ll fix the system.”
And referencing calls from some Trump supporters to boycott the runoff, Trump admitted, “it was an instinct of mine. You’re angry and you say, we can’t do that.” But, he added, “we have to do just the opposite. If you don’t vote, the socialists and the communists win.”
After whipsawing between teleprompter-fed lines about the Senate races and his off-the-cuff complaints about the election, Trump seemed to revert back to form, ending the rally with a rambling rehash of his own accomplishments as if it were a rally for his own presidential campaign.
Indeed, at various points, Trump alluded to the impossibility that he would get a second term—rhetoric validated by Perdue’s onstage promise to ensure he gets a “fair” result in the state. “They cheated and they rigged our presidential election, but we will still win it,” Trump said at one point. At another, he said it’d go to the Supreme Court, even though his legal team’s efforts to overturn the election so far have repeatedly been shot down in court.
Even his pitches for Republicans to vote in the runoff were animated, ultimately, by the election he claims was stolen. “If you want to do something to them,” said Trump of Democrats, “I don’t want to use the word revenge—show up and vote in record numbers.”