SIOUX CITY, Iowa—Two years after declaring victory in an election he had lost, former President Donald Trump made clear in Iowa Thursday night that he would never accept the result and that none of his supporters should either.
“Your favorite President got screwed,” Trump said to the crowd, apologizing to the children in the audience for his language.
Trump took the stage in Sioux City, his first in a final sweep of rallies before the Nov. 8 midterms, on the two-year anniversary of the 2020 election. His refusal to admit defeat has since been fully embraced by the Republican Party, and has set the stage for Trump-aligned candidates in communities across the country potentially refusing to concede next week.
Trump became visibly irritated as he described a recent court decision in Pennsylvania about undated mail-in ballots. Trump claimed that if that same decision had been applied to ballots in 2020, he would have won instead of Joe Biden.
“This is a very unfair thing to your favorite President but what the hell, I’ve been treated so unfairly,” Trump said.
That sense of grievance over the last election was palpable at the rally. Charles Hibbs, 67, who traveled to Iowa from White River, South Dakota, described Nov. 3, 2020, as “the night it was stolen from him and robbed from us.” The retired middle school football coach said Republican secretaries of states and governors in key states should have done more to reverse the election results. If Trump was still President, Hibbs said, “we would be a nation free of enslavement from the federal government.”
Trump spoke for over an hour donned in a red “Make American Great Again” hat, as a brisk wind blew off the Iowa plains into the Sioux City Gateway Airport, whipping flags, wafting the smell of nearby Porta Pottys over the crowd, and wobbling Trump’s teleprompters.
“I’m getting seasick,” Trump joked.
He advocated for widespread overhauls of how elections are conducted around the country, calling for replacing electronic voting machines with paper ballots and only allowing voting on Election Day except for people who are “legitimately sick.”
“If you vote on Election Day, that’s better, it’s much harder for them to cheat,” Trump said. “We’re just five days away from the most important midterm election in American history.” He urged the crowd, to “volunteer as an election worker, poll watcher or poll challenger.”
Trump’s comments come at a moment of heightened tension around the elections, as local officials around the country brace for candidates and their supporters potentially questioning the legitimacy of the outcome, and for a possible surge in political violence. In Arizona, a federal judge set limits for how citizens can act around ballot drop-boxes after people with weapons were found to be intimidating voters. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband Paul was released from the hospital on Thursday after being undergoing surgery for a head injury after a home intruder hoping to question and torture the Speaker of the House attacked him with a hammer.
Read more: What to Know About the Attack on Paul Pelosi
Trump’s lies about elections began well before 2020. Four years earlier, after he won the presidency by securing the most electoral college votes, he quickly began spreading a lie that millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally had voted for Clinton, as a way to explain why her popular vote tally was higher than his. In the run up to the 2020 election, he falsely said that mail-in ballots were more vulnerable to fraud, sowing unwarranted distrust in ballots that were counted after those cast on Election Day in some states. After losing his reelection bid, Trump broadcast a string of falsehoods about voting machines being tampered with, ballot boxes being stuffed, and legions of dead people voting for Biden. None of his claims held up to scrutiny in court or from Bill Barr, his own attorney general during the election.
Years of Trump’s election lies have helped distort the American political system to his advantage, while leaving millions of his supporters distrustful of provable facts. The election denials have seeped into American politics at every level over the past two years. Six out of 10 American voters will see the name of at least one Republican who denies the 2020 election result on their ballot on Nov. 8, according to a tally by FiveThirtyEight.
Republican Senator Ron Johnson embodied that party-wide shift while speaking with reporters in Wisconsin this week. Johnson not only refused to say he would accept the results on Tuesday no matter the outcome, his response took a conspiratorial turn. “Is something going to happen on Election Day?” he mused, according to the Washington Post. “Do Democrats have something up their sleeves?”
Significant damage to American democracy has already been done, argues Jessica Levinson, a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School. “In a lot of ways, our democracy is not what it was a decade ago. This is not your grandfather’s democracy,” Levinson says. She describes the argument Trump and some current Republican candidates have been making as “if I win, trust the vote. If I lose, there’s massive fraud.” That, Levinson says, “is not an argument you can make in a truly democratic system.”
Jamie Deeds, who brought her son, 11, and her daughter, 13, to the rally, knows something about how elections are conducted. She was a poll worker in Iowa during the 2020 election and is confident the count she helped oversee was accurate. “We can’t leave that polling place until all of the numbers are correct. If there’s one number off, you have to recount everything,” she says.
She is less trusting of the 2020 vote in “bigger cities.” The way the vote totals swung late toward Biden on election night, as was widely predicted once mail-in ballots were counted, made her question the result. She said she saw reports about fake votes and dead people voting and thought it was “sketchy.” Even after those allegations were adjudicated in court and largely dismissed for lack of evidence, she still wasn’t convinced.
She says she will vote this year and will trust the local results, but that trust doesn’t extend to the national level. “I don’t think we can ever trust another presidential election,” Deeds said.
The next presidential election was on Trump’s mind Thursday night. Along with encouraging the crowd to “vote Republican in a giant red wave” and endorsing Republicans on the ballot including Senator Chuck Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds, he also teased his plans to announce a third run for President, as he has done in previous rallies. But even in that moment, Trump felt compelled to again remind those in attendance of his view on what happened the last time he was on the ballot.
“I ran twice, I won twice,” Trump said. “And now in order to make our country more prosperous, I will very very very very very probably do it again.”