Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S., on Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.By the time former President Donald Trump takes the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Texas on Sunday afternoon, attendees will have no doubt who he believes won last November’s election.With a speaker list packed with Trump acolytes and panels with titles such as “Detecting Threats to Election Integrity: How to Collect Evidence of Fraud” and “Spare the Fraud, Spoil the Child: The Future of American Elections” there will be no shortage of people willing to boost the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.
As he’s returned to staging campaign-style rallies in recent weeks, Trump has shown that even eight months after President Joe Biden won the election, he is still clinging to the claim that there was widespread fraud during the election and that he should still be in the Oval Office.But at CPAC, Trump will be among friends and he won’t have to work that hard to convince anyone that he’s the legitimate president.The latest polls suggest that 53% of Republicans believe that Trump is the true president. While most on the left are scratching their heads that the figure is so high, those on the right are looking at the 47% who don’t ascribe to this theory and are trying to do something about it.Over the last six months, as the fallout from the Capitol insurrection subsided and Trump continued to push the conspiracy about a stolen election, a shadow network of acolytes, grifters and sycophants lined up to bring his message to the masses, organizing grassroots and fundraising events across the country.But as well as spreading lies about the election being stolen, this strange mix of national lawmakers and internet-famous conspiracy theorist helped spread anti-vaxx disinformation, COVID-19 denialism, antisemitism, and, of course, QAnon conspiracy theories.Here’s a look at some of those efforts:
This is a 110-day tour with 89 stops in all 50 states organized by Robert David Steele, a former CIA spy, a well-known conspiracy theorist and one of the earlier promoters of QAnon.“I really feel good about the country,” Steele told the audience at a stop in Menoken Grove, North Dakota this week, before casually promoting the conspiracy that Trump will return to office in August and adding: “I’m a Trumper, plain and true.”These events are not slickly produced shows, but are designed to be low-key in order to connect with the people attending. Steele, oftentimes speaking in what look like hay sheds, portrays himself as just a regular guy fighting for his fellow citizens. As an example of the lo-fi nature of the events, rather than using flashy digital presentations, Steele uses cardboard flash cards during his speeches to show how the government is “screwing over” its citizens.Clips of the events posted to the alternative video-sharing platform Rumble by the tour’s organizer show that audiences are typically in the dozens. Sometimes, like at the July 4 event at Mount Rushmore, the figure may have passed 100, but at other events, like the one in Pembla County Fairgrounds in Hamilton, North Dakota, the attendance looked to be as low as 10 people.
Arise USA: The Resurrection Tour
Steele’s website describes the tour as a “non-profit civics education campaign” designed to “restore integrity to the U.S. Government via an Election Reform Act.” What the tour website doesn’t mention, however, is the depths of Steele’s antisemitic beliefs.As documented in this recent report from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, Steele has has long history of antisemitism, including the times he called for all Jews who are not sufficiently “loyal to the Republic” to be jailed, and said that we must “eradicate every Zionist who refuses to be loyal to their country of citizenship and the rule of law.”As well as hating Jewish people, Steele has a deep-seated hatred for the political class (but believes that Trump should not be included in this category as he is a businessman first and foremost).Steele and the other speakers on the tour, who include a variety of fringe mini-celebrities from MAGA world as well as local pro-Trump figures, are using the tour to reinforce the idea that the government is not to be trusted and that regular citizens (the 99%, as Steele calls them) need to stand up and take action in order to regain control.Central to this is the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA), a group led by longtime militia figure Richard Mack, who wants to reintroduce Posse Comitatus, a violent far-right movement that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and whose ideas underpinned the militia and common law courts movements of the 1990s.
The overall message to the people who are coming to these rallies is that you can’t trust anyone in government or on Capitol Hill—but you can trust Trump.
On the other end of the scale is the Reawaken America Tour, formerly known as the Health and Freedom Conference, and, briefly, the Reopen America Tour.This is a series of slickly produced and well-attended conferences across the country, which brings together prominent QAnon influencers (Lin Wood, Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell), high profile pro-Trump religious leaders (such as Pastor Greg Locke), anti-vaxxers, and some of the biggest election fraud conspiracy boosters, including Mike Lindell and Patrick Byrne.
Reawaken America Tour
The events have been organized by Clay Clark, a Tulsa businessman. Each event is held in a church, and so far Clark has held sold-out events in his home town and in Florida. Next up is an event in California later in July, before moving on to Michigan in August, Colorado in September and Texas in November, where 6,500 tickets will be up for grabs.The tie that binds all of the various viewpoints at these conferences together? Trump, and the baseless belief that he is still very much the legitimate president.
Arguably, the bogus recount taking place in Maricopa County has done the most to perpetuate the myth that the election was stolen from Trump.By indulging QAnon-inspired conspiracies about bamboo ballots flown in from Asia and secret watermarks, Republicans in the Arizona Senate gave Trump supporters something to focus on, a tangible event that they could point to whenever someone said they were spreading lies.
The Arizona Audit
Telegram channels with tens of thousands of followers were set up to monitor every moment of the ballot, while lawmakers from over a dozen other states visited the Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix and indicated they would try to conduct similar recounts. A Pennsylvania state senator this week said his state needs to conduct a “forensic audit” similar to the one taking place in Arizona.The event has also been a fundraising boon for Republicans and other grifters, with millions of dollars being donated to fund the sham recount.
Women for America First is a nonprofit spearheaded by former Tea Party activist Amy Kremer, whose PAC previously ran the Women for Trump group. Women for America First was the group who organized the Jan. 6 rally that preceded the Capitol riots.The group was founded, its website says, to counter “liberal feminists and their cohorts” who they say have spent billions to undermine conservative female voices.Since the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the group has gone on to hold a number of events promoting the Big Lie, including a Save America summit at Trump’s own Doral National resort, with speakers including Rep. Matt Gaetz, who is under investigation into whether he paid underage girls for sex, and other Trump acolytes like Sen. Rand Paul, Rep. Louie Gohmert, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Women for America First
Women For America First has also begun an “election integrity town hall” tour in Georgia where they are pushing for an Arizona-style audit. “If they actually won, then they should be happy to prove they actually won,” Kremer told the audience at the inaugural town hall last month.
On Wednesday, Kremer posted an updated schedule of events, which includes half a dozen town halls in Georgia in the coming weeks. The first of these will be held in Rome next week, where Kremer will be joined on stage by Greene.
Kremer added that when the Georgia tour is complete the group will be heading to what she calls the “Pennsylvania audit,” even though such an audit has not been officially sanctioned.
Greene, who appeared as a speaker at Trump’s Ohio rally last month, has been one of the loudest proponents of the election fraud conspiracy and in May teamed up with her colleague Gaetz to hold a trio of events claiming that Trump should still be president.The America First tour kicked off in Gaetz’ home state of Florida, before moving to Arizona and finally to Greene’s home state of Georgia. At each of the events hundreds of supporters packed venues and paid hundreds of dollars for tickets, with many paying for VIP access to the speakers.As well as proving to be a good fundraising vehicle for the pair, the events helped spread the message that there was widespread election fraud happening across the country, and that RINOS (Republicans in name only) were as much to blame for Trump’s loss as Democrats.
America First Tour
While this was a QAnon conference in all but name, the “For God and Country” event in Dallas on Labor Day weekend was a major opportunity for some of Trump’s biggest boosters to promote the claim that he was still president. Sidney Powell, the “Kraken” lawyer who filed dozens of failed election lawsuits on behalf of the former president, told the 1,500 attendees that Trump could be reinstalled as president, saying that "it should be that he can simply be reinstated, that a new Inauguration Day is set."
Not willing to be outdone by his own lawyer, disgraced national security adviser Michael Flynn went on to suggest that there was no reason a military coup should not happen in the U.S. to take back control—a suggestion he quickly walked back following intense media coverage. The first Patriot Roundup event was so successful that its organizer, known as ”QAnon John,” has announced a second one will be taking place in Las Vegas in October.
Billing itself as “CPAC of the South,” the event in Greenville, South Carolina, featured keynote speakers Flynn and Lin Wood, the pro-Trump lawyer who has become one of the biggest QAnon influencers.The event included the typical mix of pro-Trump rhetoric and election fraud conspiracies, but also featured some violence, after one of the speakers decided to bodyslam a protestor who called Flynn a traitor, to the ground.
Rock The Red
Organized by talk show host and QAnon influencer Doug Billings, the Determined Patriotism Conference in Branson, Missouri last weekend also featured Wood, again spreading false information about election fraud.Also speaking was Patrick Byrne, the founder of Overstock.com and one of the biggest boosters of election fraud. He even wrote a book about it, called “The Deep Rig,” and in Branson he presented a “documentary” version of the book, which is filled with lies and conspiracies about the election.