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Illustration by Alex Cochran

Where do Trump voters go from here?

With a coming change in the White House, Trump voters are facing questions about where to place their unmatched enthusiasm

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Editor’s note: On Monday, the Deseret News looked at what might be ahead for each member of the Trump family after they leave the White House. Today, we examine what’s next for the more than 74 million Americans who voted for President Donald Trump.

In late October, a caravan of cars and pickups rolled down Interstate 15 from Tremonton to St. George, festooned with presidential campaign flags. Ten days before the election, this “Trump train” — one of many across the country — drove along the Wasatch Front and through some of Utah’s emptier spaces. Throughout the state, they saw overpass after overpass packed with supporters of President Donald Trump.

The organizer, Brigham City’s Brian Owens, was thrilled. “The scope of it did surprise me,” the 52-year-old account manager said later, “because it really took off.” The event, which arose from a public Facebook group he started that now has more than 5,300 members, gave Owens confidence heading into an election he expected to be close.

“Candidly,” he said, “I expected Trump to win.”

Trump didn’t win. Democratic challenger Joe Biden is projected to receive 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. As of Monday, 288 have been certified for Biden, well over the 270 needed to secure the presidency. His victory will be made official (barring a highly unlikely crisis of electors) on Dec. 14, when electors will meet in states across the country to cast their votes.

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Brian Owens poses next to his SUV, on which he flies a Trump flag and an American flag, outside his home in Brigham City on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

That outcome has left Owens with mixed feelings. “I’m not gonna be happy about it. I don’t agree with a bunch of his policies. I’m still baffled by how people would vote for a guy who’s been in there for 47 years,” he said of Biden. “But at the end of the day, I’m not going to go out there and hold a cardboard sign that says ‘not my president.’ He is my president.”

But Trump continues to contest the election, and surveys show most of his supporters are behind him. With the outgoing president urging them to continue fighting a battle that appears over, some fear Trump voters could become disillusioned not just with the results, but with elections themselves.

Politicizing the process

More than 74 million Americans voted for the incumbent in 2020. Some 212 weeks later, 73% of them still believed he won, according to a poll from CNBC/Change Research. In a Reuters poll, 68% of Trump voters expressed concern that the election was “rigged.” Another poll from the Economist and YouGov showed that 86% of Trump voters don’t believe Biden won the election legitimately.

Dave Gibbs, the 64-year-old communications director for the Nevada Republican Club, said those numbers match his own observations of fellow Trump voters. “I think the polls reflect pretty close. And I’m not totally in disagreement. But,” he added, “how do you prove that?”

For some, Biden’s victory was so unthinkable, it can only be explained by some kind of subterfuge. Count the president among them. Trump’s strategy for challenging the result has been to question the electoral process itself. His allegations of fraud and chicanery have been almost universally rejected by the courts, but echoed by sympathetic media outlets and widely embraced by his supporters.

“Our voting process is being manipulated and can’t be trusted,” said Destry Parkinson, a 55-year-old Republican from northern Utah, citing a complex theory, popular on right-wing websites, that blames Trump’s defeat on a conspiracy involving the Chinese government. “That’s scary.”

Gibbs has his own misgivings, focused on reports of late-night “vote dumps” that have been broadly debunked or explained by demographics. But while he’s sympathetic to Trump’s arguments, he believes the process must prevail. “I don’t think it’s going to work out for the president,” he said. “You need to prove it.”

Beneath the surface lies a deeper, more granular story. As New York Times reporter Emily Badger observed, the trick is parsing how much the numbers are inflated by typical partisan reactions to a loss, and how much they reflect a lasting erosion of trust in the elections themselves. The same could be said for the extremes of personal opinion.

But what happens if a majority of Trump voters spend the next four years viewing Biden as an illegitimate president? That perception could become even more prominent in the coming weeks; multiple outlets have reported Trump plans on skipping Biden’s inauguration and is mulling a 2024 campaign announcement at the same time that Biden is being sworn in. 

The foundational idea of democracy is resolving disputes by vote rather than force or violence. If people believe that voting is being manipulated, democracy loses its legitimacy, said Lonna Atkeson, a political scientist at the University of New Mexico. “It seems to open up the door for violence,” she said. “Because if the process is all just rigged and fake, then you have to take different kinds of political action.”

Will Trump’s legacy last?

In Georgia, where two Senate runoff elections are still pending, state voting system manager Gabriel Sterling, a Republican, offered an emotional speech urging a de-escalation of tension; otherwise, he cautioned, citing sexualized threats against the Georgia secretary of state’s wife and a 20-year-old election company contractor who had a noose left outside his home, someone could end up dead.

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Gabriel Sterling with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office updates the status of the presidential election recount Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020, in Atlanta.

John Bazemore, Associated Press

Trump’s campaign released a statement in response, reading in part, “No one should engage in threats or violence, and if that has happened, we condemn that fully.” But within hours, Trump quote-tweeted a video of Sterling’s speech and once more tossed around allegations of rigging and fraud.

Since securing the 2016 presidential nomination, Trump has dominated GOP politics with a personal style of round-the-clock outrage. Many believe he will continue to do so after he leaves office. “Trump is not going away,” Gibbs said. “He has transformed the Republican Party.” And many in that party believe that if Trump does announce his intentions to run again in 2024 — on inauguration day or otherwise — he’d be nearly assured of the nomination.

“All things being equal, he would be the overwhelming front runner,” Gibbs said. “Overwhelmingly the front runner, a la Andrew Jackson in 1828.” 

But there is nuance within the ranks. To whatever degree Trump has left — and will continue to leave — his imprint on the Republican Party, others like Owens believe the darkest implications of Trump’s methods have been overblown. Any suggestions that Trump’s supporters will commit violence postelection, Owens said, are “borderline offensive.”

“There’s this outrage that really isn’t there,” he added. “I think there’s disappointment. I think there’s concern.” But not widespread belief in the failure of fair elections.

Still, the consequences of an election perceived by a significant fraction of the electorate as fraudulent or stolen don’t need to be violent to be consequential and dramatic, and the very fact this discussion is necessary raises alarm among political observers. “We’re not in a healthy place,” Atkeson said. She advocates for federalizing elections, one proposal for making rules and procedures consistent from state to state. “We need to agree that the processes are fair and legitimate.”

Right now, many don’t. “There are a lot of people in this country who believe this was stolen,” Gibbs said. “And so they’re angry, they’re agitated, and they’re motivated. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens.” While that statement could be taken out of context as an omen of revolt, Gibbs still believes in elections — he’s referring to 2024.

“Four years is a real long time,” he says.