Hundreds of Trump supporters gathered Wednesday night outside the Maricopa County elections office in Arizona as election counters inside tabulated the county’s ballots.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) rallied the Trump hardcore before introducing the next speaker. But rather than hand his megaphone to another Republican official or a Trump campaign lawyer, Gosar introduced former Pizzagate conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich.
In his speech, Cernovich complained that no left-wing “antifa” activists were there to face off with his group, saying he would be “kicking their fucking asses” if they showed up. And then, Cernovich offered to take selfies with the crowd.
The protest eventually prompted authorities to temporarily shut down the elections office, and reports surfaced on Thursday that they would—going forward—create a separate protest zone to keep poll workers safe.
But for MAGA-world internet celebrities like Cernovich, the Arizona rally is just the start. A motley crew of them have organized under the banner “Stop the Steal.” From there, they have spread out across the country in an attempt to rally the Trump faithful in battleground states. They say they’re sick of “standing back and standing by” — a reference to Trump’s infamous debate remarks in response to whether he would denounce the far-right Proud Boys.
“Stop the Steal” is the brainchild of Ali Alexander, a former Tea Party activist turned Trump superfan with nearly 140,000 Twitter followers. In September, Alexander announced plans to dispatch protesters to disputed ballot counting sites after Election Day. Alexander and other MAGA personalities had pulled a similar stunt in Florida in the 2018 midterms.
“I texted Ali and said ‘How are we going to stop the steal?’” conservative operative Ed Martin, the head of an activist group Phyllis Schlafly Eagles, told The Daily Beast.
Like the Trump campaign itself, however, the “Stop the Steal” group has failed to provide any compelling evidence of fraud besides citing vaporous claims about illegitimate ballots and chanting “Fox News Sucks”—a reference to Fox News’ decision to call Arizona for former Vice President on Joe Biden, which the AP has also done but no other news outlets.
Instead, the “Stop the Steal” effort is premised on the perhaps questionable value of Trumpworld internet celebs saving Trump’s reelection hopes when his own team seems likely to fail.
Alexander has coordinated rally appearances around the country by MAGA figures like Turning Point USA head Charlie Kirk, One America News personality and former Pizzagate promoter Jack Posoboiec, and outspoken pro-Trump youth C.J. Pearson. They’ll be joined by a bevy of lesser-known conservative internet characters, like pro-Trump DJ duo “Milk n Cooks” and someone with the alias “Reagan Babe.”
And sometimes, they hit their followers up for money. Former hairdresser Brandon Straka, whose “Walkaway” movements urged traditionally Democratic constituencies to leave the party, flew to Michigan for a “Stop the Steal” rally while asking his followers to fund his travel and security by donating to his Paypal account.
That’s not to say that there’s no big-donor money involved in any of the ballot protests. Other rallies have been bolstered by FreedomWorks, a super PAC tied to the Koch brothers’ network. In 2016, a PAC advised by Alexander received $60,000 from the right-wing Mercer family, according to a Politico report.
Elsewhere, the Trump campaigns finance team has said that they’re trying to raise $10 million for his legal challenge efforts.
Alexander, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, provides regular updates to the Trump faithful on Twitter and streaming platform Periscope, constantly adding to the list of names getting involved in the rallies. Early on Thursday, Alexander announced that self-described memesmith “Carpe Donktum,” whose real name is Logan Cook, would be “on the memes today.” Later that day, Alexander declared on Twitter that InfoWars conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was “getting a jet” and joining the cause.
“We’re trying to get Laura Loomer somewhere as well,” Alexander told his followers on Periscope, referring to the far-right activist who badly lost her own House campaign on Election Day.
When the Trumpworld personalities aren’t riling up crowds outside of election offices, they’re trying to pressure more prominent Republicans into backing Trump’s outlandish claims of voter fraud.
In Washington, D.C., Martin lead a crowd of roughly 20 supporters in a “Stop the Steal” protest outside the Republican National Committee, demanding that top Republicans like Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) more forcefully back the Trump campaign and attack Fox’s Arizona call.
“Paul Ryan is on the board of Fox,” Martin said. “Paul Ryan should be out in front of Fox saying, ‘I don’t know why they’re doing it like this.”
Another protester at the event said to cheers that House Republicans should impeach Biden before he can even take office, without noting that Republicans, despite picking up seats on Tuesday, still don’t control the House.
The ballot-count fight has also drawn in lesser-known figures who are locally notorious. The Maricopa County protest was led by Jennifer Harrison, the head of fringe Arizona Facebook page “AZ Patriots.” Harrison, a prolific livestreamer who was sued by a church for allegedly harassing immigrants, attempted to enter the Maricopa County voting office before she was stopped by security.
It wasn’t her first brush with law enforcement this fall. In October, Harrison was charged with allegedly stealing her former father-in-law’s identity and faking a press pass to gain entry to a Donald Trump Jr. event.
The ballot fight has offered the Trumpworld characters another chance to grab the spotlight, in what may be their last gasp of prominence in the Trump era. While a panoply of these individuals rose to notoriety in 2016, buoyed by the oddity of Trump’s own unusual candidacy, they were far less prominent during the 2020 campaign, with grassroots events dampened by the coronavirus and social media platforms increasingly willing to clamp down on conspiracy theories and hoaxes.
In the lead up to Election Day, Cernovich declared that he was done with campaigning after the vote. Even after the vote on Tuesday, Alexander fumed that the GOP had ignored his election antics in Florida and claimed that Republicans “sabotaged” his 2018 “Stop the Steal” campaign in that state, even though Republicans did win in those races. Alexander changed his mind only a few hours later and relaunched the effort nationwide.
It’s not clear what the Stop the Steal events can concretely achieve, beyond spreading doubts about the legitimacy of any future Biden win. Unlike the “Brooks Brothers Riot” during the 2000 recount in Florida, many of the “Stop the Steal” activists lack official Republican ties, and election officials seem to have no problem preventing them from disrupting the ballot process.
Instead, “Stop the Steal” may be most effective at pressuring potential 2024 Republican candidates to tie themselves further to Trump’s legal efforts by showing that the MAGA grassroots are behind the campaign. The Trump family has made similar remarks, with Donald Trump Jr. tweeting Thursday that most 2024 hopefuls would rather “cower to the media mob” than defend his father.
At his small rally outside the RNC, Martin declared that any GOP presidential hopeful who doesn’t raise questions about the ballot counting would be doomed in the primary.
“I wouldn’t give ‘em a chance,” Martin said.