SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Two years after declaring victory in an election he lost, former President Donald Trump made it clear in Iowa Thursday night that he will never accept the result and that none of his supporters should either.
“Your beloved president was screwed,” Trump told the crowd, apologizing to children in the audience for his language.
Trump took the stage in Sioux City, his first and final series of rallies before the Nov. 8 midterm elections, on the two-year anniversary of the 2020 election. His refusal to concede defeat has since been fully embraced by the Republican Party and launched a slate of pro-Trump candidates , in communities across the country that potentially refuse to recognize next week.
Trump became visibly irritated while describing a recent Pennsylvania court ruling on undated mail-in ballots. Trump said that if the same decision had been applied to the ballots in 2020, he would have won over Joe Biden.
“It’s a very unfair thing to do to your beloved president, but what the hell, I was treated so unfairly,” Trump said.
This sense of dissatisfaction with the last election was palpable at the rally. Charles Hibbs, 67, who was traveling to Iowa from White River, South Dakota, described Nov. 3, 2020, as “the night he was stolen from him and robbed from us.” The retired high school football coach said Republican secretaries of state and governors in key states should have done more to turn the election around. If Trump were still president, Hibbs said, “we would be a nation free from enslavement by the federal government.”
Trump spoke for more than an hour wearing a red “Make American Great Again” hat as a strong wind blew from the Iowa plains toward Sioux City Gateway Airport, blowing flags, wafting the smell of nearby Porta Potis over the crowd and swaying Trump’s teleprompters.
“I’m getting seasick,” Trump joked.
He has advocated sweeping changes to the way elections are conducted across the country, calling for replacing electronic voting machines with paper ballots and allowing voting only on Election Day, except for people who are “legitimately ill.” .
“If you vote on election day, that’s better, it’s a lot 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 a poll worker, observer or election challenger.”
Trump’s comments come at a time of heightened tension surrounding the election, as local governments across the country brace for candidates and their supporters potentially questioning the legitimacy of the result and a possible spike in political violence. In Arizona, a federal judge imposed restrictions on how citizens can act around the polls after it was found that people with guns were intimidating voters. Paul was the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released from the hospital on Thursday, after undergoing surgery for a head injury the result of a home intruder hoping to question and torture the Speaker of the House attacked him with a hammer.
Trump’s election lies began well before 2020. Four years earlier, after winning the presidency by securing the most votes in the Electoral College, he quickly began spreading the lie that millions of immigrants in the US illegally voted for Clinton , as a way to explain why her voices were higher than his. On the eve of the 2020 election, he falsely said that postal ballots are more vulnerable to fraud, sowing unwarranted distrust of ballots counted after voting on Election Day in some states. After losing his re-election bid, Trump aired a series of falsehoods about rigging voting machines, stuffing ballot boxes and legions of dead people voting for Biden. None of his claims were tested in court or by Bill Barrits attorney general during the election.
Years of Trump’s campaign lies have helped skew the American political system in his favor while leaving millions of his supporters distrustful of provable facts. Election denial has permeated American politics at every level for the past two years. Six in 10 American voters will see the name of at least one Republican who denies the outcome of the 2020 election on their Nov. 8 ballot, according to data from Five thirty eight.
Republican Sen. Ron Johnson epitomized that shift across the party as he spoke to reporters in Wisconsin this week. Not only did Johnson refuse to say he would accept Tuesday’s results regardless of the outcome, his response took a conspiratorial turn. “Is something going to happen on Election Day?” he reportedly mused The Washington Post. “Do the Democrats have something up their sleeve?”
Considerable damage has already been done to American democracy, says Jessica Levinson, a professor of constitutional law at Loyola Law School. “In many ways, our democracy is not what it was a decade ago. This is not your grandfather’s democracy,” says Levinson. She describes the argument Trump and some current Republican candidates are making as “if I win, trust the vote. If I lose, there is a huge scam. That, Levinson says, “is not an argument you can make in a truly democratic system.”
Jamie Deeds, who brought her son, 11, and daughter, 13, to the rally, knows something about how elections are run. She was a voter in Iowa during the 2020 election and is confident that the count she helped monitor is accurate. “We cannot leave this polling place until all the numbers are correct. If there’s one mistake, you have to count everything,” she says.
She has no less faith in the 2020 vote in the “bigger cities.” The way the vote totals swung toward Biden late on election night, as widely predicted after mail-in ballots were counted, led her to question the outcome. She said she had seen reports of fake votes and dead people voting and thought it was “broken”. Even after those claims were settled in court and largely dismissed for lack of evidence, she still wasn’t convinced.
She says she will vote this year and trust local results, but that trust doesn’t extend nationally. “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 Sen. Chuck Grassley and Gov. Kim Reynolds, he also teased plans to announce a third presidential run, as he has done at previous rallies. But even at that moment, Trump felt compelled to again remind those in attendance of his view of what happened the last time he was on the ballot.
“I ran twice, I won twice,” Trump said. “And now to make our country more prosperous, I will very very very very very likely do it again.”
More must-see stories from TIME