A small crowd of President Donald Trump's most die-hard supporters gathered to protest outside the Minnesota Capitol on Saturday, waving flags and homemade signs and listening to a succession of patriotic songs.
"We will stand for truth, we will stand for freedom and we will stand for President Donald Trump forever," the emcee said to about 150 people who stood under the eyes of dozens of armed Minnesota State Patrol officers stationed around the domed building.
The rally came days after a shocking insurrection by Trump supporters in Washington, with a White House in chaos as the president is facing an immediate impeachment threat for instigating the deadly violence. Influential Republican leaders and one-time Trump allies including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham have rejected the president's unfounded claims of a rigged election and decried last week's violent breach of the U.S. Capitol.
But the president's most ardent fans see only a heroic leader who's been badly wronged by his enemies. Even as Trump exits the White House, the fury of his loyalists is likely to remain a potent force in Republican politics in Minnesota and the nation.
"If he doesn't make it this time, I just know he'll run again in 2024, and I hope he starts campaigning on Jan. 21," Carolyn Peiffer, a permanent makeup artist from Forest Lake, said in an interview Friday. "He's done more for our country than any other president ever has, and he's also been the most abused. I feel so bad for him and his entire family."
Many Trump supporters, including some at Saturday's rally, have moved past the denial stage and acknowledge that President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated on Jan. 20. But still nearly universal to dedicated Trump supporters is an utter certainty that widespread voter fraud cost him the election, despite the wholesale rejection of those claims by multiple federal judges and the U.S. Supreme Court.
"Biden, there's no way he had 81 million people vote for him. There's just no way," said Ron Britton, the longtime Republican Party chairman of northern Minnesota's St. Louis County. The 43 out of 51 Republican U.S. senators who voted to certify Biden's win early Thursday morning disagreed with that sentiment.
Dave Hughes, a Trump backer and retired Air Force officer from Karlstad, said he now expects that Biden will take office as scheduled. But, he said, "I guess I hold out the possibility that something dramatic might happen, not that the president will stage some coup but some evidence that's so undeniable that both parties will have to acknowledge it."
Hughes, who ran unsuccessfully for Congress three times in western Minnesota, said he's even more disgusted with the way politicians in his own party reacted to the chaos in Washington. He said he doesn't support the violence at the Capitol but also doesn't necessarily believe it was driven by Trump supporters despite evidence to that effect.
"I reject the immediate knee-jerk reactions to it. We don't know all the facts," Hughes said. "All the pearl clutching by these self-righteous politicians is reprehensible, especially the Republicans."
Many of Trump's strongest supporters unequivocally reject any evidence that contradicts their worldview as, to use one of the president's favorite terms, "fake news." They see most media outlets as aligned with Democrats and unfailingly hostile to Trump. Multiple Republican activists and Trump supporters who have posted lengthy rants in his defense on Facebook declined to be interviewed for this story, or hung up immediately when reached by the Star Tribune.
"He's been treated like garbage by the media and the left," said Becky Strohmeier, a conservative activist who helped organize Saturday's rally and a much larger one in St. Paul last Wednesday.
David Sturrock, a professor and former Republican congressional candidate from Marshall, Minn., said he believes much of the continued support for Trump in the Republican base is due to the way American politics has evolved across the board into an us-vs.-them mentality.
"The other side is picking on our guy and we have to rally around him," Sturrock said, describing his perception of the mind-set of Trump supporters but also many activists in both political parties. "That's a powerful force that shapes the way Republicans have bonded to Donald Trump."
And though some prominent Republicans have distanced themselves from Trump in recent days, his claims of fraud and election rigging still enjoy support from some in the GOP political class.
"We believe that Minnesota Secretary of State [Steve] Simon knowingly and deliberately conducted an illegal election by virtue of his manipulation of the law," state Rep. Eric Lucero, R-Dayton, said in a House floor debate last week.
Simon has called these allegations "foolish and irresponsible."
Lucero was among 15 Republican state lawmakers from Minnesota who publicly supported an unsuccessful effort by the Texas attorney general to get the U.S. Supreme Court to throw out election results in several swing states won by Biden. Several spoke last week at the State Capitol rally that Strohmeier helped organize, but there were no elected Republicans in sight at Saturday's statehouse rally.
At least a few of the current president's strongest backers said it's time to move on to the next fight.
Sheri Auclair, a Republican activist from Wayzata, became something of an avatar for Trump supporters in Minnesota in 2016, after news photographers captured images of her at that year's Republican National Convention with her arms spread wide, an American flag hanging off her like a cape.
"I'm kind of a realist here. I'm not crying tears on my pillow," Auclair said on Friday. She said she knew it was over the day after the election.
"He lost," Auclair said of Trump. "Do I think everything was on the up and up? No. Was there fraud? I think there's been fraud in every single election going back to the end of time."
Auclair said she hopes Trump stays active in Republican politics and said her own political efforts will now be aimed at the 2022 election.
"I survived Obama. We all did, the people who didn't care for him. A crater didn't open up and swallow America," Auclair said. "We will survive."
Patrick Condon • 612-673-4413