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Trump rallies drift to fringe ahead of potential 2024 bid

WARREN, Mich. (AP) — Paige Cole is one of the “Anons.” The mother of three from Eastpointe, Michigan, says Joe Biden is a sham president and believes Donald Trump will soon be reinstated to the White House to finish the remainder of Biden’s term.
Sharon Anderson, wearing donkey ears, traveled to Warren, Michigan from Tennessee for her 29th Trump rally on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Jill Colvin)

WARREN, Mich. (AP) — Paige Cole is one of the “Anons.” The mother of three from Eastpointe, Michigan, says Joe Biden is a sham president and believes Donald Trump will soon be reinstated to the White House to finish the remainder of Biden’s term.

“His whole inauguration was fake. He didn’t have real military people. He had, like, fake badges, fake people. And Trump is actually our president,” she said while waiting in line for his latest rally on Saturday at Macomb Community College. Wearing a pink “Trump 2024” hat and draped in a large “TRUMP WON” flag, Cole — a former Democrat who says she voted twice for Barack Obama — began to cry as she described the significance of Trump's return and the 1,000 years of peace she believes will be ushered in with it.

“It’s gonna change everything,” she says, "like we have never in humanity seen before.”

Trump’s rallies have always attracted a broad swath of supporters, from first timers taking advantage of their chance to see a president in person, to devotees who camp out for days and follow him around the country like rock band groupies. But after spending much of the last two years obsessively peddling false claims of a stolen election, Trump is increasingly attracting those who have broken with reality, including adherents of the baseless QAnon conspiracy, which began in the dark corners of the internet and is premised on the belief that the country is run by a ring of child sex traffickers, satanic pedophiles and cannibals that only Trump can defeat.

As he eyes another White House bid, Trump is increasingly flirting with the conspiracy. He's reposted Q memes on his social media platform and amplified users who have promoted the movement’s slogans, videos and imagery. And in recent weeks, he has been closing out his rally speeches with an instrumental song that QAnon adherents have claimed as their anthem and renamed “WWG1WGA” after the group's “Where we go one, we go all" slogan.

Trump and his allies often dismiss suggestions that he advances conspiracy theories or condones violence. “The continued attempts by the media to invent and amplify conspiracies, while also fanning the flames of division, is truly sick," his spokesperson, Taylor Budowich, said in a statement. “America is a nation in decline and our people are suffering, President Trump and his America First movement will not be distracted by the media’s nonsense, and he will instead continue fighting to Make America Great Again.”

But interviews with more than a dozen Michigan rallygoers Saturday underscore his influence and serve as a reminder that many cling to his every word and see his actions as validation.

Several of those interviewed said they only began attending Trump's rallies after the 2020 election, when they said they had become more politically engaged. Several, like Virginia Greenlee, of Holland, Michigan, said they had been in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, when Trump supporters violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, trying to halt the peaceful transition of power by disrupting the certification of Biden’s win.

“President Trump really woke people up because I didn’t even know there was a deep state or fake media, fake news, until he started bringing light,” said Greenlee, who said she did not go inside the building but watched from outside. She blamed the violence on leftist protesters masquerading as Trump supporters, though there is no evidence to support that claim.

Meanwhile, Trump continues to elevate those who peddle conspiracies. Mike Lindell, the MyPillow salesman who has spent millions trying (and failing) to prove the election was stolen, spoke twice Saturday — once outside to attendees waiting in line to enter and again during the rally program. Also in attendance was Marjorie Taylor Greene, the far-right Georgia congresswoman who told the crowd that "Democrats want Republicans dead. And they've already started the killings.”

Trump has long used angry and violent rhetoric to rile up his supporters, even after Jan. 6 made clear that some may act on that anger. As he inches closer to a possible announcement, Trump has leaned into the kind of racist and violent language that helped him clinch victory in 2016, when his ever-more-shocking statements — and the inevitable backlash — helped him dominate the news.

On Friday, he again attacked Mitch McConnell, this time in a racist post on his social media site that accused the Senate Republican leader of having a “death wish" and derided McConnell's wife, who was born in Taiwan and served in Trump’s administration as a Cabinet secretary.

On Saturday, the crowd cheered enthusiastically as Trump touted plans to use the death penalty to kill drug dealers and traffickers if he returns to the White House, emulating the strongman leaders he's often admired. And again, he empathized with the Jan. 6 defendants who have been jailed for their role in the insurrection, casting the rioters — whom he has already pledged to pardon if he runs and wins — as “political prisoners" and accusing authorities of “persecuting people who just happened to be there, many of them didn't even go in.”

The crowd in turn, broke into numerous “Lock her up!” chants directed at Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, as well as the state’s Democratic governor, secretary of state and attorney general, whom his endorsed candidates are trying to unseat.

Still, Trump aides seem to want to have it both ways. As he began to wrap up his speech, some in the crowd raised their index fingers in what has been described as a QAnon salute. But for the second week in a row, burly event staff with tattoos carefully scanned the crowd, quickly asking those who raised their fingers to put them down.

“They said they didn’t want hands in the air,” one of them explained he'd been told.

Still, Trump's nods to QAnon are encouraging to people like Cole, who said Trump had opened her eyes “to everything, to the evil in the world."

A 55-year-old semi-retired certified nursing assistant who relies on a bevy of fringe podcasts for information since eschewing cable news, Cole believes “our money’s no good because it was controlled by the Rothschilds," an anti-Semitic trope, and that the Supreme Court has “already overturned” the 2020 election, but "they’re just sitting on it and they’re waiting for things to come about.”

“We have to listen to underground news to get the truth of what’s going on, really," she said.

Trump’s decision to play the song, she said after the rally, shows the American people “and all those affiliated and committed in with the WWG1WGA bond and mission, that President Trump, too, is doing his best to help all involved to eradicate worldwide evil and helping to make the world better for all. It brings me strength in my mind to hold onto the hope and promises for a better life for all.”

But some in the crowd voiced discomfort.

Christina Whipkey, 50, who lives in Warren, Michigan, said she found Trump’s flirtations with QAnon “kind of weird" and “odd" and worried their presence at his rallies was playing into negative stereotypes.

“I didn’t like that," she said. “It’s telling people what they said about us all along, that we’re all just a bunch of QAnon supporters."

“You don’t want people to think just because you support him that you’re that far into it, that you’re one of those people,” she went on. "You don’t want people to think that about you.”

A longtime Trump supporter who remembers talking about him running for president while playing his board game in high school, Whipkey also said she thinks it's time for Trump to move on from the 2020 election, even if she has concerns about the vote.

“I just wish he’d let that go now. Focus more on the future than on the past,” she said, worried he was turning off potential voters. "They’re tired of hearing it ... You get to a point where it’s like, ‘All right, buddy. We heard it enough. We got it. We know.'”

Laurie Letzgus, 51, a machine operator from Port Huron, Michigan, and another longtime supporter, agreed.

“It is time to move on, I think," she said. “Let’s look forward. And let’s look to 2024."

But Sharon Anderson, a member of the “Front Row Joes" group that travels the country to see Trump and who was attending her 29th rally Saturday, including the one held Jan. 6, disagreed. While she doesn't “put a lot of faith in some of their beliefs,” she took no issue with QAnon's growing presence at the rallies.

“There’s a lot of people, a big group that comes to his rallies. And they are for him, too. They’re for his policies. Now whether they are trying to push their beliefs, I don’t know,” said Anderson, who lives in East Tennessee. “But I do know that everybody here that I’ve encountered supports Donald J. Trump. That’s what matters.”

Jill Colvin, The Associated Press