On a chilly open field in Texas, Dan Patrick was delivering prepared remarks about the spectre of socialism when the crowd broke into a chant about the 2020 presidential election.
“Well, we all know who won in 2020, don’t we?” the state’s lieutenant governor ad-libbed. “Who won?” There was apparently not a soul who believes the answer is Joe Biden.
The campaign rally in Conroe, near Houston, was the latest stop in what might be called Donald Trump’s “big lie” tour. The former US president is travelling the country, backing Republican candidates for midterm elections who pass a specific litmus test: reinforcing his debunked claims of voter fraud.
They did so with gusto at a rally in Arizona earlier this month. On Saturday night, thousands of Texans watched giant video screens play a trailer for a “documentary” that purports to reveal how 2,000 “mules” were used to stuff votes into drop boxes in 2020 (state officials and judges found no significant evidence of irregularities).
The trailer’s sinister visual and sound effects were the overture for a speech by the Texas attorney general, Ken Paxton, who led a lawsuit seeking to overturn the 2020 election results in four battleground states only to see it dismissed by the supreme court.
Then came Patrick, who after Trump’s defeat offered up to $1m for evidence of voter fraud, and the governor, Greg Abbott, who has ordered an audit of the 2020 election results in four big counties (even though Trump won the Lone Star State by 300,000 votes). Abbott did not promulgate the “big lie” directly but urged the crowd to show their support for “our president” Trump.
It was a jarringly white leadership team in a state of rapidly growing racial diversity. Chris Hollins, a lawyer and vice-president of the Texas Democratic party, said in a phone interview: “This is a star-studded lineup of vote suppressors and anti-democracy champions.”
Oil-rich Texas has the biggest population of any state apart from California and biggest land mass of any state barring Alaska. “Everything is bigger in Texas,” the saying goes, and it appears that Trump’s brand of populist authoritarianism is no exception. The state’s Republican party has slashed gun controls, enforced the most rigid abortion limits in the country and taken a draconian line on border security and how race is taught in schools.
Paxton – under criminal investigation by the FBI over claims that he abused his office to benefit a wealthy donor – boasted that he has already filed 27 lawsuits against the Biden administration over environmental regulations, asylum rules and other issues. “Texas will be leading the fight against the Biden administration,” he told the rally.
Paxton is facing the most competitive Republican primary on 1 March but not because his challengers oppose Trump. One is Louie Gohmert, a congressman who has downplayed the 6 January insurrection and attended Saturday’s rally as a spectator. Another is George P Bush, nephew of former president George W Bush, whose campaign signs lined the approach to the rally venue and whose staff handed out flyers that proclaimed Bush “an early endorser of President Trump”.
But it is Trump’s endorsement that is the golden ticket here. Among his slate of anti-democratic candidates is Sid Miller, the state’s agriculture commissioner, who declared that he no longer regards the midterms as a contest between Democrats and Republicans or liberals and conservatives. “It’s a race between patriots and traitors,” he said chillingly. “It’s that simple.”
For his part, Abbott has pivoted to the right to fend off even more extreme rivals and keep in the former president’s good graces. It is working. Rally goer Jessica Hehl, 33, commented: “I think Governor Abbott is a little weak but if Trump endorses him then I trust Trump.”
Hehl, a stay-at-home mother wearing a T-shirt that said “Let’s go Brandon” – rightwing code for insulting Biden – dismissed Democrats’ warnings that democracy is under threat. “If anything, it’s the other way around. Biden and the liberals stole our election and are trying to keep our faces covered and to mandate vaccines for four-year-olds.”
Her husband Brian Hehl, 40, a veteran of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars who now works in underground construction, declared: “We’re pro-life, pro-gun, pro-Trump, pro-freedom.” He cited baseless conspiracy theories about dead people voting and ballot papers being run through machines multiple times to insist that the 2020 election was stolen. “The evidence is everywhere. There are things we see and things we don’t see.”
Vendors sold merchandise including flags that proclaimed “Trump won”, “Trump 2024”, “Fuck Biden” and, of course, “Make America great again”. Jason Weaver, 37, a construction business owner, was wearing a T-shirt that said, “Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president”. For him, Trump’s assertion of voter fraud is enough. “I believe what he says, not what Biden says,” he explained.
Several speakers at the rally flattered Trump by dangling the prospect of him winning back the White House in 2024. The event culminated with a characteristically dark, divisive and disjointed speech from the 45th president himself. He vowed: “Texas is never, ever turning blue. That is, unless they rig the election like they’ve been doing in numerous states.”
Trump pledged that if he decides to run for president again and wins, the 6 January insurrectionists will be treated “fairly” and could receive pardons, prompting cheers from the crowd. He falsely asserted: “The 2020 election was rigged and everyone knows it. You know who knows it more than anyone else? The Democrats.”
This myth has firmly taken root and manifested itself in Texas, where the Republicans-led state legislature has used it to justify an overhaul of laws in the name of “election integrity”. Matt Rinaldi, chairman of the state party, said: “We passed an election law to ensure that 2020 will never happen again here.”
But this was not before a standoff when Democrats fled the state to deny Republicans the quorum needed to conduct legislative business. The limbo ended after 38 days when some Democrats returned, enabling Republicans to press ahead with making 24-hour polling sites, drive-through voting and the proactive sending of vote-by-mail applications illegal and punishable by imprisonment.
It was a bitter blow for Hollins. The lawyer had successfully introduced these measures during the pandemic-hit 2020 election as county clerk of Harris county, which contains Houston. “We’re under assault in Texas and we’re under assault in many states across this country,” he said.
“Democracy is frankly in peril in the United States right now and that’s why I’ve spent my time and so many others have spent their time trying to make the case at the federal level to pass laws that will protect our constitutional right to vote regardless of your party, regardless of what state you live in and regardless of many other attributes.”
The effects are already being felt. Ahead of the primaries, local election officials have rejected thousands of mail-in ballot applications because of new personal ID requirements. They have even blamed a limited supply of voter registration applications on paper shortages.
Hollins added: “Everything that Republican officials, particularly in Texas, are pushing right now seeks to make voting harder and harder, especially if you’re a person of colour, a young person, a person with a disability and especially if you live on the margins of society where things like having an ID or having transportation to the polls is a challenge for you.”
Republicans deny the charges and accuse Democrats of scaremongering. Mark McCaig, chairman of the Texas Republican Initiative, a grassroots political organisation, said: “I don’t think there’s any voter suppression going on. It’s extremely easy to vote in Texas, especially compared to other states. We have nearly two weeks of early voting. All we’re doing is trying to make sure that our voting is secure but that legal votes can be cast easily.”
Asked about Trump’s false claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him, McCaig did not offer a direct response, insisting that he is focused on Texas.
The attack on American democracy has seen Trump acolytes launch campaigns for key offices in an effort to take control of election machinery. Should the former president run again in 2024 and lose, it is feared, these radicals could abuse their positions to overturn the results and hand him victory.
The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit law and public policy institute, said in a recent report that “this is the first time in the modern era that questions about the legitimacy of elections have played such a prominent role in contests for election officials”.
Texas has its share of candidates using the “big lie” as a pretext to argue their success in the midterms is essential to the survival of democracy.
Angelica Luna Kaufman, spokesperson for the state’s Democratic party, said: “Because this Trumpism and this extremism has taken such a hold in Texas, we’re seeing that, even in moderately conservative counties and districts, people who are basically insurgents are being encouraged to run for public office on the Republican ticket in the primaries.
“That’s very scary. That’s going to push out those moderate conservatives and you’re going to have this extremism representing large portions of our state that do not share that same ideology.”
Then there is gerrymandering. Abbott signed into law newly redrawn congressional district maps that, voting rights advocates contend in a lawsuit, dilute the vote of communities of colour since recent population growth has been overwhelmingly among Latino, Black and Asian American people.
Activists warn that Republicans are playing a long game to shore up white minority rule, with Texas serving as a template for the nation. Trump won the state in 2020 by 5.5 percentage points, the closest margin of victory by a Republican presidential nominee in decades.
Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, the president and executive director of NextGen America, the biggest youth-vote mobilisation organisation in the country, said: “It’s the largest battleground state in the country so Republicans are staking long-term bets on how they can suppress the vote of communities of colour to hold power long term. It’s not just about 2024 – it’s about 2024 and beyond.
“Texas is really a microcosm of where we’re headed as a country. We are a state where 95% of our growth came from communities of colour over the last census. It is that exact population that they are trying to suppress.”
She added: “As a country we are becoming more diverse and we see a Republican party that is hellbent on suppressing and diluting the power of that voice and vote. In Texas, from voter registration to how we vote to redistricting, they are using any measure and means possible to make sure that our voices are not heard equally to our white counterparts.”
Speaking by phone from the state capital Austin, Ramirez was withering in her assessment of the guest speakers at Trump’s rally. “It’s a lineup that quite frankly looks nothing like the state of Texas. People have an image of our state and there are some great white cowboys but Texas is majority young, Brown and Black.
“Republicans want to make sure that our voice is not heard in the democratic process because they fear the power of our vote. They’re not winning on their ideas. They’re winning by breaking the rules and bending them in their favour.”