Mason, Texas: The change at the Sunday prayer service was so subtle it went unnoticed by several congregants. Tucked in between calls for divine health and wisdom, the Reverend Fred Krebs of St. Paul Lutheran Church, who rarely brings up politics, fleetingly mentioned this month’s presidential election.
“We pray for a peaceful transition,” he told his congregation of 50 people. The carefully chosen words underscored the political reality in Mason, Texas — a rural, conservative town of roughly 2,000 people — after Joe Biden’s victory over President Donald Trump.
Not everyone thought the election was over, and not everyone said they would respect the results.
“My Democratic friends think Biden is going to heal everything and unify everyone,” said Jeanie Smith, who attends the more conservative Spring Street Gospel Church in Mason, which is about 100 miles west of Austin. “They are deceived.
“Now you want healing,” she added. “Now you want to come together. You have not earned it.”
That is the hard reality Biden is facing, even after winning a race in which he secured a larger share of the popular vote than any challenger since 1932. Towering before him is a wall of Republican resistance, starting with Trump’s refusal to concede, extending to GOP lawmakers’ reluctance to acknowledge his victory and stretching — perhaps most significantly for US politics in the long term — to ordinary voters who steadfastly deny the election’s outcome.
It is all a far cry from how Biden framed this election, from the Democratic primary race through his victory speech last weekend. He cast the moment as a chance for the country to excise the political division Trump has stoked, promising to repair the ideological, racial and geographic fissures that have grown into chasms since 2016. Announcing his campaign, he called it an opportunity to restore “the soul of the nation.” Last weekend, he declared, “Let this grim era of demonisation in America begin to end here and now.”
But on Election Day, Republican turnout surged across the country — particularly in rural areas like Mason, which, along with its surrounding county, had among the largest percentage increases in voter participation in Texas. Democratic dreams of a landslide were thwarted as Republicans notched surprise victories in the House and emerged as the favourite to retain control of the Senate. In the days since, thousands of Trump’s most fervent supporters have gathered across the country, including in Texas, to protest Biden’s triumph as illegitimate.
“We’re willing to accept the results, as long as it’s fair and done correctly and certified correctly,” said Sherrie Strong, another supporter of the president’s. She, like others, took Trump’s position that it was strange that he had been leading in numerous places because of in-person votes on Election Day, only to be overtaken once mail-in ballots were counted on election night and over the days that followed. (The delay in counting mail-in ballots in several states was because of restrictions imposed by Republican state legislatures.)
“It’s just a little upsetting when you go to bed at night, and all of a sudden, four days later, these votes are magically appearing,” Strong said.
Chaos and division
Biden’s message did have political appeal, motivating a crucial slice of voters who helped him lead Democrats back into power.
Ann Mahnken, a 72-year-old lifelong conservative who attends the Lutheran church, said the prospect of his bringing the country together was why, after voting for Trump in 2016, she chose the Democratic candidate this time.
“I could not stand the way our country is,” she said. “I didn’t want to go through four more years of that, not in my senior citizen lifetime. I didn’t want to go through four more years of the chaos and the division.”
‘Stop the Steal’ protest
On Monday in Dallas, hundreds of Trump’s supporters gathered outside the city’s election office in a “Stop the Steal” protest promoted by the state Republican Party. The message from speakers and attendees went further than expressing fears of election fraud, amounting to a wholesale rejection of a Biden presidency and of the Republican elected officials who acknowledged it. One speaker said of the Republican lawmakers who had called Biden the president-elect, “Remember who they are when you go to the polls next.”
“This is contempt of half of the country by the other half of the country,” said Paul Feeser, 61, who attended the protest in Dallas. “So if the conclusion was for Biden, I would look at it as illegitimate, and I and many others expect to be part of the so-called resistance — as Trump resisted.”
Karen Bell, who was also at the rally, said her distrust centred on mail voting.
“In these swing states, he was ahead, and then all of a sudden in Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania, they stopped counting,” Bell said, echoing conspiracy theories about vote counting. “And then we wake up, and suddenly Biden is ahead. These mystery votes all came in for Biden and zero for Trump. Something is definitely fishy there.”
Asked for any evidence of widespread election fraud, in light of the fact that election officials including Republicans have consistently dismissed such claims, Bell cited conspiratorial right-wing sites like Infowars. Election officials have made it clear: There is no evidence of widespread election fraud.
No matter what happens next, “I will not believe that the election was fair,” Bell said. “I will not believe that he is a legitimate winner.”
The feeling that Trump’s refusal to concede is justified and that Biden’s rise to the presidency should not be recognised is not universal for Republicans. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll found that nearly 80 per cent of Americans believe Biden won, including about 60 per cent of Republicans.
But other polling has provided mixed results, including a survey from Politico/Morning Consult showing that the number of Republicans who do not believe this year’s election was free and fair has doubled, from 35 per cent before Election Day to 70 per cent.
In Texas, conservatives have been crowing after Democratic hopes of flipping the state blue and winning control of the Legislature failed to materialise. Even so, state leaders have also fallen in line with the president’s baseless attempts to paint the election as unfair — and the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Dan Patrick, has offered $1 million for anyone who produces evidence of voter fraud.