Brett Fryar is a middle-class Republican. A 50-year-old chiropractor in Sundown, Texas, he owns a small business. He has two undergraduate degrees and a master’s degree, in organic chemistry. He attends Southcrest Baptist Church in nearby Lubbock.
Fryar did not much like Donald Trump at first, during the US president’s 2016 campaign. He voted for Texas Senator Ted Cruz in the Republican primaries.
Now, Fryar says he would go to war for Trump. He has joined the newly formed South Plains Patriots, a group of a few hundred members that includes a “reactionary” force of about three dozen – including Fryar and his son, Caleb – who conduct firearms training.
Nothing will convince Fryar and many others in Sundown, Texas – including the town’s mayor, another Patriots member – that Democrat Joe Biden won the November 3 presidential election fairly. They believe Trump’s stream of election-fraud allegations and say they are preparing for the possibility of a “civil war” with the American political left.
“If President Trump comes out and says: ‘Guys, I have irrefutable proof of fraud, the courts won’t listen, and I’m now calling on Americans to take up arms,’ we would go,” said Fryar, wearing a button-down shirt, pressed slacks and a paisley tie during a recent interview at his office.
The unshakeable trust in Trump in this town of about 1,400 residents reflects a national phenomenon among many Republicans, despite the absence of evidence in a barrage of post-election lawsuits by the president and his allies. About half of Republicans polled by Reuters/Ipsos said Trump “rightfully won” the election but had it stolen from him in systemic fraud favouring Biden, according to a survey conducted between November 13 and 17. Just 29 percent of Republicans said Biden rightfully won. Other polls since the election have reported that an even higher proportion – up to 80 percent – of Republicans trust Trump’s baseless fraud narrative.
Trump’s legal onslaught has so far flopped, with judges quickly dismissing many cases and his lawyers dropping or withdrawing from others. None of the cases contain allegations – much less evidence – that are likely to invalidate enough votes to overturn the election, election experts say.
And yet the election theft claims are proving politically potent. All but a handful of Republican lawmakers have backed Trump’s fraud claims or stayed silent, effectively freezing the transition of power as the president refuses to concede. Trump has succeeded in sowing further public distrust in the media, which typically calls elections, and undermined citizens’ faith in the state and local election officials who underpin American democracy.
In Reuters interviews with 50 Trump voters, all said they believed the election was rigged or in some way illegitimate. Of those, 20 said they would consider accepting Biden as their president, but only in light of proof that the election was conducted fairly. Most repeated debunked conspiracy theories espoused by Trump, Republican officials and conservative media claiming that millions of votes were dishonestly switched to Biden in key states by biased poll workers and hacked voting machines.
Many voters interviewed by Reuters said they formed their opinions by watching emergent right-wing media outlets such as Newsmax and One America News Network that have amplified Trump’s fraud claims.
Media outlets declared Biden the election winner on November 7. As calls were finalised in battleground states, Biden’s lead in the Electoral College that decides the presidency widened to 306 to 232.
Many Republican voters scoff at those results, convinced Trump was cheated. Raymond Fontaine, a hardware store owner in Oakville, Connecticut, said Biden’s vote total – the highest of any presidential candidate in history – makes no sense because the 78-year-old Democrat made relatively few campaign appearances and seemed to be in mental decline.
“You are going to tell me 77 million Americans voted for him? There is just no way,” said Fontaine, 50.
The latest popular vote total for Biden has grown to more than 79 million, compared with some 73 million for Trump.
Like many Trump supporters interviewed by Reuters, Fontaine was deeply suspicious of computerised voting machines. Trump and his allies have alleged, without producing evidence, a grand conspiracy to manipulate votes through the software used in many battleground states.
In Grant County, West Virginia – a mountainous region where more than 88 percent of voters backed the president – trust in Trump runs deep. Janet Hedrick, co-owner of the Smoke Hole Caverns log cabin resort in the small town of Cabins, said she would never accept Biden as a legitimate president.
“There’s millions and millions of Trump votes that were just thrown out,” said Hedrick, 70, a retired teacher and librarian. “That computer was throwing them out.”
At the Sunset Restaurant in Moorefield, West Virginia – a diner featuring omelettes, hotcakes and waitresses who remember your order – a mention of the election sparked a spirited discussion at one table. Gene See, a retired highway construction inspector, and Bob Hyson, a semi-retired insurance sales manager, said Trump had been cheated, that Biden had dementia and that Democrats planned all along to quickly replace Biden with his more liberal running mate for vice president, Kamala Harris.
“I think if they ever get to the bottom of it, they will find massive fraud,” said another of the diners, Larry Kessel, a 67-year-old farmer.
Kessel’s wife, Jane, patted him on the arm, trying to calm him, as he grew agitated while railing against anti-Trump media bias.
Some Trump supporters said they would accept Biden as the winner if that is the final, official result. Janel Henritz, 36, echoed some others in saying that she believed the election included fraud, but perhaps not enough to change the outcome. Henritz, who works alongside her mother Janet Hedrick at their log cabin resort in West Virginia, said she would accept the outcome if Biden remains the winner after recounts and court challenges.
“Then he won fair and square,” she said.
In Sundown, Texas, Mayor Jonathan Strickland said there’s “no way in hell” Biden won fairly. The only way he’ll believe it, he said, is if Trump himself says so.
“Trump is the only one we’ve been able to trust for the last four years,” said Strickland, an oilfield production engineer. “As far as the civil war goes, I don’t think it’s off the table.”
If it comes to a fight, Caleb Fryar is ready. But the 26-year-old son of Brett Fryar, the chiropractor, said he hoped Trump’s fraud allegations would instead spark a large mobilisation of Republican voters in future elections.
Asked whether Trump might be duping his followers, he said it is hard to fathom.
“If I’m being manipulated by Trump … then he is the greatest conman that ever lived in America,” Caleb Fryar said. “I think he’s the greatest patriot that ever lived.”