Donald Trump and the cult of the recount

Desperate belief that the one-term president really didn't lose in 2020 is morphing into its own quasi-religion
Republican activists pray over boxes they say are filled with "affidavits" alleging election fraud in Michigan. Jun 17, 2021. Photo: Screenshot

This article first appeared at A Public Witness

The world would end on Dec. 21, 1954. That was the prophetic announcement of Dorothy Martin to a small group called “The Seekers” that anticipated being taken away by a UFO. Her followers quit their jobs, sold their belongings, and abandoned their families in preparation for their departure. 

Martin’s prediction generated headlines in a local newspaper, which caught the attention of a psychologist named Leon Festinger. He wondered what would happen to The Seekers if Martin’s predictions didn’t come true? How would they cope with the disappointment? Spoiler alert: The world didn’t end in 1954.

Along with a team of researchers, Festinger studied The Seekers as the anticipated apocalypse neared and then after it failed to materialize. He detailed the results in a landmark book in social psychology, When Prophecy Fails.

The findings were surprising. Rather than acknowledge reality, the most highly-committed believers doubled down. New predictions were made about cataclysmic events yet to come. Assurances were offered that the fervency of the group members “spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Rather than being wrong about the end time, the group recast themselves as the key to humanity’s salvation.

Festinger’s larger work focused on the development of “cognitive dissonance theory.” The basic idea is that when an inconsistency in beliefs arise, people seek ways of resolving the pain of their psychological conflict. Faced with apparent inconsistencies in our thoughts, we seek out rationalizations to make our lives coherent again. 

Festinger’s research came to our minds in recent days because of another failed prophecy. The months-long recount of presidential votes in Arizona’s Maricopa County (home to Phoenix) came to an end. Rather than overturning the results as Republican state legislators hoped, the controversial effort found “no substantial difference” between its tabulations and those of last November. That is to say, President Joe Biden won Arizona (and the presidency).

In this edition of A Public Witness, we look at the cognitive dissonance the audit’s findings created for true believers of the “rigged election” claim, along with examining how this bureaucratic exercise took on a religious fervor. Unsurprisingly, former President Donald Trump and his most devoted followers could not reconcile themselves to the truth — and continue to push similar “audits” in other states. Like “The Seekers,” they remain committed to their fantasy despite all evidence to the contrary. 


Raising Arizona

When Fox News called Arizona for Joe Biden on election night, the Trump campaign reacted with outrage and disbelief. After weeks of final tabulations and confirmations, Arizona Republican Gov. Doug Ducey stated, “I trust our election system. There’s integrity in our election system. Joe Biden did win Arizona.”

Apparently, GOP leaders in the Arizona Senate didn’t believe their governor’s assurances. They also failed to accept efforts by Republican members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors to verify the integrity of their own election processes. Instead, following the wishes of Trump campaign lawyers Rudy Giuliani and Jenna Ellis, the Senate hired its own company to audit the results.

That firm, Cyber Ninjas, lacked the expertise required for such a consequential task. Doug Logan, the company’s CEO, was also far from a neutral party. He wrote a brief alleging fraud for GOP senators to use on Jan. 6 in objecting to the election’s certification (the process that the insurrection on that day also attempted to stop). He appeared in a conspiratorial movie claiming the election was stolen from Trump. Trusting Logan’s firm for the Arizona audit was akin to hiring PETA to conduct health inspections at a steakhouse; they lacked qualifications and their ideology brought concerns over biased results. 

Unsurprisingly, controversy consumed their actions. Cyber Ninja’s audit came under legal scrutiny, were partially paid for by an OAN reporter given privileged-access to its inner workings, and resulted in Maricopa County decertifying its voting machines from future use (costing taxpayers millions of dollars) because of lax security practices. 

View of the Arizona audit on May 6, 2021. (Creative Commons)

“It makes us look like idiots,” Arizona State Senator Paul Boyer, who initially supported the audit, exclaimed in May as the problems emerged. “Looking back, I didn’t think it would be this ridiculous. It’s embarrassing to be a state senator at this point.”

Others offered more dire warnings, fearing a fix was in and a pro-Trump outcome was predetermined. As Matt Masterson, an elections security expert, told NPR in June, “[The Arizona audit is] a threat to the overall confidence of democracy, all in pursuit of continuing a narrative that we know to be a lie.”

All the allegations of fraud — some particularly outlandish — combined with the blatantly partisan approach seemingly reduced the results to a formality. The anticipation was not over the verdict but the degree of guilt. The prophecies of a stolen election in Arizona would be “proven” true. 

So, shock arrived when Logan, the self-confident conspiracy theorist and head of Cyber Ninjas, admitted that “the ballots provided to us to count in the Coliseum very accurately correlate with the canvas numbers.” If even Cyber Ninjas couldn’t find the “proof,” then we know the rightful winner placed his hand on a Bible and took the oath of office on Jan. 20.

All this wasn’t mere political spectacle. Like Dorothy Martin and her devotees, adherents to “the big lie” about the 2020 election seem convinced it was stolen. Adherence to this orthodoxy determines one’s status as either a “patriot” or a “Rino” (Republican in name only). Thus, U.S. Senator James Lankford, a conservative Baptist in Oklahoma, now faces a primary challenge from a pastor who launched his campaign with support from Trump stalwarts like Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, and Lin Wood all because Lankford committed the heresy of voting to certify the election results on Jan. 6. 

For true believers, confessing Biden to be the legitimate president of the United States is an unforgivable sin. Religion, not politics, provides greater insight to what unfolded in Arizona.


Recount Religion

As the workers hired by Logan’s firm examined and counted the ballots for the “audit” on a Saturday in June, five out-of-state politicians walked around the room watching the process and even had Cyber Ninjas (whose outfits don’t look as cool as the name would suggest) bring ballots over to the gawking politicians for a closer look. Getting access inside this audit were four Republican state representatives from Wisconsin and the disgraced former Missouri Governor (and now Republican U.S. Senate hopeful) Eric Greitens. 

What brought this group and Republicans from several other states to the Arizona desert in the middle of the summer? A pilgrimage. That’s how Politico described these visits, as it noted other treks to the audit site by three Pennsylvania state lawmakers and Trumpian U.S. Reps. Marjorie Taylor Green of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida. Gaetz said of his pilgrimage, “It’s my belief that Arizona will be the launch pad for elections audits and election integrity efforts all over this great country.”

Seventeen hundred years ago, some early Christian leaders fled the new “holy” Roman Empire to create alternative Christian communities in the desert. These “Desert Fathers” renounced the world’s pleasures to focus on God. Soon, monastic communities developed around them as people looked for wisdom in how to live more godly lives. 

This summer, the Cyber Ninjas emerged as the new desert fathers for the Trumpian believers (though the team doesn’t dress like monks either). And like any holy site, those who went to the coliseum in Phoenix also encouraged others to embark on their own pilgrimage.

“I wish every American could see the way every single one of these ballots is being handled,” Missouri Senate hopeful Greitens declared as he said he “was really inspired” by the visit. “I was honored to be here from the state of Missouri. We’ve had 10 states down here, with some folks from Wisconsin today. You should have leaders from all 50 states. If you’re a MAGA patriot, we need to have leaders come down here and learn what is happening here in the state of Arizona.”

Screengrab of Eric Greitens (center) with two key Republican lawmakers behind the Arizona audit just after his visit to the room with the ballots.

Those in this faith community also undertook mission work to evangelize the “unchurched” in other states. For instance, conservative activists in Michigan delivered thousands of petitions in June calling on state lawmakers to start their own Arizona-style audit despite Biden winning there last November by more than 154,000 votes (a margin of victory of nearly 3%). They delivered the petitions in what they billed as “a peaceful rally of prayer” on the steps of the state Capitol.

“If you wonder why we’re doing this at a prayer rally, that’s because we recognize that this is a spiritual battle,” a former state Republican lawmaker Patrick Colbeck told the crowd before comparing those who opposed an audit to Pontius Pilate (an analogy implicitly equating Donald Trump to Jesus Christ). 

Ironically, Colbeck argued a mob wanted to stop an election audit even though the election mob we recall was that pro-Trump group that violently stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. But like “The Seekers,” anything that causes cognitive dissonance can be explained away or simply ignored. 

“The question ‘what is truth,’ which everybody is struggling with right now, was famously found in the Gospel,” Colbeck said. “Pontius Pilate is trying to put his political finger up in the air and figure out ‘should I go with the mob or should I go with what I know is the truth?’ He chose poorly. We want to make sure the folks in this building behind us don’t choose poorly anymore.”

Colbeck’s words were on message. The promo video for the event had made the same comparison of Trump to Jesus. It starts with a black screen and the white words “He sacrificed,” along with an instrumental version of “Amazing Grace.” Then, as the music continues in the background, it cuts to Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Michigan. As it switches to photos of pro-Trump post-election events and images suggesting voter fraud, more words continue on screen. Statements like “Michigan loved our president and we loved what he stood for” and “We prayed for our president and for our country.” Meanwhile, “Amazing Grace” continues playing, but now with vocals. 

As promised, the event took on the form of a religious revival.

“I thank you, Lord God, for angelic escorts as they are even now opening, opening, opening even the minds, God, of our legislators, God. We pray for them, Lord,” a woman declared at the rally as people bowed their heads and raised their arms. 

Later, as singers holding up shofars led the crowd with the worship song “Way Maker,” people brought the boxes of petitions — some with biblical verses like Deuteronomy 16:20 inscribed on them — to the “altar” at the base of the steps. Nearby a sign declared, “One Nation Under God Matters.” Some individuals then placed their hands on boxes and prayed while others anointed each box with a rub of oil. Declaring their faith that audits could return Trump to power, they sang.

“You are way maker, miracle worker, promise keeper.”


Screengrab of Michigan “prayer rally.”

Failed Prophecy

The election audit in Arizona (and the ones hoped for in other places) represented something more than the practice of good government. They carried the promise of salvation, via the fanciful idea of restoring Donald Trump to the Oval Office. 

Trump himself expected to be reinstated as president this past August, with audits serving as the catalyst for the radical change (a conspiracy theory that Mike Lindell takes credit for, the Department of Homeland Security worried about, and that if occurred would most accurately be described as a coup d’état). 

Labeled “the domino theory,” the farcical idea depended on the Arizona audit providing evidence of fraud. Those bombshell results would supposedly inspire audits in other states that would also throw their results into doubt. Somehow (the exact path isn’t clear in our constitutional system) Trump would be certified the actual winner of the 2020 election and replace Biden in office. 

E.J. Montini, a long-time columnist for the Arizona Republicwarned over the summer that the “believers” in the stolen election narrative “will not be swayed.” He added, “It is something they need to believe, for whatever reason, the way religious narratives in many different faiths speak to a need in many people.” His warnings proved prescient. 

Once the results of the audit emerged, Trump deleted an earlier statement praising the audit to instead falsely claim the audit found “significant and undeniable evidence of FRAUD!” Some of his supporters claimed the findings were a “false flag” and turned to even more deranged conspiracy theories, confident that the “truth” would still emerge. Their hopes and attention now turn to audits elsewhere. 

An Arizona lawmaker who Trump endorsed for next year’s election for Arizona secretary of state even responded to the results by calling for an audit in another county — which seems like the equivalent of doomsday “prophets” simply picking a new date after the sun rises on the morning after the supposed end of the world.  

Similarly demonstrating an imperviousness to reason, Greitens, a Missouri alum of pilgrimage trail to the audit, released a statement asserting that 50,000 illegal ballots had been cast in Arizona and the state “must decertify!” His illogical diatribe serves as exhibit A that the lessons from Festinger still hold true: Those whose identity is tied to Trump cannot handle the dissonance created by the facts. They hold steadfast to their faith in a failed messiah who cannot deliver their promised salvation. 


(Brian Kaylor/Word&Way)

The End

Throughout the 2020 presidential campaign, true Trump believers insisted he would win. When that prophecy failed, they started gathering with the belief that the electoral college, Congress, Vice President Mike Pence, someone would overturn the results. We also learned that a Trump attorney wrote a plan outlining how Pence and Republican lawmakers could steal the election for Trump on Jan. 6. Pence decided not to enact the plan, leading some in the pro-Trump mob to chant “Hang Mike Pence!” as they stormed the Capitol. 

After the insurrection failed and Congress certified the results, many self-proclaimed “prophets” who predicted a Trump victory pivoted to new theories of when Trump would gain that victory. They insisted Trump would still take the oath of office for a second term on Jan. 20. But Trump fled the city instead of joining the ceremony for his successor. Then some floated the idea that Trump would be restored to power in March. Then August. Now at some undetermined date after some undetermined audit in some undetermined way brings Trump back. The end of the Biden presidency is nigh, we’re told. But the promised end dates keep passing without UFOs landing or Trump returning to the Oval Office. 

Despite that, the Trump flags still wave nearly a year after the election. And the politicians seeking the support of this “base” keep preaching the gospel of a “stolen” victory (because apparently in this religion one’s election is not sure).

If we treat this as just a political movement, we’ll miss the point and how to appropriately respond. This is a religion. And not just any religion. It’s a doomsday cult that will ignore all inconvenient evidence, logic, and facts. 

We wouldn’t pick someone who believes the moon landing was fake to lead NASA. We wouldn’t pick a member of the flat earth society as Secretary of the Navy. And we shouldn’t let disciples of the Trumpian lost cause write the rules governing our elections. 

Yet, across the country state legislatures enact new voting laws designed by people who can’t even accept the facts about the 2020 election. In denial about what happened last time, they seek to resolve their cognitive dissonance by fixing a problem that doesn’t exist. 

Beware of the false prophets who claim to be saving democracy by destroying it. 

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor & Beau Underwood