Trump Has Transformed the GOP All the Way Down

Salleigh Grubbs was in her office on Friday, November 20, 2020, when she got a phone call from a friend. Susan’s at Jim Miller Park—they’re shredding ballots! the friend said. Susan was Susan Knox, a woman Salleigh had met a week earlier when both were volunteering as election observers at Jim R. Miller Park, an event center in Cobb County, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta, where the county government was now conducting a hand recount of the ballots in the presidential election. The recount had been ordered by Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state, under pressure from President Donald Trump and his allies, who insisted that Trump hadn’t really lost Georgia by more than 11,000 votes. Salleigh didn’t believe the result either. Her own Cobb County had been the largest source of Republican votes in the state, and for decades it had formed the bedrock of the modern Georgia GOP, launching the careers of Newt Gingrich and others. Hillary Clinton narrowly carried the county in 2016—a minor political earthquake.

Salleigh was a lifelong Republican, but politics had always been a side interest for her, as she explained to me in one of several interviews in recent years. At 55, she was the mother of two boys who’d grown up and moved out. Like many people of her generation, she’d started spending more time on Facebook. She called herself a “keyboard warrior” and became a more and more outspoken Trump supporter. Over the course of 2020, she started to believe that all the COVID-induced emergency changes to voting procedures were part of a plan to steal the election. Even so, the results on Election Night stunned her. Republicans lost seats up and down the ballot in Cobb County, including the county-commission chair, district attorney, and sheriff. Salleigh thought these were all races the GOP should have won.

Now, at her job as general manager of a company that sold liquid and powder coating equipment, she grabbed her keys and bolted out of work so fast, people thought someone in her family had died. She got in her silver Toyota Venza and practically flew the 15 miles to Jim Miller Park. She pulled her car around the back and saw a huge box truck. The name on the side, in green and blue, was A1 Shredding & Recycling Inc. SECURE ON‑SITE DESTRUCTION SERVICES, it read.

Salleigh parked her car sideways to block in the truck, like she’d seen them do on Starsky & Hutch. She stepped out of her car wearing flip-​flops, black leggings, a navy-​blue NRA T‑shirt with an American flag made up of rifles on the back, and frameless oval eyeglasses. She met up with Susan, who’d already taken a video on her phone of the driver wheeling trash bins over to the truck. He put the bins under a big chute on the side of the truck that sucked everything out and ripped it to shreds. Susan also had taken photos of the bins in the loading dock, stuffed with envelopes reading OFFICIAL ABSENTEE BALLOT. Next to the bins was a cardboard box with a crudely drawn diagram saying SHRED.

Salleigh later said that she tried talking to the driver—“Who called you? What’s the deal here?”—and he held up a piece of paper in the cab window to cover his face. Salleigh thought that was suspicious—what was he hiding? Susan had called 911, but 15 minutes passed without any officers, so now she dialed again.

[Richard W. Painter: Step aside, Fani Willis]

“It’s an emergency, and we need them here now!” Susan said, according to a recording of the call.

“Okay,” the operator said. “Our officers are aware. It looks like they’re busy in that area. Now, you said, it’s going to be referenced, a Black male with a white shredding machine?”

“Yep,” Susan confirmed.

“Okay. Does anybody have any weapons?”

“I don’t know. I’m not close enough … Would you please send an officer ASAP—”

“Ma’am, ma’am, hang on one second,” the operator said. “We’re gonna send our first available unit. The sergeant is already aware of the call. The units are busy in that area.”

“I would think that the presidential election would be pretty much as important as anything in our country for a policeman in Cobb County to get over to Jim Miller Park,” Susan said.

While Susan was still on the phone with the operator, the truck started to move, and she cried, “It’s pulling off. The truck is pulling off!”

The driver managed to maneuver around Salleigh’s car. So Salleigh jumped back in and took off after him. Susan followed.

Salleigh tailed the truck for about 10 miles, until she ran out of gas. She ditched her car at a RaceTrac station and hopped into Susan’s Mercedes.

“Get in, girl,” Susan said, as she and Salleigh later recounted to me. “I’ve got a full tank of gas, and I just had the car washed.”

The book cover

They were back in pursuit of the shredding truck. Susan had a TRUMP sign in the back seat. The Soul Town channel was playing on her XM radio. Salleigh thought they were like Thelma and Louise, or maybe Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy.

Salleigh knew her way around, but Susan wasn’t as familiar with this part of town. She started to worry. What if the driver called someone? They were just two women chasing a shredding truck. The driver stopped in the middle of a four-​lane road and put his flashers on, Susan later recalled. She and Salleigh were hiding behind a dumpy tire store, unsure of what to do next. That’s when Susan said, “We might not need to keep going.” Salleigh agreed.

They decided to go to the police station. The staff told them no one there would take a report and instead directed them to a wall-​mounted phone. Salleigh picked it up, and the operator on the line told her the police weren’t taking any election-​related complaints; she could call the secretary of state, the state official in charge of elections. Salleigh squinted as she listened, darting her eyes from side to side. “Do you know who made that determination?” she asked. “Do you have any idea who that was?”

Salleigh listened to the operator’s answer and repeated it back as Susan recorded a video on her cellphone. “You were just told that about 10 minutes ago? Wow. Okay. And what’s your name, please? Operator 3442,” Salleigh repeated, rolling her eyes. “Okay, perfect. Thank you so much. We appreciate what you guys do. Uh-huh, buh-bye.”

[Quinta Jurecic: Trump discovers that some things are actually illegal]

Salleigh twirled around to untangle herself from the phone cord and hung up the handset. She shot Susan a look: eyes wide with disbelief, jaw dropped. Salleigh kept thinking the FBI would show up in their blue-and-​yellow jackets to impound the shredding truck and seize the evidence. She struggled to understand why the officers at the police station didn’t seem to care about this apparent crime in progress. How far did the corruption go?

That same afternoon, Salleigh and Susan posted some of their photos and videos from Jim Miller Park online, and they quickly went viral. One of Trump’s own lawyers, Lin Wood, shared the images with his hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. “Looks to me like they may be destroying election documents in Cobb County, GA,” Wood wrote. “What do you think? #FightBack Against Election Crimes.” It was just one in a torrent of rumors that Wood and other Trump allies were feverishly amplifying. People started calling the Cobb County police to report the shredded ballots they’d seen on the internet. The shredding-truck company was getting slammed with hundreds of calls. People showed up at the company’s office. The manager was scared for his drivers, a police report recorded. The company released a statement saying it had no knowledge of the contents of the materials it had been hired to shred. The county government, through its election director, put out its own official statement saying the document shredding was “routine” disposal of “non-​relevant materials.” The envelopes that said OFFICIAL ABSENTEE BALLOT were just empty envelopes. All the actual ballots had been saved and stored, as required by state law. Later, the FBI did investigate allegations of voter fraud in Georgia, and the former U.S. attorney in Atlanta testified that officials found no evidence of wrongdoing.

But Salleigh thought she would never know for sure. The evidence had been destroyed. To her, it was proof of what she already thought: There was no way Republicans could have lost the election. The experience galvanized her even more. Within five months, the woman who had never been active in local party politics would become her county’s GOP chair.

Salleigh was not an anomaly. She was part of a nationwide movement of Trump supporters who learned from their shortcomings in 2020 and organized to address them. In the version of history that took hold within the MAGA movement, the cause of Trump’s defeat that year was being narrowly thwarted at almost every step by fellow Republicans. The clerk in Antrim County, Michigan, who said the incorrect vote tallies reported on Election Night were just an honest mistake, quickly fixed, was a Republican. Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state, who had refused Trump’s demand to “find 11,780 votes,” enough to reverse the outcome, was a Republican. The board of supervisors in Maricopa County, Arizona, that screened Trump’s calls and certified Joe Biden’s win was majority Republican. Trump failed to pressure every House Republican to object to the Electoral College votes on January 6, and he got only a handful of senators. Even Trump’s own vice president refused to help him block the official certification in Congress. As close as he got to keeping himself in power, Trump came up short only because of uncooperative members of his own party.

In response, many of his supporters decided they had to take over the party apparatus, working from the ground up, beginning with the smallest, lowliest units of political organizing—the precincts—and building from there to districts, counties, and states, all the way to the Republican National Committee. This plot, known as the “precinct strategy,” was developed by a little-known Arizona lawyer named Dan Schultz and popularized by Steve Bannon on his podcast, War Room.

[From the July/August 2022 issue: American Rasputin]

In the years since the 2020 election, the precinct strategy has driven thousands of new Republican activists like Salleigh to take over their local parties not just in Georgia, but in North and South Carolina, Florida and Texas, Michigan and Wisconsin. The strategy has proved effective, in that it forced out Republicans who were anything less than completely faithful to Trump and his election denial, smoothing his path back to the Republican nomination—and perhaps all the way to the White House.

A month after the shredding-truck chase, at the end of December 2020, Salleigh and Susan decided to go to the state capitol, in Atlanta, for a hearing on election irregularities. They hoped their eyewitness accounts would help persuade the state legislature to do what the president and his allies were demanding to change the outcome: call a special session, where lawmakers could reject the election results and award Georgia’s Electoral College votes to Trump.

The women waited in line for a chance to speak. Susan went first. She passed out printouts of the photos she’d taken of the trash bins at Jim Miller Park. One of the senators, Bill Heath, asked, “Do you have any photographs of actual ballots being shredded?”

“What do you think those were in that can that he was shredding?” Susan said. “It says an official ballot.”

“That appears to be the envelopes,” Heath replied, “that are the inner envelopes from—”

“If you look closely some of them look like they’ve never even been unsealed,” Susan said.

“I was just, I was trying to find ballots in the picture, and I don’t see ballots.”

Susan played him her video recording.

“Look,” Heath went on, “I’m not trying to discredit your testimony, I just don’t see ballots. I just see envelopes here.”

“Do you not see where it says B‑A‑L‑L‑O …”

Salleigh could not believe what she was hearing. Senator Heath was a Republican! How could he not see what they saw clearly in the video? When it was Salleigh’s turn at the podium, she started to calmly explain what she’d seen, but as she went on her voice got louder and higher. “We have seen the fraud. We have been lied to, we have been distracted, we’ve been held up, and we’re tired of it.” She was almost shouting now. Her voice started to quiver. “I am tired of people that we vote to put in office stabbing us in the back.”

She paused then to collect herself. “I’m passionate,” she said. “I’m not going to apologize for being passionate. And I’m not going to apologize for being a patriot either.”

Someone in the hearing room whooped and clapped. Salleigh gave a big phony smile. “Any questions?” she asked, though she could sense that the lawmakers were not interested.

[Peter Sagal: The end will come for the cult of MAGA]

The committee chair who was running the hearing laughed nervously. “No, ma’am,” he said sheepishly. “I think what you said is something that’s felt by many people across this state, hundreds of thousands of people.” He spoke gently, carefully, trying to ease the tension. “So thank you for doing what you’ve done and for being willing to stand up and tell about what you’ve seen.”

Trump had tweeted urging people to watch the hearing as it was being livestreamed online, and Salleigh got so many texts and calls from people all across the country who loved her testimony, strangers she didn’t even know. When people asked her who she was, she’d say, “I’m just nobody, really, but I’m somebody who loves my country,” as she put it in a Facebook Live video. In certain circles, she was becoming something of a legend: the woman who chased a shredding truck.

Salleigh was disappointed that her testimony did not persuade the state legislature to call a special session to throw Georgia’s electoral votes to Trump. Nor did Congress overturn the election results on January 6. Instead, Trump got impeached for incitement of insurrection. It was a confusing time. She told me she found comfort listening to Steve Bannon’s podcast, where she heard him interview Dan Schultz about the precinct strategy.

Susan encouraged Salleigh to run for a party position, and Salleigh set her aim higher than the precinct level. She decided to run for county chair. She would mobilize her friends and Facebook followers, who would flood the county’s precinct caucus, becoming qualified to vote for her. She proudly passed around the video of her testimony at the state-senate hearing. “I’m a dedicated woman,” she described herself at a forum in April 2021 with the other county-chair candidates. “I chased the shredding truck.” The audience laughed and cheered.

Party meetings to elect a new county chair were often not the most exhilarating, but that year, the party headquarters, in a Marietta strip mall, wasn’t big enough. The gathering, held later that same April, moved to a church across the street. When Salleigh saw all the new members show up, it reminded her of the scene in the movie Network when everyone shouts, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Even though it was a three-​way race, Salleigh won on the first ballot, with nearly a supermajority. Salleigh gave a few radio interviews, where the hosts held her up as a poster child for the precinct strategy in action.

The ground-up transformation of the Republican Party through people like Salleigh quietly helped shape the Republican field in the 2022 midterm elections, leading the party to nominate the most effusively MAGA candidates in battleground states. The strategy’s success almost instantly became its own undoing, as Democrats exploited Trump’s MAGA brand to portray Republican candidates as extreme and dangerous, alienating swing voters and even some Republicans.

But with the Republican Party organization now firmly in the control of election deniers, the GOP would not moderate. The fully empowered MAGA movement would not give up. The threat it posed to democracy would not pass. The movement resolved to try again this fall, in the 2024 presidential election. New party officials, including Salleigh, helped shape the nominating rules and delegations selection to favor Trump’s return in the Republican primary, and they will be on the front lines of turning out voters, monitoring the polls, and potentially challenging the results in November, in service of the man whose myth inspired them all in the first place.

[Read: Trumpism has found its leading lady]

A few days after her election as county chair, back in 2021, Salleigh was sitting in her first committee meeting at the county party headquarters in Marietta when she got a call from a blocked number, as she later recounted to me. She had a feeling who it might be.

“Hello, Salleigh,” a familiar voice said over the phone. “This is your favorite president.”

Salleigh was speechless. She pointed to her phone and mouthed, “It’s President Trump!”

She stepped outside so she could focus. The party secretary came out to see what was going on, and Salleigh put the phone on speaker for a second so she could hear. “Oh my gosh,” the secretary cried, “It’s really President Trump!”

Trump called a lot of people, usually rich friends and Republican politicians. His aides sometimes liked him to surprise unsuspecting supporters. But it was not every day he called a lowly county chair. He’d gotten Salleigh’s number from the Georgia state GOP chair, who’d wanted Trump to know her story, how he’d inspired regular people to join the party, so many of them becoming sentries of the cause like Salleigh. Trump told Salleigh she was a real winner. He said he was proud of her for her big victory, and it was great that she ran as an “America First” candidate. He was so polite and kind, Salleigh thought that if everyone could have a minute with him as she had, it might change a lot of his critics’ minds. It was, as she imagined Trump himself might say, “a perfect phone call.”

This article has been adapted from Arnsdorf’s new book, Finish What We Started: The MAGA Movement’s Ground War to End Democracy.