FLORENCE, Ariz. — Ray Kallatsa is a die-hard Trumper who “definitely” wants to see former President Donald Trump run for office again in 2024.
So it was natural that he’d travel from Tucson to see Trump’s first rally of 2022. But as Kallatsa stood there on Saturday, pondering whom he would like to see as Trump’s next veep — from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to onetime national security adviser turned ardent conspiracy theorist Mike Flynn — an unorthodox idea came to him.
“JFK Jr.,” he said, referencing the son of the 35th president who died in a plane crash in 1999. Kallatsa realized he might have come off a bit odd with the suggestion. “I don’t want to sound too much like a conspiracy theorist, but he’s coming back,” he explained. “He’s supposed to reveal himself on the 17th if he’s truly alive. I think we’ll see him.”
If Kallatsa was worried about sounding too conspiratorial, he shouldn’t have been. He was not alone among the crowd in believing that JFK Jr. is not only still alive but is also a secret Trump supporter embedded far in the “deep state.” One attendee was spotted wearing a red shirt with the faces of Trump, Kennedy and Kennedy Jr. in the crowd. Michael Protzman, the QAnon influencer who organized the event last year in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza where he and others also believed John F. Kennedy and John F. Kennedy Jr. would reappear from the dead, was spotted in the rally stands.
Elsewhere were individuals in hats that read “Trump Won” and buttons with “Q.” Figures from fringe QAnon online groups, like Jim and Ron Watkins, shared their visit to the rally with online followers. And conservative activist Ali Alexander — who helped organize last year’s Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, which has led to countless arrests and fears about the erosion of American democracy — was given priority access to the event.
One of the introductory speakers, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who represents the district that includes Florence, invoked a “storm coming” — a phrase used by QAnon — in his speech. Another speaker was Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, who is running to be Arizona’s secretary of state, has been linked to QAnon and has reportedly discussed conspiracies about a network of elected officials involved in a network of pedophilia. Both have been endorsed by Trump.
Trump has always had one foot firmly in the camp with conspiracists on the right, starting with his promotion of birtherism during the Obama years. Having been ousted from power, he has continued to adopt and amplify this world and its views, effectively solidifying it as the base of the Republican Party. Figures once relegated to corners of the internet and the fringes of the party have been welcomed with open arms at Trump rallies and found some of their theories shared by the former president himself.
Up on stage Saturday night, Trump pushed a right-wing conspiracy suggesting that some of the people who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 were actually FBI informants.
“Exactly how many of those present at the Capitol complex on January 6 were FBI confidential informants agents or otherwise working directly or indirectly with an agency of the United States government? People want to hear this,” Trump said.
Days earlier, the congressional committee investigating the capital attacks said it had interviewed Ray Epps, the Arizona man central to the theory that the FBI was secretly involved in the riots. Epps, the select committee said, had informed investigators “that he was not employed by, working with or acting at the direction of any law enforcement agency on Jan. 5 or 6 or at any other time, and that he has never been an informant for the F.B.I. or any other law enforcement agency.”
But that did not stop the former president, who, following the footsteps of allies like Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-Texas), as well as Fox News host Tucker Carlson, suggested Epps was part of a “false flag” operation. “How about the one guy, ‘Go in, get in there everybody.’ Epps,” Trump declared.
It was one of several lines from Trump in which he asked his followers to dismiss the evidence in front of them. Elsewhere, he continued to argue that his election loss was the result of an elaborate effort to cheat by Democrats.
“Why aren’t they investigating November 3, a rigged and stolen election?” Trump said to a cheering crowd that jumped to its feet. “Why aren’t they looking at that, and there’s massive evidence that shows exactly what I’m talking about.”
Trump also said he planned to address “dishonesty” from Democrats and the media surrounding the Capitol riots, including his false claim that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi blocked the National Guard from going to the Capitol to stop the riots on Jan. 6. For followers, the comments didn’t raise eyebrows — they drew applause.
“Why don’t they talk about the guy that killed that girl Ashli Babbitt?” said Cece Fager of Mesa, Ariz., referencing the Jan. 6 protester who was shot and killed by a Capitol police officer as she and others tried to break down a door that led to the House Speaker’s Lobby. “It’s all a cover-up. Our country is so divided, it’s sad.”
Thousands had come out on a cold, windy night an hour south of Phoenix to dusty desert fairgrounds to see and hear the former president. Decked out in red, white and blue Trump gear or wearing T-shirts with, shall we say, colorful words for Biden, his supporters danced to his MAGA rally playlist, took selfies with one another and high-fived strangers as they walked past.
And as the warm-up acts and Trump spoke, they joined together in chorus to chant “Let’s Go Brandon,” a popular GOP slogan that gives the middle finger to Biden, and “Lock him up,” aimed at Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert turned conservative enemy.
Few, if any, masks were worn. Nor was there much concern played to the pandemic ripping through the country (Trump, for his part, did not encourage followers to get Covid booster shots, as he had done in recent appearances, but instead railed against vaccine mandates). They were happy to be in a crowd of like-minded people, but also angry — at Biden, at Democrats, at the media for, among other things, their portrayal of the Jan. 6 riots. After all, some of them had been there.
That included Diane Meade from La Verne, Calif., who said she traveled 6.5 hours to Florence on Saturday night because she believes the 2020 election was stolen and wants to be on the “right side of history.” Meade said she was at the Capitol the day of the riot, and since then has felt “persecuted.”
“People associate me with a terrorist group. I’m guilty by association,” said Meade, who said she did not enter the Capitol. “I went to peacefully protest. The people I met just love our country.”
As the rally came to a close, the fieriness of the festivities had become dotted with anger. Terry Schultz, an Arizona snowbird from North Dakota, waited on the tailgate of a truck. His friends described the rally as “invigorating.” Schultz, however, seemed agitated by, as he explained, “all the corruption the Democrats pulled.” The election, he said, was stolen. Trump was robbed.
“It was all a bunch of bullshit,” he said.