By Nick Keppler
Pittsburgh Current Contributing Writer
On Saturday afternoon, following four days of anticipation, the state of Pennsylvania had finally been called for Joe Biden, seemingly ending the 2020 election.
Yet in the state’s capital of Harrisburg— two hours after news organizations deemed Joe Biden the president-elect — the conflict went on. A coalition of both leftwing activists celebrating Biden’s victory and a larger, louder throng of Donald Trump diehards pushing the president’s unsubstantiated claims of mass voter fraud, held dueling rallies on opposite sides of the Capitol Complex.
On the capitol steps on North Third Street, the progressive groups Casa in Action and Capital Region Stands Up organized a demonstration against potential actions to stop vote counting in Pennsylvania, carrying signs reading, “Voters Decide” and displaying a banner reading: “Everyone Counts Count Everyone.” The event, planned when Trump first pressured the state to stop a vote count that grew more favorable, became a de facto celebration as Harrisburg residents with Biden-Harris signs and buttons joined in.
At the capital’s rear, on Commonwealth Avenue, a sea of familiar red hats waved Trump flags and newly made signs reading, “Stop the Steal.” The same three words were intermixed with chants of “U.S.A.” More people had guns on their belts than had masks on their faces.
The liberal crowd was city-permitted to start at noon; the Trump fans at 1 p.m. In the hour in between, the progressive activists looked down at a sea of Trump flags, hats and signs on the sidewalks and across the street, as the other contingency gathered. The two groups did not interact.
The news media had moved on to the era of President-elect Joe Biden. Supporters danced in the streets of cities across the nation. In this micropolis in the heart of the perpetual battleground state, the battle continued.
A van circled the capitol complex, covered in pro-Trump messaging. “Joe Biden has got to go,” boomed a voice from a bullhorn. “Nancy Pelosi has got to go. Hilary Clinton has got to go” (four years after she’d more or less left the national stage.) At the same time, several vehicles cruised through the capitol blasting rapper YG’s 2016 protest song “FDT.”
Colleen Nguyen, 34, and Terra Shakespeare, 38, came to the “Count Every Vote” rally after an exhausting year in which Shakespeare, a first-time candidate for office, ran for the state house as a Democrat and Nguyen acted as her campaign manager. They tried to flip a Republican house seat in Cumberland County, near Harrisburg.
“Losing my race was not what we planned but I was surprised by the number of people who were engaged and whose dream was to see Joe Biden win,” said Shakespeare.
Looking at the phalanx of Trump supporters, undaunted by the newly announced Trump loss, a few feet from them, Nguyen said, “I think they are delusional. I think they are sad and I think they have got reason to be. They are losing their jobs. Things haven’t been great in this area.”
Some of Trump supporters seemed to taunt the liberal activists. One marched across the street waving a hulking Trump 2020 flag, larger than a garage door, for several minutes. Others just seemed to be confused as to where in the capital complex their crowd was. At one point, salsa music played from the capitol steps and a man carrying an American flag walked away, telling his companion, “I don’t think Trump people would be playing Latin music.”
On the other side of the building, the “Stop the Steal” rally participants had taken the president’s cue alleging mass voter fraud. A vendor was still making sales from a table loaded with “Women for Trump” and “Joe and the Hoe” signs (the hoe apparently being Vice President-elect Kamala Harris).
“How come when everyone goes to sleep Biden comes out ahead?” asked Chelsea Debbs, 37, of York, carrying a Trump flag. “I want the Supreme Court to overturn this and get the voting right.”
A lion’s share of Biden’s votes were counted after Trump’s over the week. Democrats had encouraged voters to vote by mail as a coronavirus precaution, and Trump insisted mail-in ballots would be illegitimate. Many states — including the key battlegrounds of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania — tallied in-person votes first and then moved on to mail-ins, which was the procedure for past elections. In 2020, they dealt with an explosion in mail-in votes and they were heavily Democrat, causing Trump’s margins to seem to shrink each day.
Or at least that’s the accepted explanation outside Trump’s base. The timeline sowed seeds of doubt and conspiracy for supporters, in what might be a preview of the comments sections rants and Thanksgiving table arguments of the next few years.
“I think based on the vote counts, it was fraudulent,” said John Fetchero, 37, of Cumberland, Maryland. “They delayed the vote. You went to bed and Trump was winning [in Pennsylvania] and then you wake up and they found 300,000 votes for Biden in the middle of the night.”
As of present, Biden leads Trump by four million in the popular vote, with millions of votes yet to be counted, but in Fetchero’s eyes, “They always found just enough for him in every state,” he said.
He thinks state election officials should be the subject of mass investigations, particularly of their emails. He doesn’t think sustained protests questioning the legitimacy of the election will harm the country.
“I think this has been a very peaceful interaction,” Fetchero added. “This is what the Constitution allows.”
Eric Johnston, a Trump supporter from Rockland County, New York, claimed that Pennsylvania election results suspiciously changed when Trump was ahead. “Why would PA just stop counting and start counting again?” It wasn’t clear when he thought state officials stopped counting votes.
“I want to know the truth,” he said. “If there are inconsistencies, I want to know.”
One man in a black hoodie carried a plastic lid to a bin with writing in black marker that read, “Standing back and standing by, Mr. President,” recalling Trump’s infamous message to the violent extremist group The Proud Boys at the first presidential debate. He declined to be interviewed.
Buses plastered with Trump flags and stickers parked along the capitol streets, one with a license plate from Ohio, another with a Montana plate. Many Trump supporters clearly came from outside state borders and surrounded the smaller group gathered by local organizations calling for the vote counting to continue uninterrupted.
One car passed by the Trump crowd and the driver screamed, “Fuck you, you lost.” A woman with a Trump 2020 sign retorted, “Fuck you, you really lost.”
Several vehicles buzzed by the Trump supporters blaring YG’s “FDT.” The resident of an apartment overlooking the crowd on North Third Street blasted the same track.
One group including several small children walked through the boisterous capitol. A woman held a “PA Recount Sign” as a man wearing a Knights of Columbus jacket led them in a series of prayers beginning “Hail Mary, mother of grace…,” Their memorized recitations blocked YG’s refrain of “Fuck Donald Trump, fuck Donald Trump, yeah nigga, fuck Donald Trump” from their ears, as it bounced out of another car window.
At one point, someone put on Queen’s “We Are the Champions,” a Trump rally favorite. It was unclear if it came from a sound system controlled by the progressive activists or one of the Trump buses.
“We’ll keep on fighting ’til the end….” sang the long-dead Freddie Mercury, his voice appropriated. Which group would keep fighting to what end was lost in the commotion.