This weekend, a few hundred Texans gathered at Dallas City Hall to protest a stolen presidential election and, with it, the triumph of a global cabal of pedophiles, the introduction of Caracas-style economics, and the imminent end of the Republic. Allen West, the camera-loving chair of the Republican party of Texas who Texas Speaker of the House Dennis Bonnen has suggested needs a “one-way ticket back to Florida,” served as the master of ceremonies on a small stage, introducing speakers such as former NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch before the crowd marched through downtown. If you’ve seen this scene once, you’ve seen it a million times: patriotic colors, Gadsden flags, long guns. It was a dismal day, grey and overcast, and the flags whipped in the wind. 

But it felt much more like a celebration than a wake, a party at the end of the four years of MAGA. Protesters might as well have been swapping yearbooks. West led the crowd in prayers, separate pledges of allegiance to the U.S. and Texas flags, and invited them to sing “God Bless America.” Then he stepped off the stage and the music and dancing started. First came Blake Shelton. (“Well the boys ’round here, they’re keeping it country / Ain’t a damn one know how to do the dougie.”)

Then Journey kicked in. “Don’t Stop Believing” pumped from the PA system. Two women in matching Trump shirts and track jackets hopped on stage, twirling and waving their Trump 2020 and Thin Blue Line flags. There was cheering and dancing in the audience, and for a moment the weird kitschy magic of the large-scale Trump rallies came back to life. If there was any awareness that this song was famously associated with the imminent fade-to-black of another tri-state loudmouth, it didn’t show.

Finally, a clip of Trump addressing the U.S. Coast Guard Academy played. “You will find that things happen to you that you do not deserve and that are not always warranted,” he said. “But you have to put your head down and fight, fight, fight. Never, ever, ever give up. Things will work out just fine.”

The speeches started. The speakers held out hope that Trump could still win, but they also stressed the strength of the Republican party. State senator Bob Hall emphasized that Republicans held their ground in the Texas Legislature while making gains with minority voters. “We have created the biggest tent of any party in our political history,” said Loesch. Sucks for Trump, they seemed to be saying, but we’re not in bad shape.

When West took the stage, Trump’s name rarely passed his lips. His emphasis was on the future. “We shall not grow weary. We will not grow faint. We will mount up on those wings like eagles and we will save the United States of America,” West said. “You are making a commitment to your children and your grandchildren that you will stand up and fight just as the patriots came out onto Lexington Green.”

He spoke of the “failed policies of the Obama-Biden administration,” and how Obama had kowtowed to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. And Texas would lead the fight, if the crowd came with him. To ensure they did, he led them in the oath given to soldiers upon joining the Army. The MAGA faithful swore to protect the country from “all enemies foreign and domestic.” When they finished, West told them: “You’re now soldiers in the army for America!”

West picked up a young boy, Brodie, from the audience and hoisted him to his shoulder. “Today is not about you being here today,” he said. “Today is about whether or not Brodie will still be living in the land of the free because we’re the home of the brave.” Go home, he told the crowd, with the conviction that “I am on the battlefield for god, for country, for Texas, for Brodie!”

There are two Republican parties. One is the institutional GOP, the party of Mitch McConnell, the Federalist Society, the American Enterprise Institute. These guys have the know-how, the money, the levers of power. The other is the Republican party of the grassroots—the crowd at this rally, animated by cultural grievances, patriotism, nationalism. The two have often coexisted uneasily, but their fates are joined together. One side can’t succeed without the other.

The protesters here may see liberals as the enemy of Trumpism, but the truth is that Trump is disposable to the institutional wing of the party, which got what it needed out of his four years—tax cuts and judges. McConnell’s Senate majority is intact, for now. Many institutionalists will privately be relieved when he is gone. They know Biden’s presidency will be tightly limited by the Senate and the courts. They rode the bucking bronco and they won. Trump, meanwhile, can count vanishingly few accomplishments of his own—and practically none that contradicted the preferences of McConnell’s faction.

But Republicans still need Trump’s fans. And the best way to keep them is to encourage the myth that Trump won, that he was denied his rightful place on the throne by liberals. An angry and betrayed base is key to the maintenance of power. The tea party movement started a month into Barack Obama’s presidency: this time, the rallies are proliferating two months before Biden’s even begins.

All four American presidents elected since 2000—now including President-elect Joe Biden—have suffered a crisis of legitimacy. Each has entered office with some substantial portion of the American populace believing that they’ve stolen the presidency, and that they’ve stolen it with the intent to do tremendous harm. George W. Bush’s presidency was clinched by a partisan-line U.S. Supreme Court decision. Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump faced charges that they were Manchurian candidates assisted by unseen powers with a sinister agenda—perhaps the destruction of America itself.

Before the emails start, I’m not suggesting the four are equivalent—only noting that this crisis of legitimacy has become something of a tradition, one that extends now to the “Stop the Steal” movement, which held rallies nationwide and throughout Texas on Saturday, from Washington, D.C., to Conroe. This lot has a grand theory. They believe that Joe Biden and the Democrats successfully rigged elections in five states—several of which are dominated top to bottom by Republican elected officials and judges—to deny Trump a second term and that, inconveniently, the plotters rigged it so well that they have not left a single scrap of evidence behind. (The Trump campaign’s legal challenges have been getting laughed out of court everywhere they’ve been brought.) 

If true, it would be a horrible thing, made more horrible by the fact that many who profess to believe the “Steal” theory also profess to believe that Biden is part of the global pedophile cabal at the center of QAnon conspiracy theories, or that Biden will bring Venezuelan socialism to America and, with it, social collapse and ruin. And yet only a handful of believers are fleeing the country, building safe rooms under trapdoors, or stocking up on ammonium nitrate, just as vanishingly few liberals who thought Trump was a KGB agent did the same.

That suggests a few things. First, this is a kind of playacting. Americans, even on the political fringes, still believe in the integrity of the system so much that when presented with an “evil” president they look to the system to solve it. (Impeachment, donating to Senate candidates, city-permitted protests.) And second, precisely because of that collective belief in the system, the most potent charge one can make against an opponent is that they’re outside the system, that they’re illegitimate. They may believe it, but more important, it’s a politically useful narrative. So while the president may have been heartened to see so many on the streets demanding a different result in the election, he probably shouldn’t be. This is about setting the stage for what comes next.

There’s been a lot of talk, during the Trump administration, of what post-Trump conservatism might look like, with a lot of thoughtful folks pitching visions for the GOP that looked something like one-nation Toryism, or similarly high-minded concepts. But the future of conservatism probably looks a lot like the rally in Dallas, which is pretty much what it looked like in the tea party days before Trump. Misdirected grievance, while the adults at the top run the show—often, to the detriment of those in the streets.

And on the streets of Dallas, as the autumn sun ducked low in the sky, the audience dispersed for the march. A chant began. “Fox News Sucks! Fox News Sucks!” one group yelled, but it quickly lost momentum. Eventually the crowd started yelling the names of individuals who suck. “Juan Williams sucks! Donna Brazile sucks!” A few more. “Chuck Schumer sucks! AOC sucks! Biden sucks!” It petered out. The march carried on for a while in a big loop and then ended right where it started.