On 1 December Gabriel Sterling, a Republican election official in Georgia, stood on the steps of the state capitol in Atlanta and let rip on Donald Trump.
“Mr President, it looks like you likely lost the state of Georgia,” he said, contradicting Trump’s increasingly unhinged claim that he had won the presidential race against all evidence.
“Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence,” Sterling went on, referring to a storm of death threats and intimidation that had been unleashed by Trump supporters against public officials in the state.
“Someone is going to get shot, someone is going to get killed. And it’s not right.”
Then Sterling uttered the phrase that instantly entered the annals of American political rhetoric: “It has to stop.”
It did not stop.
Two days after Sterling’s impassioned speech went viral, Elena Parent, a Democratic state senator in Georgia, turned up for a hearing organized by Republican leaders to try to cast doubt on the election result. Trump attorneys, led by Rudy Giuliani, presented the hearing with a raft of conspiracy theories and baseless claims that tens of thousands of dead people and other ineligible individuals had voted.
The Republicans hadn’t warned Parent that the event would be attended by Giuliani, Trump’s henchman in his mission to undermine American democracy until this week when the former New York mayor came down with Covid-19. So she had no idea that a big crowd of far-right fanatics and the media outlets that feed them lies and falsehoods would also be in the chamber.
If she had known, she would have been careful to protect her personal details online. And she might not have sent out an anodyne tweet decrying the event accurately as a “sad sham”.
The bombardment began immediately. “The attacks came from all corners and on all platforms,” Parent told the Guardian. “They were in chat-boards, by email, in comments on my Facebook and Instagram pages, on the phone. They ran the gamut from basic insults to ‘We are watching you, you have kids, we are coming to your house.’”
In eight years as an elected politician in Georgia, she had never experienced anything like it. “It was surreal. I’m not someone who will ever be bullied or intimidated into being silent, but never have I had an issue on this scale.”
The bile spread far and wide. An elected official in Missouri accused her on Facebook of an act of treason “punishable by death”.
The worst part wasn’t the threats of sexual violence against her, or even the death threats; it was that her home address was plastered all over the internet. As a result, state police have stepped up patrols outside her home.
Parent has no doubt about the source of the overwhelming assault she has endured. “We have a president who does not care about American institutions or democracy. He has created a cult-like following and is exposing people like me across the country to danger because of his unfounded rhetoric on the election.”
What she fears most is that “cult-like” quality of Trump supporters. “That makes the entire experience more disturbing because you know there is no logic or sense of reality that will dissuade or deter these folks.”
The election may be more than five weeks in the past, but in Georgia, the heat that Trump has generated around his unprecedented refusal to accept defeat shows no sign of cooling.
Parent suspects that for elected officials like her, as well as election workers, it will remain “very difficult” through the two US Senate runoff elections in Georgia on 5 January, which will be crucial in determining which party controls the Senate, and probably until Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January and beyond.
At the center of the maelstrom are the public servants in charge of Georgia’s election process. Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state who on Monday recertified the results after three separate counts all showed Biden the victor by about 12,000 votes, has faced caravans of armed “Stop the Steal” militants driving past his house.
In an interview with the Guardian, Raffensperger said that his wife was the first to start getting death threats. “Then I started getting them. Then she started getting sexualized texts. Threatening stuff.”