Mar-a-Lago on the Prairie

My Pillow CEO and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell.
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
August 18, 2021

I have listened to innumerable speeches from Donald Trump, read every tweet that the man has issued, consumed years’ worth of right-wing conspiracies online and in person, and I can say this with absolute certainty: MyPillow C.E.O. Mike Lindell’s Cyber Symposium, held last week in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, was the most illogical, confusing, mind-melting event that I have ever been to in my life, even by the high standards set by our former president.

The pro-Trump, ex-crack-addict-turned-entrepreneur had become the epicenter of the claims that the 2020 presidential election was illegitimate, allegely stolen by nefarious forces hacking election machines, gathering millions of believers in the process. A multi billion-dollar lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems against Lindell, his allies Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, and any media network that had aired his claims, only emboldened him further, to the point of hosting a massive event and inviting as many lawmakers and media members as he could.

His purpose, despite the massive pending litigation, was to convince his hardcore believers that the presidential election was, as he put it to me, “a hack of historical proportions.” He told me his goal was to eventually build a Supreme Court case. “And then they’re going to vote nine-zero.”

Obviously, everyone in their right mind knows that Joe Biden convincingly and fairly won the election, but that wasn’t going to stop Lindell from trying to throw a church revival and enjoy some vestiges of his Trump-adjacent celebrity. (The event was officially branded “The Mike Lindell Cyber Symposium.”)

The stage of the South Dakota Military Heritage Center was what one expects from a large MAGA gathering these days: a 20-foot tall American flag draped overhead, cameras and correspondents from OAN, Newsmax, Right Side Broadcasting Network; smaller bloggers waving handheld tripods in the face of mask-wearing journalists, fishing for “gotcha” moments; pro-Trump wannabe local and statewide politicians shilling their campaigns. Even Steve Bannon was there to lend his nationalist imprimatur to the event, broadcasting his show War Room livefrom a box seat, and at one point doing a panel with “Brother Lindell”; elsewhere, QAnon personality InTheMatrixx was taking innumerable selfies between recording his podcast.

There were numerous “experts” who came onstage to gesture at alleged conspiratorial lines between the Chinese Comunist Party, George SorosHunter Biden, and the omnipresent technology that helped tabulate elections, and the son of Brazilian President and Trumpian autocrat Jair Bolsonaro, who made his own video alleging voter fraud in South America. There was even Ron Watkins, the conspiracy theorist of 8chan renown, who came in over Skype to try to find holes in a random snippet of “forensic images” of software from Mesa County, the Colorado district whose election office was investigated, in an apparent attempt to prove that someone had deleted something at some point. “There’s a lot of smoke, there must be a fire,” his co-host kept repeating, as Watkins struggled to stay connected to the audio.

But the star of the show was Lindell himself—mustachioed, belligerent, and wildly angry at everyone he thought was out for him, from tech billionaires like “Mark Zuckerbuck,” to Fox News hosts, to a 22-year-old reporter from Salon named Zach Petrizzo, whom he summoned to the stage to debate him (and then quickly rescinded the invite once Petrizzo agreed). Billion-dollar lawsuits would not deter him, nor would the “antifa attacks” that he saw lurking around every corner, because, as he proudly declared numerous times: “I’ve got the biggest mouth!”

Perhaps that is why the vast majority left the symposium before the symposium’s end, disappointed and deflated. It wasn’t because of the hilariously bad tech issues, which Lindell waved away with claims of hacking (whether it was Soros, antifa, or the CCP was unclear). I heard the story of a state senator who’d showed up, listened to Lindell ramble for several hours, then abruptly got up and took his staff home. A cybersecurity expert specializing in the “packet captures” of Lindell’s obsession—forensic data that captures IP addresses, which could, in short, determine whether data from a malicious actor had made its way into a voting machine—told me that nearly all of his colleagues had left early, and that they had never been given any data at all to scrutinize.

Others were standing by the stage in their grey “Cyber Expert” badges, growing more and more irked that the illegible source code scrolling onscreen nearly the entire time had nothing to do with the packet captures they’d been promised. “The conclusion in our room was, we didn’t have any disagreement with the people who wanted desperately to prove [the election was stolen], because we were given nothing,” said a frustrated Harri Hursti, an election security expert featured in the 2020 HBO documentary, Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections. “We were just staring and talking about what kind of beer we’re about to have next. It’s just, it’s hilariously sad.”

A pro-MAGA radio host told me that he’d bailed on the conference within 15 minutes, and simply waited for his colleagues to catch up with his thinking. “It’s a shitshow,” they declared. Even Bannon had grown tired of Lindell re-airing another video blaming the CCP and Soros for the election hack, asking for him to deliver the goods instead. “I think this is a mistake,” Bannon told co-host and former Breitbart London editor Raheem Kassam. “I want to be brutally frank. I think there’s so much work to get through the day.”

Even still, the stories that deflated the symposium’s premise came from two conservative outlets: The Washington Times’ Joe Clark reported that a prominent member of Lindell’s own Red Team—the supposed cyber experts he’d assembled to parse the data—said he found no evidence of a Chinese hack from the information he’d been presented. Gateway Pundit, a controversial right wing site that often caters to its conspiracy-peddling wing, brought it to Lindell’s attention. He then spent Friday attacking Gateway Pundit.

In the end, no proof was offered. No packet captures were given to the cyber experts. No quo warrantos were submitted to the Supreme Court. And when activists in the audience, desperate to direct their anti-Biden anger somewhere, begged panelists for actions on what to do next—“What questions should we ask our elected officials?”—there were no answers, except for a string of variations of we’ll get back to you on that. (The Dispatch’s Khaya Himmelman has an excellent breakdown of the technical failures of the conference here, including why none of the data showed any sort of hacking—or wasn’t even the data promised.)

The biggest snub came from Fox News, which had refused to let Lindell air ads for the Cyber Symposium, apparently taking notice of the billion-dollar lawsuits filed against the pillow maven and the networks that ran his election fraud conspiracies. (Lindell eventually stopped responding to my requests for an interview.)

As I sat in the most ventilated corner of the South Dakota Military Heritage Center watching people try to read arcane meanings into random bits of data and source code, seeing people pray in tongues in the parking lot, and being called a blasphemer by at least two people after I introduced myself as a mainstream journalist, I began thinking about the Great Disappointment. The very, very short version of this historical event: in the early 1840s, a Baptist preacher named William Miller convinced hundreds of thousands of Americans that by openly and feverishly comparing historical documents, applying typology, and interpreting the Bible precisely—specifically, the prophecies of Daniel—one could predict the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

The Millerite movement became an utter mania across America over the ensuing years, with thousands of evangelists publishing periodicals across the country and pushing their message as far away as Canada and Australia, all convinced that they, too, could predict the future from arcane texts. Soon, the pressure of their collective knowledge made the dates more specific: Jesus would return between March 21, 1843 and March 21, 1844. When that day passed, they went back to the drawing board and determined that actually, if one looks at a different historical calendar, the real Second Coming was on October 22nd, 1844.

Of course, Jesus did not return, to the dismay of the tens of thousands of Millerites who had given up everything for their cause—selling their possessions, shearing off their hair—and had, quite literally, put on white robes and climbed into trees and rooftops so they could ascend to heaven more easily. So the Millerites disbanded, suffering little more than wounded pride and a disillusionment with religion, going back to their homes and farms in embarrassment. A few stuck with it, eventually forming the origin of the Advent Christian Church.

But in the 21st century, Lindell had invested considerable resources into the Cyber Symposium, planning for nearly 700 people to see him in Sioux Falls, charging not a cent for people to attend, and dragging millions of eyeballs onto a livestream, all to challenge a very secular institution: the security of the American election system. And in the diminished, fevered, and sobbing crowd that remained by Day Three, it didn’t matter that nothing had been proven. They just wanted to ask questions, and no one could stop them from asking the questions, and if someone tried, that was proof, many felt, of the fraud right there.

Bannon praised Lindell for continuing to ask the right questions, while Watkins, on the secure messaging platform Telegram, cryptically noted that Lindell was “over the target”—meaning that Lindell could possibly be going in the right direction. A group of pro-Trump state legislators, summoning a small press conference of right-wing media outlets, announced that they were forming an “election integrity caucus” that would have a bimonthly meeting to push for “partial and full election audits in all 50 states.”

Trumpworld was watching, too. At one point, pro-Trump megalawyer Alan Dershowitz was Skyping in to spin the conference’s failures in another direction. Lindell, whom he was advising in his lawsuit against Dominion, was simply trying to exercise his First Amendment rights by making these claims, and that the defamation lawsuit was censorship.

“If you disagree with it, write it in an article, a speech, condemn him, attack him, do all those things, that’s all protected by the First Amendment, but do not censor him,” he said, his face filling up the entire screen. “Because if you censor him, you are weakening the person. And whatever is true of Mike Lindell and MyPillow’s ability to speak is true of your ability to speak. Today, it’s the election. Tomorrow, it might be health and the vaccines and other issues, other controversial issues. It will be China, it will be Iran, it will be future elections.”

“What worries me most are people who are true believers who just accept these claims of fraud, who don’t see the conflicts between the different proposed frauds. There’s something dangerous there,” said Douglas W. Jones, an adjunct professor emeritus of computer science at the University of Iowa, who had studied election security since 1995.

None of the theories made any coherent sense together, he said, but that didn’t seem to matter to the attendees. He recalled one man in the audience who had openly asked why the military hadn’t stepped in to remove Biden—and though the panelist had swatted him down, saying that the election should be challenged through legal means, the sentiment had not been adequately deflated. “There are people in this crowd who would like to see the revolution,” Jones said with dismay. “Revolutions and civil wars are awful things.”