Deepening suspicions. A parallel voting system. Dumpster diving for documents. In northwest Georgia, a woman known as ‘Burnitdown’ portends what the Trump movement is becoming.

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Angela Rubino squirts fuel into a fire in her yard in Rome, Ga., so that participants in a Republican meeting on a chilly morning can warm themselves. (Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
Angela Rubino squirts fuel into a fire in her yard in Rome, Ga., so that participants in a Republican meeting on a chilly morning can warm themselves. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

In ROME, Ga.

The dumpster was at the end of a parking lot alongside the county election office. It was stained, rusted and dented, and Angela Rubino suspected that it contained evidence of the corruption and moral decay she had come to believe was gripping the country. She’d been to the election office and heard the shredder going. She’d never been in a dumpster before, but this is what the times required. Extreme measures.

It was a Monday night with nobody around. She gripped the side of the metal container and pulled herself up, and as she leaned over the edge and looked inside, she felt a rush of vindication.

“Jesus,” she said to herself, spotting two clear bags full of shredded paper.

She leaned further, balancing herself to keep from pitching in, grabbed the bags and jumped down. She checked her clothes for flecks of rust and bits of trash, and then she drove the bags back to her house, a neat, whitewashed Colonial in a part of America where it had become normal to believe elections were stolen, that evidence of this could be in a dumpster and that retrieving it was a daring act of patriotism.

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And that was how Rubino thought of herself as she pulled into her gravel driveway, as a patriot. It was late. There were rips in the bags, so she transferred the shreds to two other bags and stored them in her garage, dreading what she might find inside. “Who knows?” she said, believing anything was possible. “Who knows?” A few days later, she braced herself, opened one of the bags and pulled out a fragment of paper.

“In jail,” it read.

She pulled out another one.

“Warrant division,” it read.

She pulled out another.

“May 2021.”

“Traffic.”

“Possession of cocaine.”

She rummaged around and found phone numbers. Partial addresses. Names. She realized she was going to need a large table. Lots of tape. It was going to take a whole team of people to put the pieces back together, and more time than she had to spare at that moment. She had Republican Party meetings to attend where she was calling out “RINOs” — Republicans in name only. School issues to address such as removing library books that were allegedly pornographic. Georgia’s primary elections were coming up, and she had candidates she was trying to help. She closed the bag and stored it away in a corner of the garage next to her son’s soccer goal for later scrutiny. There was so much else to get done.

Six years into the grass-roots movement unleashed by Donald Trump in his first presidential campaign, Angela Rubino is a case study in what that movement is becoming. Suspicious of almost everything, trusting of almost nothing, believing in almost no one other than those who share her unease, she has in many ways become a citizen of a parallel America — not just red America, but another America entirely, one she believes to be awash in domestic enemies, stolen elections, immigrant invaders, sexual predators, the machinations of a global elite and other fresh nightmares revealed by the minute on her social media scrolls. She is known online as “Burnitdown.”

She is also among the people across the country willing to do whatever they can to ensure that the imagined enemies of the United States are defeated in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond. From school boards to state houses to Congress, their goal is to take political territory, and for evidence that this is possible, they look to northwest Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, whose first-time candidacy two years ago defined the fringe of the Republican Party and who is now running for reelection as one of its standard bearers.

“The representative of the 14th Congressional District of America” is how one local Republican has described Greene, whose district is mostly White, mostly rural and has been long abandoned by national Democrats.

“The smartest district in the U.S.A.” is how Greene has described her followers.

Those followers include Rubino, a married 40-year-old mother of two, a New York transplant who had worked in restaurants and flipped houses for a living and once believed politics was only for the powerful.

In Greene, she did not see what much of America saw — a person willing to do almost anything to keep emotions running high, whether that meant perpetuating lies about election fraud, harassing a victim of a school shooting, speaking at a white nationalist conference or casting fellow citizens who disagree with her as “domestic terrorists.”

Instead, Rubino saw a person like herself: a political outsider who shared the same sense of urgency about the same dystopian America, one that required a popular uprising to save it. To that end, Rubino had so far managed to rally enough people to get the county election board ousted, replacing its members with those who believed that the 2020 election was stolen. She was part of a group called the Domestically Terrorized Moms that was pressing the local school board to get rid of a curriculum they believed to be grooming children for sexual predators.

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Now, on a cool Saturday morning a few weeks after she had climbed into the dumpster, she was getting ready to host a gathering of fellow activists to strategize about their next moves. In her front yard, she pounded in two red signs for Greene along with a homemade sign announcing her own initiative.

“Canvas your vote here,” it read, under a red, white and blue circle with the letters W-A-R.

“Come on in!” Rubino yelled as people pulled into her driveway. “Right down here!”

She set out coffee and doughnuts in the bed of a pickup. She hooked up a loudspeaker she’d bought for the occasion. She built a roaring bonfire, and now smoke and Aerosmith were drifting into the blue spring sky.

“Yes, we’ll be here!” she yelled into her cellphone. “Come on out!”

She looked around at the people warming their hands over the fire, ready for action.

There was a military contractor who said he’d been reading a Russian book about CIA-sponsored regime change operations, which he believed included the last U.S. presidential election. There were women who believed public schools were indoctrinating children with left-wing ideology. Retirees who believed the coronavirus was a bioweapon. A mechanic who wore ear buds all day streaming “War Room,” a podcast in which former Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon was urging people to take over local Republican parties.

Rubino’s closest collaborator, a woman known online as “TheBaseIsBack,” was also there, setting out a display of custom gun components engraved with “Trump” and the American flag. Now, as people gathered around, she and Rubino began outlining their plans for the coming months, including an online platform they were building where people could record how they voted after casting their official ballots, starting with the November midterms. They had already acquired and uploaded to the platform the voter registration rolls for the entire state of Georgia, envisioning that millions of people would eventually learn to cast their votes on the system, which would generate a tally that could be compared to the state’s official results, and if necessary, challenge them.

They were also planning to start a podcast called “The Dirty Peach” to expose “RINOs” and “criminal politicians.” And, to keep people motivated, they were launching an elaborate online game in which players would earn points by carrying out political actions in real life, the more audacious the better, such as Rubino’s dumpster dive.

“Angela’s a legend,” someone said at the mention of that, and Rubino rolled her eyes.

“Everybody’s waiting for a white horse to come and save us from the chaos,” Rubino said. “But no white horse is coming.”

Rubino’s friend opened her laptop.

“Okay,” she said. “Who wants to practice canvassing their vote?”

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People started lining up to record how they’d voted in the 2020 election, while Rubino sloshed some lighter fluid into the bonfire and checked her phone. The guest speaker was on the way. She counted heads again — 22 now — but she wanted more, so she grabbed a couple of people and walked up to the four-lane road in front of her house.

“C’mon! C’mon!’ she yelled, waving her arms at an SUV.

“C’mon people!” she yelled at another car.

“Turn in, turn in!” she yelled, and soon, a mint-green Mercedes-Benz turned in, delivering the guest speaker, a retired IT specialist named Garland Favorito, who’d been traveling the state trying to sustain interest in the false narrative of election fraud.

“This is just the first one,” Rubino said, explaining her plans as Favorito shook hands, and then he began giving a speech about drop boxes and QR codes and all the minutiae that filled the social media channels Rubino followed.

“Angela, speak!” people shouted when Favorito finished.

“No, no, just thank you for coming out,” she said, and as people began heading home, she was already envisioning what she was going to do next.

She had ordered three huge tents she was planning to raise in her yard, imagining larger rallies with candidates and nationally known speakers, a gathering place for people in the movement.

“It’ll be a safe space,” she said. “People can come and express themselves without worrying someone’s going to call them crazy.”

She ordered plywood. She cut down trees. She began leveling her yard.

“Always something else to do,” she said.

She bought recording equipment and broadcast the first episode of “The Dirty Peach,” featuring 25 minutes of “political piggy” awards and an anonymous woman who called herself “Election Board Throat” and claimed to have new evidence that local officials helped rig the 2020 election.

“What I want is for people to wake up,” Rubino said, and so, on another day, she and her friend Melissa Smith loaded up her car with campaign signs and headed out into the district.

“Did you hear about Kemp?” Smith said as they pulled onto a two-lane, referring to Republican Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s support of an electric-car factory that the governor’s rivals were casting as a “George Soros owned woke corporation.”

“Yeah,” said Rubino. “But this s— has been going on forever; it’s just that now it’s being revealed. It’s our fault. We gave them too much power.”

“It’s like they’re all in it together,” said Smith. “It’s like they hate us all the same.”

It was a sunny day, and as they drove through a landscape of fresh green fields and wildflowers, they talked about all the ways they felt hated by Americans who weren’t them.

Rubino felt hated for “thinking for myself.” Smith felt hated for “going against the narrative.” Greene was always saying it at her rallies: “They hate me. And they hate you.”

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They reached the next town, pulling over at a busy intersection of fast-food restaurants, payday lenders and run-down gas stations, where they pounded signs into a grass median: one for an attorney general candidate pledging to prosecute officials who upheld the 2020 election, and one for a candidate trying to unseat a state senator who affirmed Biden’s victory.

“Get the f— out,” Rubino said now, stomping her sign into the dirt.

“They don’t want to talk about anything we care about,” Smith said.

They kept going, staking signs into weedy islands strewn with beer cans and cigarette butts, patches of grass in front of old strip malls and a triangle of dirt by a gun and pawn shop.

“I don’t want all these billions going to Ukraine when people are hurting here,” said Smith. “I mean, what about opioids? Everyone around here knows somebody dealing with it.”

“They should just let Russia handle Ukraine — they’re ruled by Biden’s family anyway,” said Rubino. “They’re all just making money off it.”

They pulled into a parking lot to meet up with another volunteer working for Greene.

“Do y’all have any Witt signs?” the volunteer said.

“Who’s he?” Rubino said.

“Fellow patriot,” the volunteer said, referring to a Trump-endorsed candidate for state insurance commissioner.

“Great,” said Rubino, taking some signs, and soon, they were heading to another part of the district to meet a first-time candidate they both knew.

They passed more rolling farms and cattle and billboards about Jesus, discussing elites they’d read about on social media who seemed to them ever-more strange and remote from the life they knew. The billionaire Elon Musk and his brain chip company Neuralink. “Can you please stop trying to chip me?” Smith said. The billionaire Bill Gates and his world vaccination campaigns. The Hollywood actors with their esoteric habits.

“What about Lady Gaga?” Rubino said.

“She does that Marina Abramovic s—,” said Smith, referring to an avant-garde performance artist she’d read about. “She talked about being naked in the woods and Marina helped open her mind. That’s some weird s—.”

“And who were those people drinking each other’s blood?” said Rubino.

“Megan Fox and her boyfriend,” said Smith, referring to the actor.

“Did you ever see that clip about Hillary Clinton where she cut a girl’s face off and she wore it?” said Rubino, referring to one of the fake videos of the type always coming across her social media scroll. “I could hardly watch.”

“We have a problem as a society, clearly,” said Smith.

“And we’re the weirdos?” said Rubino.

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They arrived in a half-empty downtown, passing a storefront church that was screening a film called “Whose Children Are They?” that purported to expose “the hidden agenda in America’s schools.” They turned into a neighborhood of patched-up bungalows.

“I’m guessing it’s that one where the flag and the signs are,” said Smith, and they parked in front of a yellow-sided house with a rusted picnic table in the yard. A bearded, ponytailed man wearing a T-shirt that read “Send Patriots, not Politicians” stepped outside.

“I just got back from knocking on doors,” said Robert Watson, who described himself as an “outsider running an insurgency campaign against an establishment RINO.”

His platform included pushing for a forensic audit of the 2020 election, expanding gun rights, and opposing a mental health bill because it used guidelines of the World Health Organization, which he considered to be “godless and evil.”

Rubino handed him some signs, and Smith asked about his wife, who’d recently quit her job as a caregiver in a nursing home.

“She’s tore her back up, tore her knees up,” Watson said.

“She told me she came in one day and they didn’t even have wipes,” said Smith. “How can you not have any wipes, and then you got chandeliers in the lobby?”

“Corruption,” said Rubino, and soon they were talking about how not having wipes was one more example of powerful elites too busy advancing their agenda to care about the elderly poor.

“And we’re the radical nuts,” Watson said.

“Yeah, right,” said Rubino. “Okay, where are we off to next?”

She was so busy that she barely had time to keep up with all the updates on her social media scrolls, which came by the dozens every hour.

“RINOs and Democrats Just Stole Future Elections in Deep Red Alaska,” read one.

“It’s war,” read another. “It’s raging on all fronts. You have been used by all sides in the greatest psyops operation ever.”

“The battle is only beginning,” read one from Greene. “The Communists came after me, but they were really coming after you.”

She read them all. And then, on a Sunday when she was supposed to go to a rally for Greene, she did something else instead. She turned off her phone.

She did this sometimes, whenever she was feeling overwhelmed by what she believed the country was becoming. It was a warm afternoon, and she decided to work on the flooring of the tents. It helped to do something tangible. She dragged several sheets of plywood to the area in her yard she’d already cleared and began screwing them together, thinking about the question that was always at the bottom of days like this, one she had been wrestling with most of her life.

“Sometimes, I’d like to know what the point is,” she said, driving in a screw. “The fact that I can’t figure it out is what bothers me. Because I need to understand.”

It was a question that had troubled her since the first time she ever asked it, which was when she was 8 years old, sitting in the back seat of her mother’s car on the way to religion class.

“The thought just came into my head,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘What are we doing this for? What are we doing any of this for if we’re just going to die? You die, and it’s over. So, what’s the point?’ I felt afraid. Afraid to the point of not wanting to think about that anymore.”

She had never stopped thinking about it, though, and in some ways, she said, it was the question that had drawn her into the movement for Donald Trump, who was the first politician to give voice to her private thoughts about what America was becoming, which made her feel recognized and even important. She had never voted before, never felt herself mattering as a citizen until Trump came on the scene along with everything else — the rallies, the social media, and eventually, successors such as Greene.

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They were the ones who introduced her to the version of America she now inhabited, but what was happening, she realized, was that the more she believed in it, the more that all the certainties of the old America were turning into suspicions. She no longer trusted her schooling. She no longer trusted traditional news. She no longer trusted election results. She no longer trusted courts, or local government, or state government, or the U.S. government, or any of the institutions of democracy she once took for granted. She was no longer sure America was the country she once thought it was.

“It’s just endless questions,” she said. “You’d like to have somebody to trust, something to be sure of.”

But every question led to another suspicion, she said, and every suspicion led to another question, and at times it could all feel so destabilizing that she was no longer sure of her own sense of reality itself, which had so thoroughly broken down that she sometimes had to regain her bearings by doing what she was doing now. She picked up a screw and squeezed it.

“I know I have this screw in my hand because it’s poking my finger and hurts,” she said.

She pinched the skin on the inside of her forearm.

“I am really here,” she said.

She looked at a tree across the yard.

“I know that’s a tree,” she said, then stopped herself. “Or at least I know that it’s called a tree because that’s what I was told, but how do I know it’s not something else?”

She looked at her garage, where she was storing the bags of shreds that she was still planning to spread out on a long table and tape back together again, at which point she believed that she might better understand this moment in America. She realized how absurd this could sound.

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“Sometimes I’m like, what if I’m wrong?” Rubino said. “It crosses my mind. Then I ask God: If I’m doing something wrong, please give me the strength to figure it out. Because I really want to understand what the point is. This can’t be what life is, that you get up and go to work and come home. That as humans, we’re nothing.”

She drove the screw into the plywood.

“I want people to realize we’re significant,” she said.

She drove in another screw, and another and kept working all afternoon until the floors were finished. She jumped up and down to be sure they were secure. She was feeling better now. She turned her phone on again, where she had more than 100 updates waiting for her attention.

“They know we know they lie,” read one.

“There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion,” read another.

“People hold on,” read another. “This is getting crazier by the moment. GOD HELP US.”

She raised the tents, two white domes so large that drivers slowed down as they passed to see what was going on. She installed a fire pit. She draped lights along the tent ropes, and on a Saturday in May three days before Georgia’s primaries, she lined the edge of her yard with signs for Greene and other candidates trying to follow in Greene’s footsteps.

“This way! Come on, come on!” Rubino yelled, waving cars and people down her gravel driveway for what she was calling a “Last Stand Rally for Georgia.”

A bus plastered with Trump’s face arrived with the emcee for the evening, a pro-Trump talk show host who billed himself as “The Godzilla of Truth.” Another bus plastered with the name of a U.S. Senate candidate inched its way down the driveway. Soon, a DJ was blasting music. A portable projection screen was being inflated for a showing of the film “2000 Mules,” a debunked narrative of election fraud purporting to be a documentary. Rubino fired up the grill as more candidates arrived.

“Mr. Gordon, hot dog?” she said to a candidate for attorney general.

“Mr. Perdue,” she said to the Trump-endorsed candidate for governor, reaching her hand out to David Perdue. “Angela Rubino.”

As the possible future leaders of Georgia milled around, she stood behind the grill, observing what she had managed to pull off.

“This is our party! This is our revolution!” the emcee began, introducing candidates who spoke in the language of her social media scrolls about “patriots” and “enemies” and “evil,” and after that, the emcee said, “I’d like to introduce Angela.”

She made her way to the microphone and looked out at a crowd of nearly 100 people.

“Hello everybody and thanks for coming out,” Rubino said. “I really don’t like to speak. But I would like to consider myself the town crier, I guess.”

She paused for a moment as people clapped and cheered, then continued talking about a movement that she believed was bigger than any one election.

“We will take care of business ourselves — because we’re tired of it,” she said, and people clapped and cheered again.

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Three days later, feeling better and better, she arrived at the primary night celebration for Greene. It was a landslide. She had gotten 70 percent of the vote. It was a higher percentage than she received in 2020, and the fact that other insurgent candidates were losing only affirmed to Rubino the importance of working harder.

“Angela!” someone yelled as she waded into a crowd inside a hotel banquet room in downtown Rome, where she saw many people who’d been in her yard a few days before.

She shook hands. She hugged people. She took photos. She paused to give an interview for a podcast called “Cowboy Logic,” whose host asked about her work.

“It takes a lot of time, but for Marjorie, that’s what you do,” said Rubino.

She got herself a drink and a slice of pizza, feeling ever more significant as Greene’s unfolding victory felt in so many ways like her own. She settled at the back of the room, where video screens were showing a loop of Greene giving speeches in Congress, and soon, the crowd cheered as Greene herself arrived in the room.

“Woo!” Rubino yelled.

Greene smiled and told people that instead of giving an off-the-cuff speech, she had written one out for once. And so in the more careful and polished manner of a leader on the rise, she began describing the America that Rubino believed in more and more, one at war with “globalists” and the “democratic communist agenda” and elites who “look down on us” and “hate us.”

She listened as Greene spoke of an “American revival.” She nodded along as Greene said, “It is we who will set the public agenda for the next decade.”

“The establishment GOP is falling in line — they will, and they want to,” Greene continued, and in the back of the room, a woman who climbed into a dumpster to save America knew that this was true.

“And they have,” Rubino said, finishing the thought.

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