More than half a year after Trump lost the presidential election, and with establishment-minded Republicans growing weary of re-litigating its outcome, Lindell has become the embodiment of a specific friction point in the Republican Party’s post-election identity: where the belief that the election was rigged, still widely held among the populist Republican voting base, is crashing into a political and legal system that long ago accepted the reality that it wasn’t.
Just last month, a judge in Antrim County, Michigan, dismissed one of the last remaining election fraud lawsuits brought after the November election, a case to which many supporters, including Lindell, had pinned their hopes. Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, declared recently: “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with.”
Lindell hasn’t let go. For that, he’s becoming less welcome in some GOP circles. Last month, he was kicked out of a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Nashville, Tennessee, to which he said he’d originally been invited. His business has also suffered. More than 20 retailers have dropped his product, and Dominion Voting Systems, the voting machine maker, filed a $1.3 billion defamation lawsuit against MyPillow and Lindell earlier this year, accusing Lindell of spreading false accusations that the election was rigged.
Lindell calls the Dominion suit a “big joke.” But in a lawsuit filed recently against Dominion and another voting machine manufacturer, Smartmatic, Lindell estimates he could suffer damages exceeding $2 billion from what he claimed is the companies’ “reign of litigation terror and conspiracy to deprive Lindell and others of their constitutionally protected freedom of political expression.” In addition, he said his reputation has suffered and that he has been subjected to “threats to his personal safety and life.”
Not long ago, Lindell was considered a potential contender for public office in Minnesota, a business-entertainer-turned-politician not unlike Trump or Jesse Ventura, the former professional wrestler who served a term as Minnesota governor. Today, Lindell complains he can’t even get booked on TV. (His recent appearance on ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” was “a miracle,” he said, even if Kimmel mostly mocked him.)
Lindell has said the election will be “pulled down” and that Trump will be back in office by August, something Trump himself has reportedly been telling people. At the MyPillow headquarters, Lindell hedged on the exact month, suggesting he “might be off by, maybe it’s September.” Regardless, he offered another firm deadline he’s certain of: “I will tell you this. The election is coming down, 100 percent, and there will be no machines in 2022.”
Even in Minnesota’s Republican-leaning Carver County, southwest of Minneapolis—and even among some supporters of Lindell’s who have known him for decades—there is a sense that that might not happen, and that if it doesn’t, the fallout might be too much for Lindell.
In her living room overlooking the Minnesota River not far from the MyPillow offices, Jeanette Lenzen, who with her husband, Dick, once rented Lindell an old bus shed where he made some of his first pillows, said, “Mike makes me nervous because he’s so hyper. … I like what he’s trying to do, but I think he might be going too far.”
Lindell, she said, is up against “the tweeters and the Facebook people,” who she said have “so much power.”
“He’s done so well, I worry that he’ll lose everything,” Lenzen said. “He just has all the faith in God that God’s going to help him get all this stuff. But sometimes, God says ‘No.’”
If you understand Mike Lindell’s biography, however, it’s not clear what, if anything, will make him stop.
Before Lindell was ever talking about God or Trump or election machines, before the idea for a pillow came to him in a dream, there was Schmitty’s Tavern, the bar he owned in Victoria, Minn., and whose atmosphere—if you plucked Lindell off a stage and dropped him back behind the bar—would approximate, in miniature, the election conspiracy circus he orchestrates today.
Before he purchased the bar with gambling winnings in 1990, a friend who had scouted it out for him told him the clientele was “falling-down drunk. They’re rowdy and throwing stuff. It’s a nut house!” Lindell recalled in his memoir. The friend “didn’t want to have anything to do with Schmitty’s.”
Lindell thought: “This sounds like my kind of place.”
Raised in a trailer park not far from the bar, near a pickle factory in Chaska, Lindell wrote that as a boy he never felt like he fit in with other kids, but “learned a technique that made up for it, a new habit that would become a pattern that lasted well into adulthood: showing off.” There were little things, like jumping into a snowbank from the window of a moving school bus. And there were things that nearly killed him, according to Lindell’s account.
“I fell into a lake and was trapped under a sheet of ice,” he wrote. “I was nearly electrocuted by a bolt of power so massive that it shut down half the town. I bought a motorcycle and wrecked it twice—the second time on the way to a skydiving lesson, during which I smashed into the ground at 60 miles per hour because my parachute didn’t fully open.”
“I began to feel invincible,” Lindell wrote.
By the 1980s, Lindell, after dropping out of college, had a part-time job as a bartender in Chaska and had learned to count cards, a skill he’d return to over the years at blackjack tables in Nevada when he needed money to cover debts. He was addicted to alcohol, cocaine and gambling, on the hook to his bookies for tens of thousands of dollars, with multiple DUIs and a theft conviction on his record.
In Schmitty’s Tavern, across from Steiger Lake, he created “a daily escape from reality,” he wrote. In his book, Lindell describes “people dancing on the bar, spraying each other with Super Soakers, hanging upside down from the rafters … someone setting off a brick of firecrackers.” Lindell was an accommodating host, allowing customers to write bad checks and waiting to cash them until payday, and he had a loyal following. He wrote, “I was selling alcohol, but I wasn’t selling alcohol, if you know what I mean. I was selling fun. Family. Belonging.”
Lindell added, “Maybe that was because, beginning in childhood, I never felt like I belonged.”
Today, Lindell is recognizable in living rooms across the country for the late-night infomercials that, beginning in 2011, sparked a massive expansion of MyPillow’s brand. The privately held company says it now employs more than 1,600 people and has sold more than 50 million pillows. Lindell is wealthy enough that he said he spent “millions of dollars” on network security for his Frank website and $2 million on private investigators to pursue his election fraud claims. He flies on a private jet.
Schmitty’s Tavern has since been re-named and remodeled by new owners, and it’s no longer as uninhibited as when it belonged to Lindell. But some of Lindell’s old friends and clients still drink there. When I walked in with a list of nicknames mentioned in the book—“Skelly, Petey, Pokey, Fly Man, Mohawk, Sibby,” among others—and asked if anyone knew them, Paul Johnson, who was drinking a Budweiser, said, “I’m Pokey.”
He recalled Lindell going “on benders for days, not just hours, days,” he said, a memory that squares with Lindell’s own memoir. At the time, Johnson said his expectation for Lindell was that “we’d end up finding him dead.”
“He’s a hyper guy,” Johnson said. “But he loves people.”
Johnson isn’t convinced, as Lindell is, that Trump will be reinstated. But he said, “I like what he’s doing. He ain’t going to back down, either.”
Sitting nearby, a man ordered two Jacks and Coke and said Johnson was probably right. But he felt like he’d seen this already—in Lindell’s two failed marriages, in a career that, before MyPillow took off, was always up and down.
“He always built things up and lost,” he said.
Nearly 20 years since Lindell sold the bar, it’s not hard to see the spirit of Schmitty’s still alive in Lindell’s new obsession. If Schmitty’s was, as Lindell wrote, “a place that made you forget your troubles for a while,” today he offers Trump loyalists a comforting fantasy that they don’t really live in an America where 7 million more people picked Joe Biden.
Lindell, in fairness, has a different takeaway from his time running Schmitty’s. The bar, he said, helped him learn marketing and how to “read people.” But when I suggested to him that in both instances he was creating a community around him, he did not disagree.
One difference today, Lindell said, is “the community’s a lot bigger. A lot bigger.”
It may also be more dangerous, at least to the nation, than drunk people shooting Super Soakers in a bar. In an interview at MyPillow with Eric Metaxas, the evangelical author and radio host, Lindell described himself as “a hub of a wheel” when it came to unsubstantiated claims about the election, when “people just started pouring it onto me because I was the last voice, so to speak. … There was nowhere else to go.”
The first piece of collateral damage might be Lindell himself. If Trump had won re-election in November—or had Lindell not plunged himself so completely into Trump’s fantasy that the election was rigged—Lindell would today have a credible future in Republican politics in Minnesota. The chairman of Trump’s 2020 campaign in the state, Lindell had been encouraged by Trump to run for Minnesota governor. The chair of the state Republican Party, Jennifer Carnahan, pre-endorsed Lindell, writing on Twitter last year that “we are going to make him our next Governor,” and Lindell himself said he was “99 percent” sure he’d run.
In the aftermath of Trump’s defeat, both Lindell’s interest in running and any chance of doing so effectively appear to have diminished. In January, shortly before Biden’s inauguration, Lindell was photographed walking into the White House with notes mentioning the possibility of declaring “martial law,” tying Lindell inextricably to the fringiest excesses of a president who lost Minnesota by about 7 percentage points. Responding to this newfound prominence, the in-state press in Minnesota began to examine him more critically. The Minnesota Reformer news site unearthed old allegations of abuse against Lindell by an ex-girlfriend and an ex-wife, claims Lindell has denied.
Like Trump, Lindell was banned from Twitter for spreading election disinformation. Then came the Dominion lawsuit and the flight of retailers like Kohl’s and Bed Bath & Beyond.
In an effort to show support, John Thomas, a Republican strategist from California who got to know Lindell at past Conservative Political Action Conferences, said he told Lindell recently that he’d purchased some of his sheets. (They were better after washing, Thomas said. Initially, “they chafed me a little bit.”) He was worried about Lindell’s business, he said, but Lindell didn’t share his concerns. He said Lindell told him, “They’ve already done their worst. What else can they do to me?”