CHASKA, Minn.—One day in mid-May, after a rally in South Dakota to promote his new website, Mike Lindell, the pillow magnate and indefatigable election-conspiracy promoter, barreled into his company headquarters, sat himself down at a long table in a conference room he uses as a makeshift office and slid a dropper under his tongue.
The dropper was full of oleandrin, a plant extract that he touts—alarmingly, to scientists—as both a preventative and “miracle” cure for Covid-19. He squeezed.
“Look at this … I can never get the virus,” he said, near the beginning of the roughly six hours I spent with him over two days at MyPillow. “It’s impossible for me to get it.”
Lindell is 59, with the frenzied energy of an auctioneer, a lock of hair he alternately combs back or lets flop down in front of his forehead, and an assertive mustache that evokes a mid-1980s Mike Ditka. He speaks loudly and nonstop—“You need to listen,” he says—about oleandrin, in whose development Lindell has a business interest; about pillows; and about his absolute certainty that cyberattacks threw the November election to Joe Biden. Two assistants sat with us in his office, while MyPillow executives flowed in and out hen he yelled for them, or waited to catch his attention from halfway through the door. He was often on his phone, in a series of conversations that at times could leave unclear who exactly he was speaking to.
A former crack addict and born-again Christian, Lindell says God has given him a platform—“the voice,” he says—to help people see “one of the biggest miracles in history unfold,” which means saving democracy by overturning the results of the 2020 presidential vote and handing the White House back to its rightful occupant, Donald Trump. Starting the week of the election, he has pushed this idea relentlessly and seemingly at every level of American politics: He met with Trump at the White House in mid-January, shortly before Trump left office; he offered MyPillow customers a discount code, “FightForTrump.” He founded a website, called Frank, that has served as a clearinghouse for election conspiracy disinformation. And on Saturday in Wisconsin, he held an all-star rally of Trump-megaphone celebrities, including Diamond and Silk, Dinesh D’Souza and Charlie Kirk. Trump himself appeared “live,” via video, over a Jumbotron.
Lindell travels constantly—where, he won’t say—staying mostly away from home because he says he fears for his safety. He’s planning a “state to state” tour to convince politicians the election was rigged; at his rally on Saturday, he promised to “rent some huge place, I don’t care if it’s a stadium,” and invite politicians and “cyber guys from all over the world” to pore over what he claims is incriminating “cyber evidence” from the election. But for these few days, he is back in his hometown, in a nondescript suburban office with a small MyPillow store attached to it, up the road from the Chaska Curling Center and a Kwik Trip.
In his conference room, Lindell introduced me to two executives he’d grown up with, Bob Sohns and Brad Carlson, then launched into a protracted conversation with them about “Giza cotton” bed sheets (shipping problems were delaying delivery), a new line of children’s blankets with Bible stories on them (Lindell liked the concept, but not the “horrible” edging on one sample), couch pillows that were too thick (“Terrible,” he told them) and pet blankets that his executives wanted him to sell.
“No, that’s dumb,” said Lindell, whose existing catalog, in addition to its pillows, sheets, slippers and towels, includes a life-size Lindell carboard cutout ($39.99), a Lindell bobblehead ($13.99, or autographed for $6 more) and his memoir, “What are the Odds? From Crack Addict to CEO” ($9.97 with a promo code).
“That’s got to be the stupidest thing in the history of mankind,” Lindell said of the pet blankets. “Why would I make them?”
Reminded “that’s what you said about pet beds,” which Lindell does sell, and told that there’s a market for pet blankets, he relented. “Get it, get it, get ‘em. … Go, go, go, go, go.”
On the conference room table, among a clutter of cloth samples, pillows and boxes of oleandrin, sat a stack of fan mail, Lindell’s phone—he doesn’t use a computer—and several “Boston Broadside” newspapers. The right-wing monthly, on its March cover, called Lindell “THE BRAVEST MAN IN AMERICA.”
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.
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?”
Lindell’s outsider status owes at least partly to his total personal commitment to Trump’s conspiracy claims. There’s a class of successful Republicans who, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who have managed to maintain allegiance to Trump while moving on from constant re-examinations of the election. And then there’s Trump himself, who remains obsessed with the election, but is in a class of one. If there’s an illustration, politically speaking, of how not to play it, it might be Lindell.
The unveiling of Lindell’s platform, Frank, was, to put it mildly, a debacle. The website’s launch, in April, was marred by technical glitches that prevented people from signing up and that Lindell blamed on a “massive attack.” Billed as a “free speech” social media haven, especially for people banned from other platforms, the site does not yet include a social media component. Instead, it offers a smorgasbord of one-directional content, much of it debunked, including Lindell’s documentaries: “Absolute Proof: Exposing Election Fraud and The Theft of America by Enemies Foreign and Domestic,” “Absolute Interference: The Sequel to Absolute Proof with New Evidence Foreign and Domestic Enemies Used Computers to Hack the 2020 Election,” and “Scientific Proof: Internationally Renowned Physicist Absolutely Proves 2020 Election Was Biggest Cyber-Crime in World History.”
During a 48-hour livestreamed “Frankathon” to promote the site, which featured a cast of Trump-world characters like Mike Flynn, Ben Carson and Steve Bannon, Lindell was pranked by a caller pretending to be Trump, obsessed over Kimmel’s jokes about him and, when the studio momentarily went dark, suggested that in addition to “death threats and everything else,” his enemies were “attacking our power grid here.”
“At one point maybe five or six months ago, I think people considered him a likely Republican nominee for governor,” said Arne Carlson, a former two-term Republican governor of Minnesota who was banished by the state party for his moderate politics in 2010. “But once you get on those late-night comedies on TV, that’s a tough ordeal to survive … I think he’s just being laughed at.”
Carlson said, “He became a personality when he was advertising MyPillow, then evolved into this caricature.” Lindell, he sighed: “One of the great intellects of our time.”
One feature of conspiracy theories, researchers have found, is that they can function as a coping mechanism in times of uncertainty or angst, offering straightforward and satisfying answers to conditions believers can’t accept. The fact that a large majority of Republican voters believe Trump’s claims that the election was rigged has allowed the party to forgo the kind of soul-searching post-mortems that traditionally follow electoral defeats. For Lindell, no introspection is required if Trump didn’t really lose. Voting machines were hacked, he believes, and Trump will be reinstated.
“It’s kind of batshit crazy,” said Mike Webb, a coffee shop owner in Chaska and former mayor of Carver.
Nearly a decade ago, while in office, Webb was involved in land use discussions concerning the bus shed-turned pillow factory Lindell operated out of. Lindell said local regulations were overly burdensome; Webb said Lindell was only using the city as a stopgap before moving to a facility in Shakopee, a nearby town.
“The guy is so out there, and he’s so narcissistic that everything he says is about him,” Webb said. “So, he follows his own meandering river in whatever he wants to do and expects everyone to follow him, and when they don’t, they’re just wrong.”
Dave Pokorney, a former longtime Chaska city administrator, described Lindell as “so random—at one point he’s doing something rational, and then he’s off.” He said he’s “not surprised” that Lindell believes the election was stolen.
“I’m surprised other people believe it,” he said.
Lindell’s theories, to be clear, have been roundly rejected by experts. Trump’s own Justice Department said it had found no evidence of fraud on a scale that would change the outcome of the November election. A council of federal officials and election supervisors, including a representative of the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, called the election “the most secure in American history,” and Trump and his allies have lost more than 60 lawsuits seeking to overturn the election. Still, about two-thirds of Republicans believe Biden did not legitimately win the November election, according to a CBS News poll last month, a finding in line with other surveys.
For people like Lindell, the belief that Trump didn’t lose is an invitation to replace grief with something more comforting: a sense of purpose.
“Lindell found Jesus, right? He got sober. That’s the real important piece to me. He found truth. He’d been making money … and doing drugs and all of that stuff. That’s all emptiness,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project before stepping down in December. “What gave him the certainty he was looking for was evangelical Christianity. He was born again. … He needs the rigidity of a social structure to say this is right and that is wrong and that’s what keeps me straight.”
Madrid said, “You upset that, and you start to become a little unhinged. … I don’t think he’s a bad man. I think he’s a lost man.” In the election conspiracy, he said, “He found something he could hold onto.”
Judging by public opinion polling, lots of Republicans seem to be in this camp. They believed Trump. Or they believed pastors who told them that he was chosen by God, and it makes no sense to them that he didn’t win. For those people, Lindell offers a special kind of reassurance. Here’s a man who not only says Trump won and will be reinstated, but whose own redemption story—quitting crack, building a business and amassing a fortune, gradually finding God before making a “full surrender to Jesus Christ” while at a religious retreat at Lake Tahoe in 2017—was so unlikely that if he believes Trump might come back, it just might happen.
“He’s part of who God sent to save us, and I really believe that,” a woman named Lori Wallender, from Minocqua, Wis., told me outside Lindell’s rally last month at the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S.D. Todd Taylor, who is Lindell’s stepbrother and oversees the MyPillow production facility, said, “I know Mike gets these messages and follows what he’s told, maybe in a dream, and he’s following that path.”
He said, “There’s something to be said about that. He’s had a lot of things happen you can’t explain.”
Lindell says that what he is offering, simply, is “hope.” Of all the sideshow acts from the Trump era, he has the wherewithal to keep the Trump faithful engaged—operating a website, producing documentaries, hiring investigators and putting on rallies. He is, at once, the entertainment they are missing in the post-Trump era, and the promise that the Trump era isn’t really gone.
It still exists, unquestionably, at MyPillow. Metaxas told Lindell that visiting the headquarters felt like a “pilgrimage to something more than what it is. It represents something.” Trump supporters with less access to Lindell than Metaxas sometimes call the pillow company’s customer service line instead.
On one of the days that Lindell was in town, I was waiting in the MyPillow store connected to Lindell’s headquarters when Sue Wiebe, who answered the phone there, told a caller from New Jersey, “Keep on praying. He’s going to do this. I have faith.”
When she hung up, she said that kind of call isn’t uncommon.
She said, “There’s a lot of people calling and saying Mike is a disciple of God.”
Last month, the week Lindell visited Chaska, the local amateur baseball team, the Chaska Cubs, held its home opener at Athletic Park, not far from where Lindell grew up. As fans filled the wooden benches in the grandstand, Bob Roepke, a former mayor of the city and until recently a board member of MyPillow, lingered down the right field line. Lindell’s former peewee hockey coach was there, too.
Eating popcorn while he leaned against the fence, Roepke said what Lindell is going through now isn’t all that different from when he owned Schmitty’s, the bar where “all heck was breaking loose.”
“Don’t you think if you’ve lived on the edge and kind of the extremes, it’s just how he approaches life?” Roepke told me later. “I don’t think he’ll ever say ‘Uncle’.”
Roepke left the board because of his difference of opinion with Lindell about the election, deciding it was “maybe not the healthiest thing for me to continue.”
He’s also conflicted. He still respects Lindell. He’s personally fond of him. For many years, Lindell has been a generous benefactor to local charities. He employs people, including recovering addicts, who other companies would pass over. As a member of MyPillow’s board, Roepke saw Lindell exhibit an uncommon degree of loyalty to former business associates and longtime friends. Those qualities, Roepke suspected, came from Lindell’s growing up in a Chaska that, at the time, was relatively small.
But at the Cubs game, Roepke could also point out people who had worked as volunteer election officials in the stands, and people like him, who had worked in government. If Lindell was right, all those people were engaged, wittingly or not, in defrauding their friends and neighbors out of their vote. As were countless thousands of other people like them across the country—all without any detectable evidence or motive.
As for where Lindell’s conspiratorial side came from, he said, “I don’t know.”
He shook his head. Lindell had built a life, wrecked it, built it again more grandly and a little chaotically. But this? Roepke said, “It’s off the rails.”