The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump’s Arizona project shows the dire threat to American democracy

(Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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Electoral politics today can feel like a combination of the mundane and the terrifying. In many places, debates and elections between relatively sane adversaries take place as they always have. Yet in others, more than a moment’s observation leads one to fear that the American system is cracking apart.

Those of us who sit up nights worrying about the next few years — not that our favored candidates might lose, but that the stage is being set for a collapse of our democracy — can easily be accused of getting too worked up over minor problems and the utterances of a few kooks. And maybe we are; the future is always uncertain.

But if you look at a place such as Arizona — where the fate of U.S. democracy could well be decided — it’s hard not to feel afraid.

Former president Donald Trump went there Saturday for a rally of the faithful, and what was most disturbing wasn’t even Trump’s own litany of lies and conspiracy theories. If you sat through Trump’s tired recitation of the old hits, you’d think he was slipping into irrelevance, a pathetic loser trying to convince a dwindling cadre of fans he was still relevant.

No, what mattered about the event was the parade of Arizona politicians who came to pay tribute to him, one more extreme than the next, each there because they hope they can ride Trump’s support to their own positions of power.

And they just might.

Amid the expected GOP congressmen and right-wing media figures was Kari Lake, the former local news anchor whose campaign for Arizona governor is based on her embrace of Trump’s election lies. She has said the leading Democratic candidate, Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, should be imprisoned for presiding over a fair election in 2020. Trump has endorsed Lake, and she leads in primary polls.

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And there was secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, whom Trump has also endorsed. You probably haven’t heard of Finchem, but it is almost impossible to exaggerate what a fanatic he is. He came to Washington on Jan. 6, 2021, to protest the election, and he maintains that the vote in Arizona was stolen. Finchem is a QAnon conspiracy theorist who says there are “a whole lot of elected officials” who participate “in a pedophile network in the distribution of children.” He is also a self-proclaimed member of the far-right Oath Keepers.

Imagine for a moment: It’s 2024, we have an incredibly close presidential election, and it all comes down to Arizona, where the election is being run by an Oath Keeper and QAnon conspiracy theorist who has devoted himself to the mission of making sure Donald Trump gets elected.

If that doesn’t frighten you, I don’t know what would.

Trump himself is not bothering to hide his intention of getting officials elected who will be in a position to steal the 2024 election for him. “We have to be a lot sharper the next time when it comes to counting the vote,” he said in a recent video. “Sometimes the vote counter is more important than the candidate. … They have to get tougher and smarter.” All over the country, Republicans who promote Trump’s lies about 2020 are running for secretary of state. And some of them are going to win.

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There are signs an increasing number of Republicans are worried that Trump might lead their party to future defeats. A few are even willing to quietly disagree with him here and there. But there is still no doubt he controls the party.

He’ll be the presidential nominee if he runs in 2024 (as it increasingly appears he will). When he endorses a primary candidate, there’s a good chance that person is going to win. Conservative media is still in thrall to him. Every Republican knows that if they oppose him, they risk their careers. His grip is secure.

And Arizona is one of his key projects. Like Georgia, it’s a formerly red state that has been trending blue, where he lost narrowly last time and where some Republicans in the state’s power structure were unwilling to go along with his attempt to undo the election results. So he’s moving to purge those Republicans and replace them with his own slate of far-right candidates who will be judged on one measure above all: Are they willing to repeat his lies about 2020 to prove they’ll be there for him if he needs to steal the 2024 election?

There are plenty of commentators who will say that liberal warnings about our democracy being in peril are overblown. I hope they’re right. But I wish there was more reason to think they are.