Another group of Americans — maybe larger than the loyalists or maybe smaller — recognizes the audit for what it is: a partisan effort to dredge up whatever questions they can in a fundamentally dangerous effort to score points on behalf of Team Trump. An effort that is marketed as transparency is, instead, entirely centered on muddying the obvious and validated results. Its conclusions are all but preordained, but the ramifications of the incipient announcement that the Experts found Actual Fraud (both terms that should at least carry asterisks) are unclear.
In a lengthy new report documenting the way in which conservative groups set the stage for this deliberate effort to undercut the election results, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer makes a startling and important discovery, one that is easy to overlook. She spoke at length with a county official named Bill Gates, a Republican who falls into that third, skeptical camp. During those conversations, he told Mayer something unexpected about the state senator whose advocacy for the election review has made her its institutional face.
“Gates says that Karen Fann, the Arizona Senate’s president, confided to him that she knew there was ‘nothing to’ the fraud charges,” Mayer reports, adding that Fann didn’t offer comment for the report. “Nevertheless, she buckled under the political pressure and authorized a subpoena of the county’s ballots, for the ‘forensic audit.’ ”
It’s very possible that Fann simply told Gates that she didn’t think fraud had occurred because she wanted to grease the wheels of Maricopa’s participation in the effort. But it’s more likely that Fann, a member of Arizona’s legislature for more than a decade, actually recognized that nothing untoward happened. After all, Arizona had been trending more blue since 2004, in part thanks to its evolving demographics. That the result in 2020 was close was a continuation of that trend; in fact, the shift to the left from 2016 to 2020 was smaller than the shift from 2012 to 2016. Fann herself was elected in a district that includes parts of Maricopa. One assumes she feels pretty confident about those particular results.
So let’s assume for a moment that Fann actually did believe, as she apparently told Gates, that there was no fraud at play in Arizona in 2020. She then has two choices as an elected leader: to nonetheless press forward with an effort that any independent observer could predict would erode confidence in the election or to stand in opposition to it. Perhaps she believes the line that treating every claim about fraud as serious somehow diminishes those claims, despite the obvious and robustly demonstrated fact that such a response simply lends credence to nonsensical claims. Or, perhaps, her party made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.
After all, consider where the Republican Party is at the moment. For more than four years, Trump demanded the sort of loyalty from Republicans that is more generally a feature of autocrats. He used the support of the Republican rank-and-file as a cudgel against his purported allies until they quickly learned it was simply easier to go along with him. The conservative media, eager to play to his base, similarly reinforced Trump’s perspective and whims with little question. When something egregious emerged, like false claims about election fraud or the attack at the Capitol on Jan. 6, the right was left with three choices: play along, shut up or face the fury.
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) opted for the third route. Cheney voted to impeach Trump earlier this year and was subsequently outspoken in criticizing him for promoting false claims about election fraud. Kemp was thrust into the unenviable position of having to either support Trump or to support his own administration; he chose the latter. Both have faced abuse and threats, political and otherwise.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) largely chose silence. He spoke out briefly in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection but quickly muted himself, choosing to ride the wave rather than expend the energy to redirect it. Many other Republicans did the same, keeping their heads down to be better able to step carefully.
Fann, as president of the Republicans in the Arizona Senate, would have been hard pressed to stay quiet, so she chose to play along. Again, maybe she was lying to Gates, but it’s safe to assume that she wasn’t. She had little political choice but to go along with the “review.”
That’s to a significant extent because the political ecosystem on the right offers lots of support for Republicans to lean into their agreed-upon falsehoods and no support for tackling the truth. If Fann wanted to support Trump’s false claims of fraud, she’d earn hosannas from nearly everyone in her political circle. It would get her praise and interviews from conservative outlets; it would generate applause from Trump loyalists online. If, however, she chose to admit reality, all of that would shift against her. She might earn praise from The Washington Post, but what good does that do her in a primary fight against a pro-Trump Republican?
Fann’s allies offered her no off-ramp as her party demanded that Trump’s false claims be validated, just as Republicans nationally have similarly pushed their party to a closer embrace of Trump. The Trump path is the path of little resistance. Every other route is a minefield for which there is no map and no guide.
Whenever there’s a discussion of the review in Arizona, the same conclusion emerges: Everyone knows where it is headed, but no one really knows what happens then. For the review itself, in other words, there’s no off-ramp, just this big, rickety truck rumbling forward with dashboard warning lights going unheeded. The time when this could have been averted came months ago, before the vehicle started moving. But even then, Fann and other Republicans were not offered any easy choice other than to step on the accelerator.