Finding signs to worry about the future of American democracy is not hard, but few are quite so painful and acute as the cognitive dissonance displayed by Rusty Bowers this week.
Bowers, the Republican speaker of the Arizona State House, was the star witness during yesterday’s hearing of the U.S. House’s January 6 committee. Bowers calls himself a conservative Republican, and he has the record to back that claim up. Like most Republicans, he supported Donald Trump in the 2020 election, but when Trump and Rudy Giuliani tried to pressure him to assist in their scheme to overturn the results of the election in Arizona, where Joe Biden narrowly won, Bowers refused.
He recalled telling Giuliani, “You are asking me to do something that is counter to my oath when I swore to the Constitution to uphold it, and I also swore to the Constitution and the laws of the state of Arizona.” Speaking slowly and carefully, he later added, “It is a tenet of my faith that the Constitution is divinely inspired, of my most basic foundational beliefs. And so, for me to do that because somebody just asked me to is foreign to my very being. I—I will not do it.”
Bowers’s testimony was powerful because it was somber, serious, and clearly heartfelt. This is also why it was threatening to Trump, who issued a statement before the hearing even began attacking Bowers and claiming he’d agreed with Trump that the election was rigged. Under oath, Bowers said flatly that Trump’s account was false.
And yet in an interview with the Associated Press published yesterday, Bowers also said he would back Trump if he runs for president in 2024. “If he is the nominee, if he was up against Biden, I’d vote for him again,” Bowers said. “Simply because what he did the first time, before COVID, was so good for the country. In my view it was great.”
Bowers is hardly the first Republican to condemn Trump’s coup attempt but also express support for a 2024 run. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called Trump “morally responsible” for the January 6 insurrection and crowed to a reporter that Trump had committed political suicide, but now says, “I think I have an obligation to support the nominee of my party.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was initially unsparing in private but quickly prostrated himself before Trump. Former Attorney General Bill Barr, who called Trump’s claims about a stolen election “bullshit” and resigned over them, has said Trump should not be the Republican nominee in 2024 but that he would support him if he were: “I believe that the greatest threat to the country is the progressive agenda being pushed by the Democratic Party. It’s inconceivable to me that I wouldn’t vote for the Republican nominee.”
These examples are disheartening but perhaps unsurprising. McConnell has long since proved himself a cynical operator most concerned with building Republican power. McCarthy is a hack out for personal advancement. And Barr, despite his disagreements with Trump on the specifics of the election, subscribes to an authoritarian view of governance that matches Trump’s.
But Bowers’s ambivalence is more disturbing and perhaps more frightening because his words and action suggest a greater integrity and seriousness. This is a man who testified that Trump pressured him to break the law and his own religious views in service of an agenda that included, Giuliani told him, “lots of theories,” but “we just don’t have the evidence.” A man who was subject to threats and intimidation by armed protesters even as his daughter lay dying in his home, and who was falsely labeled a pedophile. A man about whom Trump had lied on the very day of his testimony.
Another of the witnesses yesterday was Brad Raffensperger, the Georgia secretary of state. Raffensperger’s testimony was less personally compelling—it largely focused on procedural details—but Trump arguably treated him much worse. He not only importuned Raffensperger to commit crimes in service of his fraudulent claims, but he also threatened him with prosecution if he didn’t. After Raffensperger refused, Trump launched a campaign to defeat him in a primary, though that failed. Yet Raffensperger last year also refused to rule out supporting Trump in 2024.
Some courageous exceptions to the ambivalence stand out. Senator Mitt Romney, the GOP’s most outspoken and consistent Trump critic, has said he will not support Trump if he runs in 2024, as has Senator Bill Cassidy, who also voted to impeach Trump in his second trial. Representative Tom Rice of South Carolina, who voted for the second impeachment, said this month, “The only way I would support him is if he apologized to the country for what he did following the election and leading up to January 6”—something everyone knows won’t happen. Days later, Rice was routed by a Trump-backed primary challenger.
But for each of these, there is a Senator Susan Collins, who cannot bring herself to rule out backing Trump in 2024. Most of these Republicans are not fond of Trump, but they are caught in a collective-action problem, waiting for someone else to finish Trump off and spare them the political pain, just as they have been since 2015 and just like McConnell was in January 2022. They see the fate of Tom Rice and decide they’d rather not risk it.
I can hear the objections already: Aren’t you really just asking conservative Republicans to back Joe Biden for president? Isn’t that an absurd and unrealistic ask? It is true that I find Bowers’s claim that what Trump “did the first time, before COVID, was so good for the country” to be badly misguided. Trump was impeached for attempting to blackmail Ukraine to assist him in his campaign. He fired the FBI director for declining to offer personal loyalty. He repeatedly attempted to obstruct justice by interfering with a probe begun after that firing. He couldn’t discern the difference between neo-Nazis and counterprotesters. He coddled and subjugated himself to Vladimir Putin.
These are, however, policy disagreements. They are worth debating, and I wish Bowers (and everyone else) agreed with me that the facts show Trump was in most respects a disastrous president, but that we expect voters will disagree in a democracy.
And that last phrase—in a democracy—is the problem here. Trump tried to subvert America’s system of elections in 2020 and 2021, a wide-ranging and elaborate, if not especially sophisticated, coup attempt. As my colleagues Bart Gellman and Jennifer Senior have reported, Trump and his allies have already begun laying the groundwork for another coup attempt in 2024.
As another of my colleagues, Juliette Kayyem, wrote recently, the January 6 hearings offer an off-ramp to Trump-ambivalent Republicans. But not enough of them are taking it. Many Republican leaders have talked themselves into the position that the policy views of Democrats are so dangerous, or Trump’s policies are so good, that it is more important to support him than it is to defend the basic process of democracy.
This is partly a product of an era when the parties are further and further apart on policy; partly a product of an era of affective polarization, in which partisans are driven as much by hatred of their political adversaries as affinity for any cause; and partly a result of diminished attachment to democratic ideals among voters around the world.
Once you’ve decided that your specific policy planks are more important than ensuring that the fundamental system survives, however, the result sooner or later is a government that has no interest in the will of the people. Imagining this doesn’t take much creativity: After the 2020 election, Trump tried to ignore the will of the people and remain in power. He was stopped only by the courage of people such as Rusty Bowers. If even Bowers is willing to back Trump again, despite his eloquent condemnations, the outlook for popular democracy is very bleak.