Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers is just shy of 70 years old, has seven children, is a self-proclaimed conservative, and a member of the Mormon church. He is not charismatic. Nor is he, by any remote stretch of the imagination, a progressive. He’s a reliable conservative, the sort of political figure with whom I wouldn’t agree on a vast range of issues. Last year, for example, his party in the House pushed to prohibit Arizona law enforcement officers from enforcing potential federal gun control legislation, and his legislators have supported laws limiting some interventions against climate change. His caucus has recently passed bills banning the teaching of critical race theories in schools. Three years ago, Bowers personally attacked Planned Parenthood, claiming the organization sought to use increased prevalence of STIs as a way to pad its bottom line.
But since the November 2020 election, he has invested much of his conservative political capital in trying to convince his own colleagues and political base that their support for Donald Trump’s efforts to overturn the election result constitute an existential threat to American democracy. Earlier this year, in recognition of his post-2020 bravery, Bowers won a John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage award.
In Tuesday’s congressional hearings into the events of January 6, the mild-mannered, soft-spoken Bowers—bald, thin, looking like a somewhat stern grandfather in a Norman Rockwell painting—stole the show. On the national stage, Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s secretary of state, may be the more well-known of the witnesses called Tuesday, but Bowers’s story—and his resolute refusal to bow to pressure exerted on him by Trump, Giuliani, Eastman, Bannon, and the other coup-plotters of 2020 and 2021—is, if anything, even more compelling.
As Rusty Bowers got ready to testify, Donald Trump preemptively issued a barrage of criticism against the Arizona politician, denouncing him as a “RINO,” and putting forth the bald-faced falsehood that Bowers had personally told Trump that the election was “rigged” and that Trump had, in fact, won Arizona and its slate of Electoral College electors. California’s Adam Schiff, who questioned the Arizona House Speaker, read Trump’s statement aloud into the record.
Bowers responded to Trump’s claim, and to the more general climate of intimidation that he has been immersed in for the past 19 months, calmly and clearly. He explained how, time and again, he had asked Trump and Giuliani—who took to calling him on his personal cell phone to plead their case—to provide some proof to back up their claims of systemic voter fraud, and to give him some evidence that would justify their assertion that he ought to facilitate the decertification of Arizona’s Biden electors and replace them with a slate that would cast its vote for Trump. Show me the thousands of undocumented and dead voters who allegedly cast votes for Biden, Bowers demanded. The president and his henchmen, of course, provided nothing; and, in consequence, Bowers forcefully told them that he couldn’t, and wouldn’t, do something that in his bones he believed violated his sacred oath of office to abide by the law and to defend the Constitution.
“I didn’t want to be used as a pawn,” the conservative politician told Schiff. Breaking his oath, he continued, his eyes haunted as he contemplated what he had been asked to do, “is foreign to my very being. I will not do it.”
As the nearly hour-long testimony continued, Bowers’s combination of moral outrage, bemusement, and visceral disgust at Trump’s actions, as well as those of the mobs unleashed by him, grew. He never raised his voice, but his cheekbones set and his expression became steelier. “I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to,” he explained. When Schiff mentioned that Trump’s fake electors had met in Phoenix on December 14 to try to get their support for Trump sent over to Congress, Bowers could hardly hide his contempt. He called the fake electors’ meeting a “tragic parody” and said there was simply nothing in either Arizona law or in federal law that would have allowed for such a scenario to unfold.
Bowers’s reward for his integrity has been an ongoing barrage of bile, as has been the reward for Raffensperger, for officials in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and, more recently, for Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. Trump is right about one thing: All of these honorable, decent, men and women are, these days, Republicans In Name Only. For the party of Abraham Lincoln has long deserted them, putting its institutional weight behind a cultist movement that shuns the truth, is willing to shred democracy to attain its goals, and venerates violence and intimidation.
Bowers testified that his office received over 20,000 e-mails and tens of thousands of phone and text messages urging him to appoint an alternative slate of electors. He recalled, as he read from his diary entries during the period, how armed mobs picketed his home after the election and, blaring their message out on megaphones for his neighbors to hear, accused him of being a pedophile. It’s a fair bet that, in the aftermath of these congressional hearings, Bowers will once again bear the brunt of far-right, Trump-fueled fury, of in-person mobs and online trolls.
Every American should watch Bowers’s testimony, that of a decent man scandalized by the grotesqueness of the political moment. Every voter thinking of setting aside their distrust of Trump and his henchmen, and of casting their lot with them once more as a way to express frustration with Biden’s failure to get a handle on inflation, or his inability to break congressional gridlock and pass his signature legislative priorities, or the rise in violent crime in America’s cities, should think of what would happen if Trump once again got his hands on supreme power. Does anyone seriously imagine there wouldn’t be payback against the men and women of integrity such as Bowers, who stood up to Trump in 2020? Does anyone seriously imagine that the far-right Republicans who are increasingly occupying crucial election-oversight positions at a state level would have the same moral courage and decency that was shown by Bowers and Raffensperger in 2020 if asked to subvert the democratic process?
Committee chair Bennie Thompson opened his remarks on Tuesday by averring that America had only narrowly avoided a political and constitutional crisis of historical dimensions after Trump refused to cede the election 19 months ago. And he warned of the danger of “catastrophe” should election conspiracists get voted in this November, bringing with them a willingness to refuse to certify vote results that don’t go their way. That warning was, for me, the most haunting moment of the day.
What if Trump’s monstrous 2016–20 presidency wasn’t the main story but just a prologue to an accelerating crisis of democracy in America? What if the armed mob of January 6 wasn’t an apotheosis but the appetizer, in a ghastly multi-course feast of paramilitarism and orchestrated political violence? What if Americans see all of the evidence of criminality uncovered in two impeachment trials, multiple investigations into Trump’s personal and political corruption, and, finally the January 6 committee hearings, turn around, shrug it all off, and, in a moment of supreme political madness, cast their lot once again with this homegrown version of American fascism?