Arresting opponents of the Big Lie is now the Republican way

February 5, 2021 8:31 am

Illustration by Getty Images

Make no mistake: Devotion to Donald Trump is still the foundation upon which the Republican Party is built. You don’t need to look any further than the Arizona Senate to see the lengths to which GOP elected officials will go to prove their fealty to both Trump and the Big Lie that the election was stolen from him.

Trump may not be president, and may not wield the bully pulpit afforded by the office (or by Twitter), but opposing him in any way is a death knell to an aspirational Republican’s future. And almost all state legislators imagine themselves ascending to higher office, which explains why even Republican senators who haven’t ever voiced support for the Big Lie are now acting in service of it.

They fear that the Big Lie has so permeated the minds of enough Republican voters that they won’t be able to climb the ladder — or maintain their current power — if they don’t show just how far they’ll go to ignore facts and reality in order to pander to those voters.

That’s why all 16 of the Republican senators signed on to a resolution to hold the five members of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors in contempt and subject them to arrest and misdemeanor charges.

And their offense? The resolution says it’s because the county supervisors — four Republicans and one Democrat — have ignored a subpoena issued by the Senate. But that’s neither the whole truth, nor what’s really driving the Senate. 

The subpoena seeks all 2.1 million ballots cast in November and all of the county’s elections equipment. The county has not ignored the subpoena; rather, it’s gone to court to challenge the Senate’s authority to issue such broad demands and to conduct its planned audit. And the county argues that the Senate is demanding the county break state law by turning over the ballots — and that the Senate ultimately wants the materials so it can break state law by conducting its own recount of the November election, in pursuit of evidence to back up the Big Lie.

And it’s clear that is what the Senate hopes to do: It has told Maricopa County that a firm that invented and spread some of the undeniably false stories that form the base of the Big Lie will be the ones to conduct its audit.

Some of those senators may tell themselves or anyone who will listen that their support of contempt is because they need to defend the Senate’s authority. In a debate Thursday over a procedural move, several senators said as much.

“You have a political subdivision literally, literally, spitting in the face of the state Senate,” declared Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, a man who over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again spouted the Big Lie on social media.

But since that authority is embroiled in a lawsuit and will be resolved by the courts — you know, that whole “checks and balances” thing that is essential to America — that explanation is little more than a red herring.

And then there’s the canard that this audit, the one done by the pro-Trump company that already has proven its incompetence — and not the audits being done at the county’s behest by credentialed and reputable companies — is needed to assuage voters who are concerned that there was massive fraud. 

“What we are doing is trying to prove to the voters of Maricopa County that they can trust and count on their election process. I think that is reasonable. I think that is necessary,” said Sen. Rick Gray, R-Sun City.

Now, why on earth would they not trust the election process? It couldn’t have anything to do with Trump and the Arizona Republican Party and potentially seditious congressmen like Paul Gosar saying for the past five years that the only way Democrats win any election is if they steal it, could it? As I wrote shortly after the election:

In his 1962 novel “Mother Night,” Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of an American spy in Germany who worked as a Nazi propagandist, but was in fact a double agent who sent coded messages to the U.S. in his transmissions.

His warning is a chilling one, laid out in the opening sentences: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” 

Republicans have spent four years ignoring and then humoring and then repeating Trump’s vile and utterly false claims that strike at the heart of our democracy. Now, they are demanding exceptional and unprecedented remedies to problems that were fabricated out of whole cloth.

It’s no wonder that half of Republicans in 2016 and 70% today are convinced that the Democrat won the popular vote handily only because of election fraud.

They’ve become what they pretended to be.

Incredibly, incendiary rhetoric for short-term political gain can have long-term effects on our democracy. Republicans knew they were playing with fire, but they didn’t care. Trump demanded it. And when you’re president, they let you do it. You can do anything.

The GOP-led county board committed the cardinal sin of saying the election was fair and Trump lost. That can’t be tolerated in Trump’s Republican Party, and each of those 16 GOP senators know that, so they’ve chosen to arrest people to keep the Big Lie alive.

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Jim Small
Jim Small

Jim Small is a native Arizonan and has covered state government, policy and politics since 2004, with a focus on investigative and in-depth policy reporting, first as a reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times, then as editor of the paper and its prestigious sister publications. He has also served as the editor and executive director of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.