A dangerous far-right demagogue is rising in Arizona, and our republic’s immune system may have no response.
If some mad Trumpy scientist in his mad Trumpy laboratory had built a robot to embody everything that’s rancid and poisonous about this rancid and poisonous moment, he could not have done better than Kari Lake, the actual human being who is the Republican candidate for governor of Arizona. More than any candidate running this cycle—and this is saying something—she offers living proof that democracy has no defense against those who would use its conventions to destroy it.
You may know her backstory. She was a Phoenix TV news anchor for years, meaning that she was, to the public eye, more celebrity than journalist in that way that local anchors are—opening supermarkets and the like. She was not very political; in fact, she seemed pretty liberal—in 2008, she thought it was cool that America elected a Black president.
Then Donald Trump ran and won, and something in her synapses snapped, as it did with millions of other Americans. He awakened a rage buried within her. Now she’s running for governor against Democratic Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a normal and able public servant who is best known for defending democracy in Arizona after the 2020 election and who, if not for Trump and Q and the white fury that has detonated in this country in these last seven years since Trump descended that escalator, would probably be just fine to most Arizonans. She was a Catholic schoolgirl and a social worker educated at in-state public universities whose liberalism is closely tailored to match the sensibilities of this purple state. But she’s a lackluster candidate and is taking a beating for refusing to debate Lake, who has lately inched ahead in polls (still way within the margin of error).
Meanwhile, Lake goes around saying and doing outrageous and untrue things—the more outrageous and untrue the better. Last year she campaigned with a man who once said Adolf Hitler was “a complicated historical figure which many people misunderstand.” And while she does give some interviews to non-right-wing outlets, she mostly mocks the reporters who cover her and turns “interviews” into attacks on the fake news. The Washington Post reported Sunday that she constantly wears a lavalier mic, and every minute she spends in public is filmed by her husband, a videographer, and they post this “news” on social media accounts. The Fourth Estate, of which she was once a proud and prominent member, is basically out of the picture.
Her positions, of course, are hard-core right-wing on every conceivable topic. She tries to dance around on abortion, because Arizona has this severe 1901 law that bans nearly all abortions, which kicked in after the Dobbs decision (on October 7, a court blocked its enforcement pending an appeal). She sometimes says abortion should be a “safe” last resort. She has also called that 1901 law “great” and vowed to enforce it.
But mostly what she does is lie about Hobbs. On abortion, when she was asked a question by a reporter, she flipped it to Hobbs and said: “And none of you ever try to get her to talk about her stance. So get back to me after you do.” This, of course, is not true. Hobbs, like any candidate for a major office, has been asked about abortion a lot (she’s pro-choice). But it’s a classic demagogue’s gambit. Lake said recently that Hobbs wants doctors to leave babies who survive an abortion procedure “to die on a cold metal tray,” which refers to—but shamelessly twists—a vote Hobbs cast as a state senator.
And last month, she posted a video in which she said: “In Hobbs’s Arizona, your kindergartner wouldn’t learn the Pledge of Allegiance. As a legislator, Hobbs actually voted to block the Pledge of Allegiance, our national anthem, our Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and even the Mayflower Compact from being taught to the next generation of Americans right here in Arizona.”
All of this is completely false. All the bill would do, according an aide to a former GOP governor, as reported in the conservative Washington Examiner, is add the phrases “In God we trust” and “Ditat Deus” (“God enriches”) to the list of phrases that could be taught and posted in classrooms. And of course Lake’s biggest lie is, well, the Big Lie. Lake told an audience this summer: “I talk to President Trump. He goes, ‘I love it. No matter what I ask you, you always bring it right back to the election. I can ask you what the weather’s like in Arizona, and you’ll say, Well, it’s nice, but how do I enjoy it when our elections are stolen and we don’t have a country?’” And true to form, Lake refused to say on CNN Sunday that she’d accept an adverse electoral result and called Hobbs a “coward.”
If we lived in a functioning democracy, in which citizens took citizenship seriously and deliberated in reasonably good faith and all that, which is what men who founded this country naïvely had in mind, a candidate like Lake would get 34 percent. Every responsible civic, religious, and business leader would come out against such a candidate, and the party that nominated her would be shunned until it demonstrated it had retethered itself to planet Earth.
But we live in a dysfunctional democracy; or perhaps in certain ways a too functional democracy. What I mean is that for democracy to exist, it has to exist equally for everybody. That, unfortunately, includes Kari Lake and Herschel Walker and even Donald Trump. They’re all entitled to run for office. They don’t have to know the first thing about anything. This is actually a central pillar of self-rule, right? Jefferson imagined that the House of Representatives would include farmers and laborers and other nonexperts (nonexperts are fine, but these people are something way beyond that). And these candidates can lie all they want, because their lies constitute free speech and are thus protected by the First Amendment.
Marx used to say that capitalism contained the seeds of its own destruction. I don’t know, Karl; capitalism has proven pretty resilient, and if anything it has throughout history turned billions of potential proletarians into fairly comfortable middle-class people.
No—it turns out that it’s actually democracy that contains the seeds of its own destruction. If the people who want a Christian nation with no secure voting rights and a weak independent press get 51 percent of the votes, they can impose that and more on the rest of us. That’s what we’re witnessing now, in Arizona and across the country. And there is little we can do about it. I can write a column like this, but Katie Hobbs can’t say all this to the swing voters of Arizona. Most of them wouldn’t understand what she was talking about, and Lake would find a way to turn such talk to her advantage, as demagogues always do. This is what we’re watching now, and have been since 2016: democracy’s lack of defense against destroying itself.