Ousted Republican reflects on Trump, democracy and America: ‘The place has lost its mind’
Rusty Bowers is headed for the exit. After 18 years as an Arizona lawmaker, the past four as speaker of the state’s house of representatives, he has been unceremoniously shown the door by his own Republican party.
Last month he lost his bid to stay in the Arizona legislature in a primary contest in which his opponent was endorsed by Donald Trump. The rival, David Farnsworth, made an unusual pitch to voters: the 2020 presidential election had not only been stolen from Trump, he said, it was satanically snatched by the “devil himself”.
Bowers was ousted as punishment. The Trump acolytes who over the past two years have gained control of the state’s Republican party wanted revenge for the powerful testimony he gave in June to the January 6 hearings in which he revealed the pressure he was put under to overturn Arizona’s election result.
This is a very Arizonan story. But it is also an American story that carries an ominous warning for the entire nation.
Six hours after the Guardian interviewed Bowers, Liz Cheney was similarly ousted in a primary for her congressional seat in Wyoming. The formerly third most powerful Republican leader in the US Congress had been punished too.
In Bowers’s case, his assailants in the Arizona Republican party wanted to punish him because he had steadfastly refused to do their, and Trump’s, bidding. He had declined to use his power as leader of the house to invoke an “arcane Arizonan law” – whose text has never been found – that would allow the legislature to cast out the will of 3.4 million voters who had handed victory to Joe Biden and switch the outcome unilaterally to Trump.
Bowers has a word for that kind of thinking. “The thought that if you don’t do what we like, then we will just get rid of you and march on and do it ourselves – that to me is fascism.”
Come January, Bowers will no longer be an Arizona politician. He can now speak his mind. He did just that, for more than two hours in an interview with the Guardian this week.
He spoke his mind about the phone conversations he had with Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani at the height of the stolen election mayhem in 2020. He spoke about the “clown circus” of Trump loyalists who tried to bully him into subverting the election, and about the “emotional violence” that has been embraced by increasingly powerful sections of the Republican party in Arizona and nationally.
‘The constitution is hanging by a thread.’ Photograph: Adam Riding/The GuardianHe spoke his mind too about the very real danger facing democracy in America today – to his astonishment, at the hands of his own party.
“The constitution is hanging by a thread,” he told me. “The funny thing is, I always thought it would be the other guys. And it’s my side. That just rips at my heart: that we would be the people who would surrender the constitution in order to win an election. That just blows my mind.”
‘I’m not a man of means’
Bowers will talk about all that, and much more. But first, he wants to show me around his spiritual home. He arranged to meet me at his family’s ranch, “so you can see a bit of why I think the way I do”.
The ranch is nestled in a hollow among desert hills about 90 minutes’ drive east of Phoenix, at the end of five miles of dramatically snaking dirt road. Fifteen months ago a wildfire swept through the area, destroying majestic cottonwoods and sycamores and sending flames high up above the hills. The main house came within 10 feet of being destroyed and his art studio, replete with many of his landscape paintings and a large portion of his legislative papers, was burnt to ashes.
I ask him what this extraordinarily beautiful and harsh landscape reveals about his political character. “Well, I’m not a man of means,” he said. “We pay for things as we go. We are compelled to work, to do things with our hands. That gives you a different appreciation of life. Things have a bigger meaning.”
Bowers said that his core values were instilled in him as a child growing up within a conservative Republican tradition. He is the father of seven children, one of whom, Kacey, died last year. “Family, faith, community – these are values at a very core level. You don’t survive out here, on land like this, alone.”
Bowers’s spiritual home: the family ranch in Arizona. Photograph: Adam Riding/The GuardianA fourth-generation Arizonan, Bowers, 69, grew up within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, better known as the Mormon church. His faith, along with his other great passion for art – he is a painter and sculptor – is visible all around. The front of the main house is lined with three large bronzes depicting the epic 1,100-mile journey across America that the Mormons undertook in 1846-47.
From the beginning, conservatism and the Republican party were interchangeable for Bowers. “Belief in God, that you should be held accountable for how you treat other people, those were very conservative thoughts and the bedrock of my politics.”
He identifies as “pro-life”, sees the US constitution as being inspired by God, and voted for Trump in the 2020 election. “I campaigned for Trump, I went to his rallies, I stood up on the stage with him,” he said.
Somewhere along the line, though, things started to come unstuck. A rift opened up between his old-school Republican values and those of a new cadre of activists who were energized by Trump and his embrace of conspiracy theories and strongman politics.
In hindsight, Bowers now recognizes that the opening shots of the conflict were fired not around the 2020 presidential election but earlier in the year, in the initial days of Covid. Trump-fanatical Republicans in the Arizona house displayed in their anti-mask antics the same disdain for the rules, the same bullying style, that was later to erupt in the stolen election furor.
“It was like a prep show,” he said.
Then came the first signs of Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in the 2020 election. Bowers himself always expected that the presidential race in Arizona would be close. “We were very much aware that a demographic of women, 18 to 40, college-educated, professional, with small children, were not voting for Donald Trump,” he said.
When the results were confirmed, and Biden had won by 10,457 votes, the slimmest margin of any state, Bowers was unsurprised. But such was the brouhaha as armed Trump supporters protested outside counting centers in Maricopa county demanding “audits” that he decided to take a look for himself.
Rusty Bowers overlooking his ranch property Photograph: Adam Riding/The GuardianHe gathered a group of trusted lawyers and went to investigate the counting process close up. “I saw incredible amounts of protocols that were followed and signed off by volunteers – Democrats, Republicans, independents. Yes, Republicans for crying out loud! And they did it by the book.”
On 22 November 2020, two weeks after Biden had been declared the next president of the United States, Bowers received a call from the White House. Trump and Giuliani were on the line.
After exchanging niceties, they got down to business. Giuliani said they had found 200,000 illegal immigrants and 6,000 dead people who had voted in Arizona. “We need to fix that,” Giuliani told him, cajoling him to call a special committee of the Arizona legislature to look into the supposed fraud.
Bowers remembers vividly how Trump and Giuliani played good cop and bad cop on that call. “Trump, you know, he wasn’t angry. He wasn’t threatening. He never said to me, ‘I’m going to get you if you don’t do this.’ Giuliani, he was the bulldog.”
In return, Bowers was polite but firm. He told the duo that they had to provide hard evidence. “I said, ‘I’m not doing anything like this until you bring me something. Let’s see it. I’m not going to have circus time at the house of representatives.’”
That’s when Trump and Giuliani unveiled their second, even more incendiary, proposal. They had heard that there was an “arcane Arizona law” that would allow the Republican-controlled legislature under Bowers to throw out Biden’s electors and send Trump alternatives to Congress in their place.
It took a moment for the penny to drop. Bowers was being asked to overturn the election through diktat.
“I’m not a professor of constitutional law, but I get the idea. They want me to throw out the vote of my own people,” he recalls thinking. “I said, ‘Oh, wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait. So now, you’re asking me to overthrow the vote of the people of Arizona?”
Bell with patina that resides on the front lawn of Russell “Rusty” Bowers. Photograph: Adam Riding/The GuardianBowers’s response to the good cop, bad cop routine was categoric. He told them: “I took an oath to the American constitution, the state constitution and its laws. Which one of those am I supposed to break?”
It didn’t stop there. Bowers was pounded by wave after wave of demands that he subvert the election, some coming from the White House, some from “America First” politicians closer to home.
The speaker continued to be lobbied right up to the eve of January 6 when John Eastman, the conservative law professor advising Trump on his attempted electoral coup, rang him and exhorted him to “decertify” the electors. “Just do it and let the courts figure it all out,” Eastman said.
Bowers was direct on that occasion too. “No,” he said.
As January 6 approached, and the cries of stolen election reached fever pitch, the attacks on Bowers became personal. A “Trump train” of angry fanatics blaring their horns in pickup trucks festooned with Maga flags turned up at his home in Mesa, some bearing digital boards proclaiming him to be a pedophile.
To protect his family, he would step outside the house and confront the protesters. One man had three bars on his chest, signalling he was a member of the far-right militia group the Three Percenters. The man was screaming obscenities and carrying a pistol. “I had to get as close to him as I could to defend myself if he went for the gun.”
The worst of it was that during several of these menacing protests, his daughter Kacey was inside the house mortally ill in bed with liver failure. “She would say, ‘What are they doing out there?’ She was emotional. She told me, ‘I’m going to die.’ I said, ‘Honey, you’re not going to die.’ So she had feelings, we were trying to keep her positive.”
Kacey Bowers did die, on 28 January, three weeks after the insurrection at the US Capitol.
I asked Bowers whether, through all this, he had ever doubted his strength to stand up to the onslaught. Were his values tested?
“I never had the thought of giving up,” he said. “No way. I don’t like bullies. That’s one constant in my life: I. Do. Not. Like. Bullies.”
In July, the executive committee of the Arizona Republican party censured Bowers. Its chairwoman, Kelli Ward, a Trump devotee, said that he was “no longer a Republican in good standing”.
Then on 2 August, Bowers was effectively turfed out of the Arizona legislature when he was defeated in the primary by the Satan-evoking Farnsworth. That same night, the slate of election deniers standing for statewide positions won a clean sweep.
Republican nominations for governor, a US Senate seat, state attorney general and secretary of state all went to enthusiastic backers of Trump and his 2020 attempted coup. They included Mark Finchem, who was present at the attack on the US Capitol on January 6 and who continues to try to decertify Biden’s presidency to this day.
Finchem is now the Republican candidate for secretary of state. Should he win in November, he would be in charge of Arizona’s election administration through the 2024 presidential contest, in which Trump has indicated he is likely to be competing.
The ascent of election deniers across the board marks the final transformation of the Republican party in the state. Trump’s grip is now complete; the strain of constitutional conservatism epitomized by Bowers is in the wilderness.
“I think it’s a shame,” was his rueful reflection on that transition. “The suite of candidates that we now have representing what used to be a principled party is just like, wow … It’s like being the first colonizer on Jupiter.”
In February, a mega “election integrity” bill was introduced into the Arizona legislature that was the culmination of the anti-democratic drift of the party. House bill 2596 would have given the Republican-controlled legislature the power to reject any election result that the majority group didn’t like.
Bowers resoundingly killed off that bill by sending it to languish not in just one house committee, but in all 12 of them. “I was trying to send a definitive message: this is hogwash. Taking away the fundamental right to vote, the idea that the legislature could nullify your election, that’s not conservative. That’s fascist. And I’m not a fascist.”
Bowers said he remains optimistic that the party will one day find its way back on to the rails. He draws succor from the many people who have come up to him since his defeat telling him – quietly, so that nobody can hear – that they admire him and back him.
“It’s not like I’m alone in the wilderness. There’s a lot of people from all over the United States thanking me.”
Bowers: ‘Family, faith, community – these are values at a very core level.’ Photograph: Adam Riding/The GuardianBut for now, he accepts that things are likely to get much worse before they get better. I ask him, at this moment, is the Republican party in Arizona lost?
“Yeah,” he said. “They’ve invented a new way. It’s a party that doesn’t have any thought. It’s all emotional, it’s all revenge. It’s all anger. That’s all it is.”
He held the thumb and digit finger of his right hand so close together that they were almost touching. “The veneer of civilization is this thin,” he said. “It still exists – I haven’t been hanged yet. But holy moly, this is just crazy. The place has lost its mind.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.