Kari Lake and the Rejection of Truth
Will the continuing spread of the Trump-fueled lie of election fraud catapult Arizona's former Fox anchor and other election-denying candidates to victory in November?
When Donald Trump was running for president in 2016, a common refrain among pundits was that if he somehow won he would become more moderate. An article by a Canadian observer in a leading current affairs magazine best summarized the mindset. Titled “How bad could a President Trump really be?,” it soft-pedaled the possible: “What would a Trump presidency look like? In terms of tone, it is hard to imagine that the same bigotry and bombast would continue.”
A Gallup survey in September 2016 underscored this reluctance to take what candidate Trump was saying at face value—as an expression of what he really thought and how it would influence his actions. One out of five registered voters told pollsters that they believed Trump was liberal and two out of five believed he was liberal or moderate. They saw him as less conservative than previous Republican candidates dating back to 1992, including Mitt Romney, John McCain, George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush.
Last September, the Public Religion Research Institute found that one of three Americans and two of three Republicans believed the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. The poll also found that four of five Republicans who most trusted Fox News believed the election was stolen and nearly a third agreed that political violence might be necessary “in order to save our country.”
The findings, suggesting a trend that has only worsened since then as false narratives have solidified, offer plenty of reason to worry whether America could loosen the extremist grip. “I’m not an alarmist by nature, but I’m deeply disturbed by these numbers,” said Robert Jones, head of the polling firm, last November. “I think that we really have to take them seriously as a threat to democracy.”
Into this volatile mix come the midterm primaries, fueled by an unhinged, incendiary former White House occupant who continues his constant lie that the 2020 election was stolen. Endorsement-hungry Republicans have been more than happy to spread his disinformation and the dangerous anti-democratic rhetoric that neither the election process nor its results can be trusted.
Tragically, this line of attack is working, perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in Arizona on Tuesday where Republican candidates for governor, attorney general and secretary of state won their primaries with Trump’s endorsement and their aggressive rejection of factual truth and President Biden’s legitimate victory. These positions—involved in certifying federal elections, counting the votes, representing voters and enforcing the law—offer a trifecta of trouble for democracy. As The New York Times’ political correspondent Nick Corasaniti put it Thursday on MSNBC, “This is like putting the arsonists in charge of the fire department.”
On Tuesday night, while the votes were still being counted and the election’s outcome remained close and uncertain, gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake announced to her supporters: “We won this election. Period.”
On Wednesday just after midnight, while maintaining a small advantage over Karrin Taylor Robson, she declared on Twitter, mimicking Trump, that the result “isn’t a win. It’s a blowout.” In fact, it wasn’t until about 48 hours after the polls closed that the Associated Press finally called the election in her favor.
This is the same candidate who had been saying for weeks that not only could the results not be trusted, but that she already had evidence of “stealing.” This was “evidence” which she refused to share with anyone—providing her the perfect pretext to deny the results if she lost and, even if she won, to assist her effort to further degrade trust in the voting process and the very notion of free and fair elections.
While some candidates have sought Trump’s endorsement with a hint that maybe they didn’t agree with everything he had to say, Lake went full hog—all in with talk of the “sham election” that brought Biden to the White House, the “demonic agenda” of the Democrats, the media as corrupt “fake news,” abortion as “the ultimate sin,” and her fierce conviction that the Democratic candidate for governor and current Secretary of State Katie Hobbs “should be locked up.” Unsurprisingly, she was just the kind of candidate fully embraced by the man the Department of Justice is now investigating for his participation in the seditious effort to overthrow a legitimately elected government.
Kari Lake, who until March 2021 was a local Fox TV anchor without any managerial experience, displays none of the hesitancy you might expect in a first-time candidate, but all the unbending confidence of a camera-loving TV veteran of over two decades drawn to right-wing extremism and conspiracy theories.
Never mind that public records show that she backed Barrack Obama, supported amnesty for undocumented immigrants and counted a local drag queen among her friends—”As we all know, Trump was a Democrat at one point, too,” she tells a Phoenix Magazine journalist—this shift by most accounts is no act. (That may be why Robson’s ad and campaign comments about “Fake Lake” failed to change the election’s trajectory.)
But for those who might have expected a candidate for governor to emphasize her vision for the state’s future, Lake has demonstrated her fealty for Trump by aggressively focusing on the 2020 election. Following the one televised debate with Robson and other opponents—in which she falsely claimed that Biden “lost the election and shouldn’t be in the White House”— Lake called Robson’s refusal to agree with her that the election was stolen “disqualifying” and “sickening.” She also continues to claim that Trump was the “real winner” of Arizona, that the state’s largest county Maricopa engaged in “criminal” conduct, that Secretary Hobbs (who oversaw the election) should be imprisoned, and that unnamed journalists are “liars,” “criminal” and need to be “locked up.”
An Arizona friend who talks to local business and political leaders tells me that many of them—worried about what Lake’s possible ascension to the governor’s office portends—are searching for positive outcomes. This includes their hope that her lack of experience could be offset by capable staffers and her extremism could be moderated by the challenging reality of managing a complex and diverse state. But as we learned back in 2016 and the years that have followed, hoping for the best when a candidate tells us with grim ferocity who they really are is a failing strategy.
A year ago in May, amid the election “audit” conducted by Cyber Ninjas, Secretary Hobbs required protection from the Arizona Department of Public Safety after being confronted with a flood of death threats. Calling Arizona “the best state in the union,” Hobbs also tweeted that “this #fraudit is undermining confidence in our elections. It's making Arizona a national joke. It's bad for our brand, and bad for business."
This week, as her likely opponent calls for her imprisonment and claims without evidence that she assisted a stolen election, Hobbs said that the issues that matter for Arizonans are rising prices, investments in public education, the water crisis and protecting reproductive freedom. In a television interview hours before learning that she won the Democratic primary with over 73 percent of the vote, she called Lake’s comments “outright lies” and “disqualifying.” Just after Lake was declared the winner by the AP Thursday night, Hobbs put out a statement saying the race “isn’t about Democrats or Republicans. It’s a choice between sanity and chaos.”
The question is whether Arizona voters—and particularly independents who represent one-third of the electorate—will agree with her and show up to vote.
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