Arizona’s GOP Has Become a Trump Cult
“He is with us,” the speaker in the video urged viewers. “He loves the United States of America and he loves the American people. Have no doubt!” It was a performance worthy of an obscure religious TV channel stumbled upon during a late-night bout of insomnia, but it was actually a January 8 update from Arizona Republican Party Chairwoman Kelli Ward. She spoke in what she obviously assumed were reassuring terms of her conversation with President Donald Trump after the January 6 storming of the Capitol. “What an amazing president we have,” she added, in a demonstration of the sad decay of the state’s Republican organization from a political party into a cult of personality.
Once upon a time, the Arizona GOP nursed a distinctly individualistic skepticism of government and politicians. Long-time U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater famously wrote, “my aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them.” A hand-wringing September 2020 Kurt Anderson column in The New York Times held Goldwater responsible for introducing Milton Friedman’s free-market economic ideas to a wide audience during events that “opened the door to libertarian economics.”
Sam Steiger, a colorful five-term member of the House of Representatives, said there were some of his colleagues “you wouldn’t hire to wheel a wheelbarrow.” He ran for governor as a Libertarian in 1982, earning 5 percent of the vote. When he returned to the Republican fold to unsuccessfully seek the party’s 1990 gubernatorial nomination, the Phoenix New Times noted that while he had backed off advocacy of drug legalization, Steiger “is an admitted ‘Libertarian at heart.'”
Those were Republicans you couldn’t really imagine assuring party faithful that a politician “loves” them. Grudging tolerance for an officeholder was more characteristic for their breed.
Since then, however, the Arizona GOP has undergone a strange transformation. It took a distinctly nativist and nationalist turn, best exemplified by Joe Arpaio, who held the office of Maricopa County sheriff for 24 years.
Where Goldwater promoted a Bracero-type temporary worker program to make illegal border crossings less tempting, and Steiger accused the Immigration and Naturalization Service of exaggerating illegal immigration in order to pad its budget requests, Arpaio made border enforcement the focus of his local law enforcement department. He went so far as to ignore a judge’s order to stop detaining people his officers suspected of undocumented status—earning himself a conviction for contempt of court in the process. (Trump pardoned the former sheriff.)
Beyond Arpaio, the Arizona Republican Party tied itself to anti-immigrant sentiment, pushing through in 2010 a controversial law that allowed police to stop and question suspected migrants and requiring aliens to carry registration papers on them at all times. Much, though not all, of th
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