Trump's Arizona "audit" is unpopular — and that's the point

The Arizona "audit" isn't about winning over voters. It's anti-democracy propaganda

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published June 30, 2021 1:05PM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Contractors working for Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate, examine and recount ballots from the 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 8, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Contractors working for Cyber Ninjas, who was hired by the Arizona State Senate, examine and recount ballots from the 2020 general election at Veterans Memorial Coliseum on May 8, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Did Republicans in Arizona screw the pooch by ordering a fake "audit" of the 2020 presidential votes in Maricopa County? According to an article published Tuesday at Politico, some Republican operatives in the  Grand Canyon state are beginning to fear that the whole gambit by conspiracy theorists who believe Donald Trump is the "real" winner of the state was a big mistake. Turns out that the voters, correctly understanding it's all a farce meant to undermine the validity of their choice of Joe Biden as president, are hostile to the entire enterprise. 

Pollster Fernand Amandi warned Republicans that while the audit is "bloody red meat for the MAGA Republican base," it's also "giving Democrats the opportunity to make the case to Arizona voters to stick with them." Sean Noble, a GOP organizer in the state agreed, telling Politico, "It's a failure. It's a joke." Noble's concerns are shared by many Republican leaders in the state, as Zachary Petrizzo reported for Salon last week. 

The polling data in Arizona doesn't look great for the backers of the "audit," which was ordered by the Republican-controlled state legislature, in response to Trump's lies about a "stolen" election. Amandi's poll of the state showed Arizona voters oppose the audit, 49-46, showing a remarkably strong understanding that it's a Q-Anon-style circus, despite it being packaged as "merely" an exercise in T-crossing and I-dotting. Moreover, "intensity of opposition to the audit exceeded the intensity of support," and "independent voters upon whom the state pivots in close elections opposed the audit by 18 percentage points."

But while all of these statistics are true, what this kind of analysis fails to understand is that the folks behind the fake "audit" don't care if it's popular with voters. This whole exercise is not about winning anyone over. It's not about persuading skeptics that Trump's Big Lie is true. And it's certainly not about persuading swing voters to choose Republicans in 2022 or 2024. After all, this whole "winning over voters" thing is a relic of the world that the Arizona "audit" team and the majority of Republicans are ready to leave behind. 

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This fake "audit" is about something else entirely. It is about pushing for a post-voting society, where the very idea that leaders are chosen through fair elections is cast aside in favor of a more authoritarian system. It's about advocating for a system where voter choice doesn't really matter, because they're getting GOP leaders whether they like it or not. 

On Wednesday, Politico published another article about how Trump supporters are "spreading the 'audit' playbook across the country" and want a similar fake, theatrical review of "the results in states including Michigan, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin." This is understandably upsetting to state election officials across the nation "who say the efforts will further inflame conspiracy theories and erode faith in the American democratic system." Of course, inflaming conspiracy theories and eroding faith in democracy is the entire point: It's a feature, not a bug. 

As I wrote in early May, the three-ring circus around the Arizona "audit" is not an accident, but a very deliberate choice on the part of the organizers. There has never been any desire to make the exercise seem professional or trustworthy at all, but the opposite. What the organizers understand, and many critics don't, is that the first step to replacing democracy with an authoritarian government is turning democracy into a joke. It's about taking conservatives who are bitter about losing the 2020 election and radicalizing them to believe that the solution is to destroy the very concept of free and fair elections.

On Monday, Morning Consult released a troubling poll that shows that 26% of Americans meet the definition of "right wing authoritarian," which is defined by psychology researcher Bob Altemeyer as "as the desire to submit to some authority, aggression that is directed against whomever the authority says should be targeted and a desire to have everybody follow the norms and social conventions that the authority says should be followed." For comparison, the percentage of Americans who are right-wing authoritarians in the U.S. is double that of Canada and Australia. It's a mindset that has come to define the modern GOP. 

Republicans are a shrinking minority in the U.S., and as their ability to hold onto power by winning over voters disappears, their base is increasingly drawn to the idea that elections are not a legitimate way of allocating power. But while they are intrigued by the idea of an authoritarian America, many of them likely don't know exactly what such a thing would look like. As Zack Beauchamp of Vox recently wrote in a must-read piece, the model that GOP leaders are circling around is what is called "competitive authoritarianism," where the illusion of democracy is propped up, but the reality is one-party minority rule. This is accomplished by "rigging elections enough to maintain power indefinitely while still permitting enough democracy that citizens don't rise up in outrage." Beauchamp offers some international examples, like Hungary. (As Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns and Money points out, this also effectively describes Mexico for the decades they were a "camouflaged dictatorship" under the rule of the PRI.)

But American conservatives aren't known for their interest in looking at international models. So that's where the fake "audit" in Arizona — and the desire to hold similar events in other states — comes in. 

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If you want to know what it would look like to create the appearance of an election and vote-counting process, while still having a pre-determined outcome, then the Arizona "audit" is perfect. It pretends to be a democratic event meant to ensure a valid outcome.  But no one, not the organizers or their critics, actually believes that it's a fair count or that any other outcome is possible beyond a declaration that Trump was the "real" winner. After all, the guy running the whole thing is a conspiracy theorist who participates in other propaganda efforts meant to undermine democracy. 

Indeed, the farcical nature of the whole thing is the point. In authoritarian governments, it's important to demoralize the opposition by making them believe that the whole system is a joke and that, well, resistance is useless. The Arizona audit is a trial balloon to show how this would work. Voters hate it, but they aren't particularly motivated to fight back, because there's no real sense of how one could do that. The outcome is predetermined, so the most you can do is shrug and move on.

The implicit message to Republicans is that their actual vote-counting system could be replaced by a similar farce, and that it would get a similarly helpless response from voters who hate it but feel powerless to stop it. Arizona is already making moves to strip authority from election officials and give it to GOP clowns that run the legislature, so the possibility of replacing legitimate vote-counting with a sham that looks like the fake "audit" is  not as fantastical as it may seem. 

For decades, the American political press has relied heavily on polling data as the main metric to analyze the effectiveness of various political actions taken by the parties. After all, "is X or Y action popular with voters" is a good question to ask when voters are the decision-makers. But it's increasingly clear that Republican leaders aren't bound by that metric, because they believe that they can render voter preferences irrelevant. Sure, voters in Arizona hate the fake "audit." But Republicans are working towards a country where voters' opinions don't really matter much at all. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Arizona Audit Authoritarianism Big Lie Commentary Donald Trump Gop Polls Republicans