Republicans’ response to Mar-a-Lago search shows why we need more like Rusty Bowers
Before we learned that the FBI had probable cause to believe that it needed to retrieve documents related to nuclear weapons still held on Aug. 8 at Mar-a-Lago, defenders of former President Trump launched dangerous attacks on law enforcement. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) tweeted, “Defund the FBI!” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) referred to the warrant-based search as a strategy of “Marxists.”
These assaults on those who follow legal procedures to defend our security remind us that principled Republican elected officials are becoming an endangered species.
On Aug. 2, Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers lost handily to a Trump-endorsed opponent in Bowers’s Republican primary election bid to win an Arizona Senate seat. He had been elected and reelected to the legislature over 17 years.
Six weeks earlier, on June 21, Bowers was a star witness before the Jan. 6 committee. He recounted how in December 2020, he refused entreaties from Trump and Rudy Giuliani to lead the Arizona legislature to replace electors for President Biden with those for Trump.
Bowers knew the damage he was doing to his electoral prospects and was, like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), a profile in courage. In fact, Caroline Kennedy recognized that fact this May in bestowing on both the award named after the book written by her father, former President Kennedy.
The Jan. 6 committee will resume its work this month and is scheduled to resume its public hearings in September. It has already revealed how multiple Trump administration members and allies had knowledge of his plans to overturn the election, arguably a conspiracy with criminal elements. Many Americans have asked, “Why did no one speak up before Jan. 6, 2021? Why are more not speaking up now like Bowers, Cassidy Hutchinson and a few others?”
In their 2018 book, “How Democracies Die,” Harvard political scientists Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky identified a central issue for democracies when autocratic leaders gain power: “whether the aspiring dictator’s coalitional allies stay with him and exploit the fruits of power or defeat him,” according to New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait.
That question was answered revealingly by 147 congressional Republicans mere hours after a mob attacked the Capitol. The representatives went right ahead and objected to Biden’s election certification. The few who spoke up at the time, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), lost their spine when the base reacted.
But not every Republican went silent.
On Jan. 3, 2021, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger revealed that Trump had phoned the day before asking him to “find” 11,780 votes, one more than needed to reverse Biden’s Georgia election win.
Scholars study the behavior of “bystanders,” those who observe something wrong and must decide whether to intervene, blow the whistle as Raffensperger did or “leak” something anonymously. Understanding bystander behavior is important to experts assessing threats posed by school shooters as well as in holding wrongdoers to account after a bad thing happens.
Among key points in the research: First, bystanders who act often make a difference. Second, the better the system for protecting bystanders who act, the more come forward. Third, there is no substitute for individuals who care about doing the right thing, particularly because acting often involves risk.
In July, the select committee played taped testimony from a Twitter employee who sought unsuccessfully to alert company executives weeks before Jan. 6 about the violence that the platform was helping militants plan. That the employee had his voice masked to prevent identification demonstrates what most human beings need in order to “say something” when they “see something”: safety. Whether he feared his employer’s retaliation or violence from Trump supporters, it was apparent that revealing his identity felt unsafe.
Retired Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the director of European affairs for the Trump administration National Security Council, was on Trump’s (not) “perfect” July 25, 2019, call seeking to extort Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Hunter Biden. Shortly after Vindman testified in Trump’s first impeachment hearing, Trump fired him. Trump also replaced former CIA Inspector General Michael Atkinson, who shared with Congress the anonymous complaint blowing the whistle on Trump’s call.
So — the risks are often real.
That is why, ultimately, individual integrity and commitment to moral values matter so much.
Vindman’s patriotism sustained him. When he testified, he addressed his father, who had brought him to America in search of a better life: “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ll be fine.”
Firm religious belief fortified Bowers. “It is a tenet of my faith,” he told the committee, “that the Constitution is divinely inspired, that this is my most basic foundational belief.” And after his election loss on Aug. 2, he told The Associated Press, “I would do it again in a heartbeat. I’d do it 50 times in a row.”
That’s uncompromising conviction for you.
Virtuous bystanders abound in many religions. The Bible’s good Samaritan saved a robbery victim. Others had asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., observed, the Samaritan reversed the question, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
Our country could use more Republicans like Bowers, who witnessed Trump’s misdeeds and asked, “If I do not stop to help this Constitution, what will happen to it?”
Dennis Aftergut is a former federal prosecutor, of counsel to Lawyers Defending American Democracy.
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