Donald Trump is running against democracy itself.
Here, in the land of Barry Goldwater, democracy is fighting back.
Only once since 1948 has Arizona gone Democratic in a presidential election, and that was the Ross Perot-skewed 1996 contest. But Trump’s manifold charms — most recently his threat to ignore the results of the election — have given Hillary Clinton a 5-point lead in this red state, according to a new poll. Disgust with Trump sent thousands of white, black and brown Arizonans on Thursday afternoon into the Phoenix Convention Center (where Trump weeks ago pledged mass deportation of illegal immigrants) to hear Michelle Obama denounce Trump’s assault on the democratic process.
“We are fortunate to live in a country where the voters decide our elections,” the first lady said. “The voters decide who wins and loses. Period. End of story. And when a presidential candidate threatens to ignore our voices and reject the outcome of this election, he is threatening the very idea of America itself, and we cannot stand for that. We do not keep American democracy ‘in suspense.’ ”
The crowd roared its approval.
Obama’s speech is part of a push by the Clinton campaign to expand the electoral battleground into reliably Republican states such as Texas, Georgia, Utah, Alaska and, particularly, Arizona, that have been put into play by Trump’s outrages. The Clinton campaign, which already has 32 offices and 160 staffers in Arizona, announced last week that it is spending another $2 million here and dispatched Bernie Sanders, Chelsea Clinton and the first lady to campaign in the state.
As a matter of math, Arizona is irrelevant: If Clinton is doing well enough to win here, she will already have locked up the election elsewhere. But if Trump is to be denied in his bid to subvert democratic institutions by claiming a rigged election, he needs to be defeated resoundingly, removing all doubt. Clinton needs to run up the score.
The need to deal Trump a humiliating defeat has a sociological basis in the “degradation ceremony” in which the perpetrator (Trump) is held by denouncers (officeholders and others in positions of influence) to be morally unacceptable, and witnesses (the public) agree that the perpetrator is no longer held in good standing.
Psychologist Wynn Schwartz, who teaches at Harvard Medical School, explained to me that what’s needed to have a successful degradation of Trump is an epic defeat. “If it is lopsided enough,” he said, “you don’t have critical masses of people who feel disenfranchised” or “who feel justified in saying that it was stolen.”
But if Clinton’s victory is narrow, the degradation ceremony fails, because a large chunk of the population feels swindled and remains loyal to Trump.
Trump’s recent actions suggest that he will attempt to defy the degradation ceremony that a loss typically confers. Hence the importance of a landslide.
Arizona would offer an ideal rebuke. Carolyn Goldwater Ross, granddaughter of the conservative icon, introduced Obama on Thursday by saying, “I come from a long line of Republicans, and I’ve stayed independent. … But this time it’s different.” She submitted that Trump violates her grandfather’s “basic values.”
Apparently, many Arizonans agree. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the anti-immigrant icon and Trump backer, is trailing his Democratic opponent by 15 points in polling by the Republic. The newspaper endorsed Clinton, its first embrace of a Democrat for president in its 126-year history. Arizona’s junior Republican Sen. Jeff Flake is an outspoken Trump critic, its senior Republican Sen. John McCain has been attacked by Trump, and former Republican Attorney General Grant Woods has endorsed Clinton.
A growing Latino population has the state trending gradually Democratic, but not enough to put Arizona in play in 2016 in ordinary circumstances. That’s all about Trump.
“Trump accelerated what’s happening anyway,” Moises Mejia, a Mexican-born engineer at Thursday’s rally, told me. Mejia, who took one of his sons out of school to attend the rally, said he comes from a Republican family and agrees “with the Republicans’ principles, but they’ve taken it so far they’ve lost a lot of us in the middle.”
The first lady, in her fiery speech, reached out to Republicans offended by Trump’s disregard for democratic process. “Our democracy is revered around the world, and free elections are the best way on earth to choose our leaders,” she said. “This is how we elected John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, two George Bushes, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.”
That’s right. This isn’t Trump v. Clinton but Trump v. Democracy. And the way to degrade the threat is to defeat Trump, convincingly.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank. Washington Post Writers Group