The American Future on a Desert Plateaus

Half a mile above the Salt River, on the outskirts of Mesa, Arizona, Rusty Bowers stands at the edge of a beige cliff and looks out over the metropolitan area of Phoenix, a glittering expanse of patchwork light that stretches to the horizon. Within a century, millions of people have arrived in this once-barren valley, drawing sustenance from the rivers and reservoirs carved into the desert floor. Below, the 18 lanes of the AZ 202 freeway appear as a thin, silver snake bending around black mountain ranges. To the east, the San Tan Mountains are a rumpled dark-brown carpet peaking out from behind the uniform subdivisions. To the northwest, the McDowell Mountains are a jagged, dark-green stain on the horizon.

The Salt River Project, which provides power to the eastern part of the Phoenix metro area, has its headquarters here, on the edge of a small lake formed by one of its dams. A visitor center tells the history of the project, from its origins in the Hohokam civilization to present day. The display cases feature old photographs of white men standing on this same spot, looking out over the desert and envisioning a city where once there was nothing. Below the cliff, a trail winds through a dense stand of mesquite and palo verde trees, and Bowers, a former state legislator, picks his way down the path, talking about what it means to love a place, to be bound to it by responsibility and memory, to be trapped by it.

When he reaches the bottom, he looks up at the city, and he talks about democracy. Over the past few decades, Bowers has been witness to, and occasionally a participant in, the strangest and most alarming developments in American politics. Today, with the country lurching violently to the right, and with Arizona at the forefront of this lurch, he finds himself a reluctant symbol of resistance. Sometimes, he says, he feels like he's living through a Greek tragedy. “It’s the story of a society that’s imploding upon itself,” he says. “When you’ve lost your shared truth, you’re going to self-destruct.”

In the 2020 election, the GOP's failure to accept the result grew directly out of its refusal to accept a common truth: that Biden won. In Arizona, this refusal took the form of an attempt to appoint a slate of pro-Trump electors. The plan was advanced by Mark Finchem, a state representative and avid Trump partisan who would later become a trustee of the election technology company Dominion Voting Systems. In the weeks after the election, Finchem held a series of meetings with state legislators to promote his plan and urge them to sign a letter requesting that Congress delay certification of the election. According to a former Republican state senator who attended the meetings, Finchem told the legislators that they could be “the saviors of the country” if they went along with the scheme. Finchem did not respond to a request for comment.

One of the legislators at the meetings was Bowers, who, as speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, had the power to convene such a committee. Unlike most of the state's Republican officeholders, Bowers is not from Arizona. He was born in Nebraska and moved to the Valley as a child, and something of a midwestern prudence took root in him. When the MAGA crowds came for him, as they did for so many others, he didn't bend. In the summer of 2024, as the country careens toward another election in which democracy's future is at stake, Bowers' story feels like a guide, or an alarm, or a reproach.

Back on the cliff path, he picks his way through the mesquite trees. Below him, the city shines in the sun. Beyond the city, the sun sets behind the mountains. In the last light of the day, the sky is the color of a flamescooped from a forge. The glow fades, and darkness comes on. In the distance, an airplane takes off from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, beginning its ascent to the east, its contrail tracing a white C in the sky. It's a strange time to be alive, Bowers says. He's worried about the future, for his children and his grandchildren, but also for himself. He's not afraid of dying,

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