The American Future on a Desert Plateaus

The American lust for new things and new ideas, good and bad, is most palpable in the West, but the dynamo that generates all the microchip factories and battery plants and downtown high-rises and master-planned suburbs runs so high that it suggests its own oblivion. This is acutely true in Phoenix, one of the fastest-growing regions in America, where a developer decided to put a city of the future on a piece of virgin desert miles from anything. At night, from the air, the Phoenix metroplex looks like a glittering alien craft that has landed where the Earth is flat and wide enough to host it. The street grids and subdivisions spreading across retired farmland end only when they're stopped by the borders of a tribal reservation or the dark folds of mountains, some of them surrounded on all sides by sprawl.

Growth keeps coming at a furious pace, despite decades of drought, and despite political extremism that makes every election a crisis threatening violence. Democracy is also a fragile artifice. It depends less on tradition and law than on the shifting contents of individual skulls—belief, virtue, restraint. Its durability under natural and human stress is being put to an intense test in the Valley. Because a vision of vanishing now haunts the whole country, Phoenix is a guide to our future.

Among the white settlers who rebuilt the Hohokam canals were the Mormon ancestors of Rusty Bowers. In the 1890s, they settled in the town of Mesa, east of Phoenix and a few miles downstream from where the Verde River joins the Salt. In 1929, when Bowers's mother was a little girl, she was taken to hear the Church president, believed to be a prophet. For the rest of her life, she would recall one thing he told the assembly: "I foresee the day when there will be lines of people leaving this valley because there is no water." Bowers lives on a hill at Mesa's edge, about as far east as you can go before the Valley ends, in a pueblo-style house where he and his wife raised seven children. He is lean, with pale-blue eyes and a bald sunspotted head whose pinkish creases and scars in the copper light of a desert sunset give him the look of a figure carved from the sandstone around him. So his voice comes as a surprise—playful cadences edged with a husky sadness. He trained to be a painter, but instead he became one of the most powerful men in Arizona, a 17-year state legislator who rose to speaker of the House in 2019. The East Valley is conservative and so is Bowers, though he calls himself a "pinto"—a spotted horse—meaning capable of variations.

When far-right House members demanded a 30 percent across-the-board budget cut, he made a deal with Democrats to cut far less, and found the experience one of the most liberating of his life. He believes that environmentalists worship Creation instead of its Creator, but he drives a Prius as well as a pickup. In the late 2010s, the Arizona Republican Party began to worry Bowers with its growing radicalism: State meetings became vicious free-for-alls; extremists unseated mainstream conservatives. Still, he remained a member in good standing—appearing at events with Donald Trump during the president's reelection campaign, handing out Trump flyers door-to-door—until the morning of Sunday, November 22, 2020.

Rusty Bowers, the former Republican speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, was besieged by MAGA supporters enraged by his refusal to endorse a pro-Trump slate of electors in the 2020 election. Bowers and his wife had just arrived home from church when the Prius' Bluetooth screen flashed WHITE HOUSE. Rudy Giuliani was calling, and soon afterward the freshly defeated president came on the line. As Bowers later recalled, there was the usual verbal backslapping, Trump telling him what a great guy he was and Bowers thanking Trump for helping with his own reelection. Then Giuliani got to the point. The election in Arizona had been riddled with fraud: piles of military ballots stolen and illegally cast, hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens and dead people voting, gross irregularities at the counting centers. Bowers had been fielding these stories from Republican colleagues and constituents and found nothing credible in them.

"Do you have proof of that?" Bowers asked.

"Yeah," Giuliani replied.

"Do you have names?"

"Oh yeah."

"I need proof, names, how they voted, and I need it on my desk."

"Rudy," Trump broke in, "give the man what he wants."

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