Clowns who say outrageous things, who are completely unqualified for office, are very capable of being elected in America. They are entertaining, underestimated, and disasters in office. The highest office reached so far has been governor — think Jesse Ventura in Minnesota and Lester Maddox in Georgia. Closer to home was Evan Mecham, the governor of Arizona from 1987 until he was impeached and removed from office less than 15 tumultuous months later.
Mecham was a clown, given to conspiracy theories and outrageous statements — his "pickanniny" comment and blaming working women for high divorce rates were only two. But he had support from the state's right wing, especially John Birchers and fellow Mormons. He was a populist, after his fashion. In Mecham's world, the government was the enemy and cause of all ills. He wanted to eliminate income taxes and turn over the public's lands to state interests. A theocrat, Mecham wanted to have prayer in public schools. Threats were everywhere, out to destroy real Americans and the real America.
The toupee'd Glendale car dealer and serially failed newspaper publisher gave Carl Hayden a scare in the 1962 U.S. Senate race. Among his issues was a demand that the United States withdraw from the United Nations. Hayden's longtime aide Roy Elson organized a campaign to "reintroduce" the senator to a state he had served in Washington since 1912, but had attracted large numbers of newcomers since 1956. Hayden won comfortably, but many old Arizonans were unsettled. That anyone could get 45 percent of the vote against the state's indispensable man in the fight for the Central Arizona Project was astounding and deeply disturbing.
Mecham ran outsider campaigns for governor again four times before winning. As in 1962, each election he explicitly ran an insurgent campaign against elites and "the establishment."
His election was a fluke. In the 1986 Republican primary, he faced the respected state House leader Burton Barr, who was supported by the establishment, from Barry Goldwater to the Pulliam press. But Barr, a legislative wizard, ran a sluggish campaign. Turnout was the lowest in 40 years. And Mecham cleverly exploited the grievances and paranoia of newcomer retirees, adding to his Bircher and LDS base — people who did vote. On the Democratic side, and back then Arizona was a competitive state, Carolyn Warner was sandbagged by apartment magnate Bill Schultz, who got out of the race only to reemerge as an independent.
Forty percent of the vote was enough to put Mecham in the governor's office.
When Mecham was defenestrated, it was not a case of an upright paladin of the people, truth teller and the "Only I" who could save the state and nation being done in by the secret machinations of the evil establishment. Mecham did himself in, quite publicly.
To be sure, it was a different era. Arizona still had major headquarters and powerful civic stewards with personal stakes in the good of the state. The vast right-wing infrastructure had not yet reached the state level to the degree of today, where a national agenda of the private school racket, private prison racket, tax cut racket, and other hustles are implemented by dark money and slick "businessman-governors." The likes of Burt Barr and Paul Fannin (a real businessman turned governor and senator) would be horrified. What would Ev think?
[The real-estate developer] is tapping into much of the stew that goes back to Mecham and even before. A couple of things have changed. First, the Republican Party has become one flavor of extremist crazy and [the real-estate developer] says out loud what most of its members think but keep to themselves. And he adds his own distinctive, and often contrary to the party line, statements. Coming from someone who did not have what writer Ron Fournier calls the developer's "mendacity, megalomania, intolerance, and intellectual slovenliness," a few even have appeal.
Among the many things [the real-estate developer] has said is more solid support for infrastructure and passenger trains than has ever come from Hillary Clinton. I think it was a mistake to extend NATO to Russia's borders and "free riders" in the alliance are a problem. The Iraq war was a mistake. Political correctness is sometimes used to silence opponents and automatically invalidate their viewpoints. Can we keep admitting so many immigrants forever in a warming, destabilized world and wonder, at the least, why wages don't rise?
The trouble is, aside from the first point above, every other way [the real-estate developer] addresses these issues is with the scary tools of the demagogue. That he doesn't read books scares me even more — even W read books. He would appoint the extremist-right judges easily confirmed by a GOP Senate. He denies mainstream science on climate. And he would have the vastly expanded national-security powers of the presidency. All this makes him an existential threat to the republic. He cannot be allowed to win.
Yet he might. Clowns win. Evan Mecham was not a reality television star in a nation of vidiots. But Mecham slid into office in a splintered election. This year, we'll also see how many Americans want to waste a vote on Jill Stein or write in Bernie's name to show their own personal purity. Don't look for salvation in 2020, when America rises up as one liberal tide. Instead, I suspect a President Trump would pull a Mecham, with more dire consequences. He would then be impeached and removed by his own party — or by a military coup. Avoiding this, he would become the kind of strongman he admires around the world and 2020 will just be a year on the calendar.
AFTERWORD: As [the real-estate developer] continues with his outrageous statements, I have another thought. Right now, the Republicans are just focused on keeping Congress so they can impeach Hillary and prepare to win the White House in 2020. But what if [the developer] does a complete meltdown. Was Joe Scarborough telling the truth when he quoted a source saying [the developer] has asked why we don't use the nukes if we have them? Or is this the first step in removing him in favor of Paul Ryan. In many ways, the Speaker is more dangerous because he is considered a "serious" thinker and policy wonk by the media elites. Yet Ryan is in reality an extremist and the single most influential person behind the "austerity" that has so hurt the economy. A troubling thought.