By Jonathan Rauch
You might not think, when first meeting Stephen Richer, that he’s the kind of person the survival of our democracy depends on. He’s slender, a touch over six foot when he stands up straight (which, he acknowledges, is never), has thinning orange hair and a ready smile. He doesn’t dominate a room or radiate charisma, and though he holds two advanced degrees from the University of Chicago, he can approach anyone and be friends in minutes.
But Donald Trump’s authoritarian MAGA movement realizes that Richer stands in its way, which is why it has targeted him and other Republicans like him—of whom there are disappointingly few—for extinction. Fortunately, Richer is not going quietly. They’ve picked on the wrong guy.
Born in 1985, Richer was in his twenties when I first met him. We bonded over our roots in the Southwest and his libertarian commitment to LGBT equality, and we stayed in touch after he went off to law school at Chicago and joined a law firm in Phoenix. In 2019 he announced an underdog bid to challenge a Democrat incumbent as Maricopa County recorder, the most seemingly boring job in the country. After winning last year in a razor-thin upset, Richer found himself in charge of registering voters and counting votes in the nation’s fourth-most-populous county—a swing county in a battleground state, and thus a magnet for the angry eye of MAGA following the 2020 election. What happened next comes out of Kafka.
“For the longest time I assumed that Trumpism was something of a persona that he wore,” he told me recently, seated before a wall-sized American flag mural in downtown Phoenix. “If you ask me now, I would say that he and a decent percentage of his followers would happily press a button that would install him by means other than a democratic process as leader of the country. If he could choose to become an autocrat, I think he would. And I think many of his followers would not object to that.”
In late October, Richer showed me around the county’s cavernous vote-counting center, where workers opening ballots and checking signatures all seem to know him personally. He recounted his voyage into MAGA’s alternative reality—an evidence-free, conspiracy-ridden underworld in which Donald Trump won Maricopa County and the election was stolen.
In February of this year, multiple checks by county officials and outside auditors had confirmed Joe Biden’s solid win, but MAGA was having none of it. Conspiracy theories swirled around the election. On the evening of February 24, Richer drove to West Phoenix to meet with a grassroots Republican group that had stalwartly supported his candidacy. His staff thought attending might be unwise. “They knew, as I did, that it would be an uncomfortable situation. I would say 90-plus percent of the people who were there were of the mindset that the election was absolutely stolen.” Within the first minute, they were yelling. Chaos ensued as people interrupted, argued, and shouted at Richer. Every half minute or so he had to pause for order. When he left, attendees followed him with cellphone cameras, yelled imprecations, banged on his car. Recall that these people had been, a few months earlier, his supporters.
“I remember a moment well,” he told me, “when someone said, ‘You’re telling me these voting machines weren’t connected to the internet?’ I looked out at the crowd and just knew the true answer was going to be wildly unpopular with at least 48 of the 50 people who were there.” (MAGA has peddled a discredited theory that the machines were secretly connected to the web, compromising their security.) “I thought, ‘I gotta say it’—that the machines weren’t connected to the internet. That got people screaming at me.”
“If I can be proud of myself for any of this, it would be that in moments like that I didn’t take the easy road,” he said. But now he was MAGA’s enemy. He was targeted with hate and threats. People banged on his car at stoplights. At times, he needed police protection. “A lot of my friendships did end,” he says. “I knew I was jeopardizing my political future.”
Soon after, the Republican-controlled state Senate initiated a partisan, and highly irregular, vote audit. An unknown, underqualified, and blatantly biased outfit called (you can’t make this up) Cyber Ninjas was the Republicans’ choice for the job. Almost immediately, the audit’s Twitter account blasted out a “breaking update”: “Maricopa County deleted a directory full of election databases from the 2020 election cycle days before the election equipment was delivered to the audit. This is spoliation of evidence!” Trump promptly amplified the slur, charging that “The entire Database of Maricopa County in Arizona has been DELETED!”
Richer and his staff were now being accused of criminal misconduct. He felt he had no choice but to fire back publicly. “This is unhinged,” he tweeted. “I’m literally looking at our voter registration database on my other screen. Right now. We can’t indulge these insane lies any longer. As a party. As a state. As a country.”
The insanity was only beginning. Trump and the Ninjas alleged, for example, that 74,243 fraudulent votes had been injected into the election. That claim was false and rapidly debunked, but at a late-July rally in Phoenix, Trump doubled down, telling a crowd of thousands that “74,000 mail-in ballots were counted with no clear record of them being ever sent. [...] The county has refused to disclose how many of these 74,000 were in-person early votes and how many were magically appearing in a mail-in ballot box near you.”
Asked which moments in his fight against #StopTheSteal stand out, Richer mentions that surreal rally. “To me, it was just amazing.” The proofs he had produced, the explanations he had given, the debunking of the lie—none mattered. It was “one of the most dystopian moments of my life,” an eye-opening demonstration of “the extent to which one can speak untruths without any support, and a sizable percentage of the population will believe it.”
By now, Richer could see he was fighting not just frivolous fabulism but the black-hole gravitational pull of a mass disinformation campaign, a version of the “firehose of falsehood” method perfected by Russian propagandists. Such campaigns spew lies, half-truths, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories through every available channel, heedless of consistency or logic or even plausibility. The goal is as much to disorient and demoralize the target population as to inculcate a specific deception. Amid the onrush of misinformation, victims lose any sense of what to believe and whom to trust. It’s no accident that two-thirds of Republicans believe the election was stolen.
Weirdly, after months of delays, foul-ups, and embarrassments, the Cyber Ninjas surprised everyone by finding that Biden had won Maricopa County after all—by more votes than the official count. Despite this new information, Trump characteristically inverted reality: “We won on the Arizona forensic audit yesterday at a level that you wouldn’t believe.” Then, in textbook “firehose” fashion, he launched a new fabulation, charging fraud in another Arizona county.
Meanwhile, Richer and scores of state and local officials like him are in the crosshairs. Given what he has been through in 2021, would he run for county recorder again? My question elicits a long pause. Finally he says he doesn’t know. “I think I would be in a very tough spot if I were to run in 2024 in a primary.”
To understand what anti-MAGA Republicans like Richer are dealing with in their lives, listen to the blood-curdling threats made against another Arizona election official. Or read accounts of the MAGA activists behind them. Then ask yourself: if you’re an honest person with other avenues to pursue, would you subject yourself and your family to that?
When I ask if MAGA’s psychological game will drive honest Republicans out of politics, Richer replies, this time without hesitating, “Yes. It will force out good people. It’s the thing I think about daily.” He worries about “the moral hazard of attracting to elections-related positions people who are interested in it for reasons other than wanting to run great elections and become part of the elections community. They abound now throughout the country.”
Still, what’s most striking about Richer is his energetic defiance. On the epistemic front, he is a relentless and fearless truth-teller, exposing and demolishing MAGA falsehoods on television, on social media, in media interviews, in an impassioned public letter to his fellow Republicans—at every opportunity. On the political front, he is launching a new political action committee, Pro-Democracy Republicans, to support Republicans who oppose #StopTheSteal, keeping honest people in the game.
The task is daunting. In a famous 1951 experiment, the psychologist Solomon Asch showed how easily humans can be manipulated by social pressure to conform. If everyone else in the room affirms even the most blatant falsehood, we will very often affirm it ourselves, even denying the clear evidence of our own eyes.
But a variation of the Asch experiment gives hope. If only one other person in the room—a single reality ally—tells the truth, the pressure to conform drops sharply and we become much more willing to buck the lie. That is why authoritarian regimes work so furiously to stifle opposition voices, even seemingly weak ones. It is what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was getting at when he said, “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that [lie] come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me.”
And it is why one reality ally, a lowly county recorder serving his first tour of duty in politics, holds the key to defeating MAGA. “In a warped way, I’ve had the blessing of having an impact as a Maricopa County recorder, in my first few months of being elected to anything,” he says.
It’s not the job he ran for, but he’ll take it.
Jonathan Rauch is a columnist at Persuasion and the author of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.