This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.
As the national politics editor for the Arizona Republic, Dan Nowicki had a unique vantage of two of the bookending dramas of the Trump era: first Donald Trump’s attacks on John McCain and his military service, and then Trump’s ultimate electoral collapse in the state in 2020. Nowicki saw Trump’s triumph and eventual failure happening in real time. At the Arizona Republic, where he’s been since 2002, he spent two years on the road with the late Sen. McCain for his 2008 presidential run, and is a two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist. On the phone recently, he described what national reporters miss when they show up in Arizona—and why he saw Trump’s failure there this year coming.
Aymann Ismail: Can we teleport back to that first big Arizona Trump rally? About 4,000 people showed up to see Trump speak at the Phoenix Convention Center. Can you describe being there as a reporter?
Dan Nowicki: It was a different crowd than you would usually see at Arizona political rallies. I think he did attract a lot of people who maybe normally wouldn’t show up at a presidential campaign rally. So I guess in that regard, he did speak to people outside the norm of what we would see at an event like that. It was the beginning of what became the whole MAGA following. But this was very early on still.
Do you have any idea why Trump went so hard against John McCain?
The preamble to that was Trump had made his controversial announcement speech. I also was covering what turned out to be Sen. McCain’s final Senate race, so one thing I talked to McCain about was Trump’s comments. He said, “I definitely disagreed about the comments he made about Mexicans,” and that was basically it. And so I wrote that up. Then right after, Trump announced he’s coming to Arizona. I talked to both McCain and [then-Sen.] Jeff Flake, and they didn’t want anything to do with the Trump rally. So it was surprising to see a huge turnout. It was in the summer, and it was really hot in Arizona, so it was surprising with these really long lines. I remember there was one guy standing out in front of the convention center, he had a sign that said, “Mr. Trump, you’re hired.” The Apprentice was still large in everybody’s mind about who Trump was. And the thing that I remember about the Trump rally in Phoenix is he really went after McCain hard. I guess it had to do with McCain’s lukewarm comments that he had made to me, and also the story that we’d run in the Arizona Republic saying that basically McCain and Flake didn’t want anything to do with the rally. I remember at this point Trump was still talking about Mexico was going to build the wall. As I recall, he even made some comments to the effect of the Mexican government were intentionally sending their worst people. That was a conspiracy that he dropped fairly early on. I remember talking to McCain later, and he said he was surprised just by the fury of Trump’s counterattack to him.
When Trump went after McCain, some thought it might be the end of Trump’s run. Can you explain why that didn’t affect him at all? He won Arizona in that election, too.
I don’t think anybody really gave him a shot. If you recall, everybody was saying, “He’s going to flame out.” But he never really did. He sustained that front-runner status throughout. People like Rick Santorum, Trump locked them out, and just took all the oxygen out of the room. They couldn’t really do much about it. And he went on to survive numerous other comments and gaffes, however you want to characterize them, that supposedly nobody could survive. But it is interesting, I do think that Trump hurt himself in Arizona with his constant attacks on McCain and later Jeff Flake. He really alienated a lot of Arizona Republicans. He only carried Arizona in 2016 by 3½ percentage points or so. McCain pretty dramatically outperformed him in that race, I think by a dozen points or so over his opponent. And I do think that it continued to hurt him in this last year’s election, because you saw Cindy McCain came out and endorsed Biden. Jeff Flake as well. I think that had a pretty big effect. And there was just a big swath of Arizona Republicans, the McCain-world Republicans who—they’re still Republicans, but I’ve had a lot of them tell me they’re not going to vote for Trump mostly because of that. So I think it really damaged him.
Did you notice any infighting between the GOP in Arizona yourself?
The longer story there is that McCain, going back years, has been feuding with the Arizona Republican Party. At various times, the right wing of the party would take control of it, and in 2014, they passed a censure resolution against McCain. They said he was too liberal on immigration. So there was always tension between McCain and that right wing. You remember in 2010, J.D. Hayworth, the former congressman, ran against him, challenging him from the right. In 2016, Kelli Ward ran at him from the right again. So there was already a ready-made audience among some Republicans who were just tired of McCain, thought he was a RINO, and they really embraced Trump immediately, and that anti-McCain message really resonated with them. The problem with that wing is they’re not very successful at winning statewide races. McCain and Flake stood together to run a centrist campaign to win statewide.
What do you think national political reporters got wrong when it came to covering Trump?
Well, I think that obviously they paid so much attention to him. I assume, if I was a supporter of one of the other Republican candidates, I would be pretty annoyed by that. Everybody else, and I just remember Jeb Bush in particular, used to complain all the time that it was sort of like, “You’re the guys who are making Trump a thing, constantly covering everything that he does.” And I guess a lot of that I would think is probably cable TV. It was maybe the news channels’ attitudes, maybe more than the newspapers.
What gives a local reporter advantage over a national reporter?
The regional differences and local nuances you get from the local reporters are missed by national, D.C.-based reporters. And Arizona has been a pretty important state the last couple elections, so of course we see the D.C. reporters parachuting in when they do their story, dateline Phoenix or dateline Scottsdale or wherever. And they’re usually pretty much the same story. I don’t necessarily think that any of that ever really gets to the heart of what’s going on here on the ground. They should read the local reporters, and don’t just do a crash course on it, maybe try to keep up with it on an ongoing basis. Because a lot of the coverage outside the Beltway was really good and interesting, and it doesn’t get much attention. Not just in Arizona, but in other states as well.
In four years, as Arizona went from a comfortable Trump victory to a narrow Biden win, have you noticed any changes in the attitudes among Republican voters?
Well, I think there’s a lot of different things that combined to flip the state, and obviously everyone’s taking credit for it. But one thing is just the changing demographics. And this has been happening over time for years. The Latino population in Arizona has always been pretty young. So they’re all turning 18 now, and so that was going to change inevitably. The Latino vote is much more active now. And so I think that was part of it. In a race that was as tight as it was last year, almost any little difference could matter, and that’s why I think any crossover votes that Cindy McCain was able to secure for Biden probably helped as well. One of the questions I’m constantly asking: “Is Arizona a red state still?” And it seems like it’s probably a purple state. I don’t know if it’s going to necessarily stay blue, but it’s definitely turning from red to purple. I remember Congressman Ed Pastor, who retired and then passed away, I remember sitting in his office probably like 2009 or something like that, a long time ago, and he spelled it out. And I think he was right, the way it’s turning out, just the fact that the Latino population is going to grow into a real force in Arizona.
What was going on during election night in Maricopa County, when Trump supporters show up while the vote count was still going on? That felt like a prelude to what was coming.
There’s obviously no evidence or even really a suggestion that anything was wrong with the vote counting or the election in Arizona, which of course hasn’t stopped Trump’s allies from continuing to claim that it was corrupt or that they want an audit. So that drumbeat’s continuing, despite no evidence. Not even a hint of evidence that there’s anything with the count. Trumpism is not going away overnight. Kelli Ward and the Arizona Republican Party, obviously they’ve gotten a lot of national attention as being so over-the-top in their support of Trump. And so she’s up for election for another term of party chairwoman. She’s expected to win. [Ed. note: She’s since won.] So at least the state party is probably going to be continuing to be a bastion of Trumpism. Again, we’ll see if that translates into any actual victories statewide. As McCain showed and Flake showed, they always had the swing that was against them, but they could always prevail in the primary. It wasn’t powerful enough to even win in a statewide Republican primary, but we’ll see if it diminishes or gets stronger. But it’s not going away.
Is there anything in your reporting that you might regret or wish that you could do differently?
There’s always stuff I wish I could do differently. Give me an extra day on any story and I can make it better, I’m sure, but part of writing on deadline. But I don’t think there’s anything that really weighs on my conscience too much. But yeah, I’m sure that if I had to do it over again, I would do a lot of things differently.
Is there something that the last four years or five years of Trumpism taught you about journalism?
That is a tough one. I guess one thing is it’s a good reminder: Don’t assume you know everything. Don’t assume this event or that event is going to take out a candidate, because it seems like the rules and the state of play are changing all the time. And you have to be nimble and adapt to what’s going on constantly. And that’s one thing that I think the media had to learn a little as it went along, the real-time fact-checking—that’s something we’ve tried to deploy when we can. You don’t really want to just give somebody a platform to say a lot of stuff that’s not true. If we’re going to report on what he said, put it in the proper context and fact-check it the best we can.
This is part of What We Learned, a series of reflections on the meaning and legacy of the Trump years.