After Barack Obama was elected in 2008, Republicans looked at their base and saw a somewhat loony but potentially potent political force. As that force began to coalesce into the Tea Party — a movement ostensibly devoted to the policy goal of smaller government but run through with racism and mad conspiracy theories — the Republican Party's leaders decided that this was a tiger they could ride.
But they faced a challenge: They wanted the Tea Party to retain its anti-Obama energy, but didn't want to be too closely associated with its rhetorical and ideological excesses. So they developed a strategy of winking and nodding whenever certain subjects came up, most notably that of Obama's birthplace and religion. Among many if not most Tea Partiers, it was accepted that Obama had been born in Kenya, led a conspiracy to falsify his Hawaiian birth records, and was a secret Muslim who lied and said he was actually a Christian. While a few crackpot backbench members of Congress might publicly agree with these views, the leadership needed to be more circumspect, while still signaling to the base that if they didn't exactly agree with them, they didn't disagree either.
So they arrived at a particular formulation to use when asked about the misinformation circulating through their party. "The president says he's a Christian, I take him at his word," said Mitch McConnell. "I believe that the president is a citizen. I believe the president is a Christian. I'll take him at his word," said John Boehner. The clear implication was that Obama's word was all we had to go on, it was a matter not of fact but of opinion, and they were being magnanimous in believing him — which simultaneously told their base that if you weren't in such a generous mood, then you might reasonably come to a different conclusion.
Before this year's election, there was some speculation about what Republicans would do if the same fact-averse voters who rose up in 2009 led them to a spectacular defeat in 2016 by foisting Donald Trump on the party. Would GOP lawmakers denounce these voters? How could they, when they still made up a majority of the Republican electorate? They were spared that dilemma by Trump's victory, but they're no more eager now to correct the deranged ideas that base accepts — particularly when many of them are being spread by the president-elect himself.
So when Donald Trump tweeted late last month that "in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," they probably didn't have to think too hard about what to say when they got asked about it. Trump is an avid listener and good friend to the maniacal radio host Alex Jones, who believes that the children at Sandy Hook were actors and 9/11 was an inside job; Jones may be the source of Trump's belief in millions of fraudulent votes. But that didn't deter Trump's helpers. Mike Pence said, "He's entitled to express his opinion on that. And I think the American people — I think the American people find it very refreshing that they have a president who will tell them what's on his mind." When he was queried about Trump's ridiculous claim, Reince Priebus said, "It's possible," and when asked whether the president of the United States ought to have some evidence before he makes outlandish charges, he responded, "I think the president-elect is someone who has pushed the envelope and caused people to think in this country, has not taken conventional thought on every single issue." Paul Ryan replied to questions about the illegal vote claims by saying with a smile, "I don't know. I'm not really focused on these things...I have no way of backing that up. I have no knowledge of such things."
The strategy here is to signal to the base that there's nothing wrong with its false beliefs, encourage uncertainty among everyone else, and retain plausible deniability that you're doing exactly what it is you're doing. I never said millions of people voted illegally, they can say, just like they never said that Obama was a secret Kenyan Muslim. They just made sure their voters went on believing it — and stayed in the state of perpetual agitation that turns them out to protests, makes sure they go to the polls in midterm elections, and gets Donald Trump elected president.
One other thing we should note, since it may come up again: Pence also fed the lie by saying, "There is evidence, historic evidence from the Pew Research Center of voter fraud that's taken place." He was completely wrong about that — the Pew report in question, from 2012, says nothing about fraud; it was about inaccuracies and duplications in the voter registration system that arise from things like people moving from one state to another but not calling their old home state to have their registration removed from the rolls. It contained zero evidence of vote fraud, and we know that vote fraud is vanishingly rare; out of the 135 million votes cast in this election, there have been four verified cases of voter fraud. One was a Trump supporter who tried to vote twice because she thought the votes were rigged, one was a man claiming to be a Trump employee testing the security of the system, one was a Republican who filled out her husband's absentee ballot after he died, and one was a poll worker who filled in a ballot she opened for a mayoral race.
One might hope that the farther away from the election we get, the less this will matter. But it may loom somewhat larger, because Republicans will almost certainly try to nationalize the voter suppression they've pursued with such enthusiasm at the state level. Now that they control the executive and legislative branches, they can pass bills to require voter ID, limit early voting and same-day registration, and mandate purges of voter rolls. And it will all be justified on the grounds that voter fraud is an out-of-control epidemic.
That will be a lie. But GOP lawmakers know that with their help, Republican base voters will believe it. And apparently, the conspiracy-theorist-in-chief believes it already.