For Republicans in Congress planning to vote Wednesday against certifying Joe Biden's presidential election victory, the lie has become its own justification.
The lie is that Donald Trump was deprived of re-election due to fraud or some other shenanigans. Numerous courts have rejected those allegations, and the Justice Department hasn't found any evidence of wrongdoing widespread enough to overturn the election results. The president and a few of his nuttier allies keep flogging claims that the election was stolen — and Trump might even believe his own lies about the election, if we're to believe the recordings of his weekend phone call where he pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to "recalculate" that state's voting results. But there is no reason to believe that is true. Given Trump's history of crying wolf whenever he doesn't win, there is plenty of reason to believe he is running his usual con.
Nonetheless, Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and others will object to finalizing Biden's election. Why? Because — they say — lots of Republican voters believe the lie.
"Millions of voters concerned about election integrity deserve to be heard," Hawley said in a tweet announcing his intentions. "I will object on January 6 on their behalf."
A statement released Saturday by Cruz and some of his fellow Republican senators offered a similar justification.
"By any measure, the allegations of fraud and irregularities in the 2020 election exceed any in our lifetimes," they wrote. "And those allegations are not believed just by one individual candidate. Instead, they are widespread. Reuters/Ipsos polling, tragically, shows that 39 percent of Americans believe 'the election was rigged.' That belief is held by Republicans (67 percent), Democrats (17 percent), and Independents (31 percent)."
Trump himself parroted that premise in his phone call with Raffensperger.
"The people of Georgia are angry, the people in the country are angry," he said. "And there's nothing wrong with saying, you know, um, that you've recalculated."
You will notice that for the most part, Trump's Republican allies don't quite affirm the substance of the lie — they don't present any evidence to support allegations of wrongdoing, no real reason to believe that Joe Biden's election was anything but fairly and honorably won. Instead they cite the widespread (and wrongheaded) belief in wrongdoing as justification to upend our democracy.
What a cute trick.
The reason so many Americans — particularly Republicans — believe the election was rigged is because Trump keeps lying to them and telling them the election was rigged. That so many people have swallowed the president's falsehoods allows Hawley and Cruz to pose as defenders of the democratic ideal while simultaneously undercutting it. But it also has the effect of letting them magnify the lie and its potential consequences without doing anything so tawdry as lying themselves. It is a form of plausible deniability, a version of "just asking questions" that keeps untruths in play without taking responsibility for them.
This is wrong and shamefully cynical.
"He surely knows this isn't true and that the legal arguments don't hold water," an anonymous source close to Hawley told The Atlantic's Peter Wehner. "And yet clearly the incentives he confronts — as someone who wants to speak for those voters, and as someone with ambitions beyond the Senate — lead him to conclude he should pretend the lie is true."
Not every Republican is on board with these efforts. Raffensperger, for example, held fast against Trump's pressure by simply and repeatedly — even respectfully, though it wasn't warranted — affirming the truth. "Mr. President," he said, according to the recording, "the challenge that you have is, the data you have is wrong."
Pretty simple, right?
We have seen this kind of Hawley-Cruz-style cynicism in the not-too-distant past. In 2011, then-House Speaker John Boehner rejected the notion that he and other Republican leaders should vigorously challenge the falsehood — widespread among GOP voters — that Barack Obama had been born abroad and thus held the presidency against the Constitution's requirements.
"It's not my job to tell the American people what to think," Boehner said.
It should be the job of elected leaders to tell their constituents the truth, however. As it happened, the chief proponent of the birther lie against Obama was Donald Trump. Elected Republican elites never quite endorsed his crusade, but they did allow themselves to benefit from it and the way it stirred up the passions of their base. Mitt Romney, who has criticized Hawley and Cruz's efforts, happily accepted Trump's endorsement for president in 2012, a step toward cementing the notion of Trump as a plausible political figure. When you don't counteract a lie with truth, it seems, the lie can keep growing until it overwhelms and controls you — becomes something that you don't just passively accept for advantage, but which becomes your reason and justification for action. So it goes with today's Republican Party.