President Donald J. Trump applauds the crowd and gestures with a fist pump as he disembarks Air Force One Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020, upon his arrival to Reading Regional Airport in Reading, Pa., the second of President Trump’s 4 stops in Pennsylvania. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

It was more than 12 years ago, and it sure feels like a different era in American politics.

Stung years earlier during his unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination by a despicable, racist and false whisper campaign during the South Carolina primary, John McCain wasn’t having it in 2008 when an elderly White woman at a town hall said she couldn’t trust his opponent, Barack Obama, because he was “an Arab.”

McCain grabbed the mic from her.

“No, ma’am,” he said. “He’s a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues, and that’s what this campaign is all about.”

To a White man who said he was “scared” of an Obama presidency, McCain replied: “I want to be president of the United States and obviously I do not want Sen. Obama to be. But I have to tell you … he is a decent person and a person that you do not have to be scared (of) as president of the United States.”

Sadly, McCain is dead now, and, for the most part, so is the kind of bare-minimum decency he demonstrated on his side of the aisle.

The election is over. Donald Trump has lost. A handful of Republicans have acknowledged this basic fact.

But many others, including here in Virginia, are either going through convoluted contortions to make it sound like we never actually KNOW who won an election until results are certified across the nation or, way worse, parroting Trump’s pernicious, nonsensical claim that the election he’s lost by thousands and thousands of votes in swing states (a margin that’s grown daily in many states as more votes are counted) is actually being stolen because of fraud that is at once so massive and widespread that it’s altered the results and so clandestine that no actual evidence has emerged.

Indeed it’s quite an exercise in intentional cognitive dissonance to crow about better-than-expected GOP down-ballot performance while simultaneously blasting the results you don’t like as fraudulent.

It’s no surprise that Trump, conspiracy-theorist in chief that he is, is baselessly blaming his loss on voter fraud. His entire presidency (and much of his life) has been an exercise in fabulation — from lying about Trump Tower wiretapping and hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels to his Ukraine phone call, the severity of the coronavirus and all kinds of things in between.

What’s slightly less clear is why Republicans feel compelled to continue to admire the emperor’s nonexistent haberdashery.

“What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change,” a “senior Republican official” told The Washington Post. “He went golfing this weekend. It’s not like he’s plotting how to prevent Joe Biden from taking power on Jan. 20. He’s tweeting about filing some lawsuits, those lawsuits will fail, then he’ll tweet some more about how the election was stolen, and then he’ll leave.”

To state what should be obvious to anyone hoping to forge something like a functional constitutional republic out of the bitter polarization of Trump’s America, the downside is the poison being poured into the ears and eyeballs of millions of conservative voters who are being told, by people who know better, that an election is being stolen in plain sight.

Some of it seems like a basic grift.

For example, the Republican Party of Virginia launched an “election integrity fund” in attempt to siphon more money out of its voters ostensibly on behalf of the guy who has helped lose the Virginia GOP every statewide election, control of the General Assembly and three House of Representative seats since he took office. Perhaps it has a lot do with keeping conservative voters and donors angry and engaged with a pair of Georgia runoffs that could decide control of the Senate. Maybe it’s just the natural lurch from one angry electorate to another and Republicans are attempting to keep the fires stoked after a rare loss by an incumbent president.

To be frank though, some people don’t actually know better, evidenced by some representative emails from readers, of which we’ve gotten many since the election was finally called for Biden Saturday.

“Trump has not lost this election!!!!!!!!! You folks are nothing but propaganda!!!!! Biden is not the president elect stop lying!” one wrote.

Another: “As it turns out, you are just another propaganda mouth piece for the Establishment, repeating the lies of the globalist elite who want to destroy the foundation of the United States. … Obviously, there was massive, blatant election fraud and voter fraud in this election. There are mountains of evidence of this, and it is not conspiracy theory, it is conspiracy fact.”

These are the fever dreams Republicans are breathing life into.

There is a direct path from the vicious, false Obama birtherism that launched Trump’s political career to the present alternate reality so many people seem to be living in. It was already beginning to shape the GOP electorate during the McCain-Obama race and unfortunately was partly ushered in by McCain himself when he made the catastrophic mistake of choosing as his running mate Sarah Palin, who Obama himself says brought “xenophobia, anti intellectualism, paranoid conspiracy theories, an antipathy toward Black and brown folks” to “center stage.”

It is the reason people still refuse to wear masks — to the point that Alabama’s top health official has faced death threats because he encouraged the governor there to impose a mask mandate — even as the nation falls back into the maw of a pandemic that has already killed more than 244,000 and could kill thousands more before it’s brought to heel. It’s the reason there are people on your timelines who are all of a sudden experts in all 50 states’ election laws, the Electoral College and voting machines. It’s the reason there are loud-and-proud QAnon adherents in Congress now.

Republicans have been accused of “playing with fire,” for much of the Trump era — countenancing his refusal to release his tax returns and fully divest from his businesses, covering for his attempted strong-arming of a foreign leader to get dirt on Biden, turning a blind eye to a laundry list of corrupt self-dealing and making excuses for his disastrous dissembling and mismanagement of the virus response.

Now, they’re content to torch the integrity of the entire election system because they can’t or won’t put the shambling monster they’ve unleashed back in its cage.

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Robert Zullo
Robert has been winning and losing awards as a reporter and editor for 13 years at weekly and daily newspapers, beginning at Worrall Community Newspapers in Union, N.J., where he was a staff writer and managing editor. He spent five years in south Louisiana covering hurricanes, oil spills and Good Friday crawfish boils as a reporter and city editor for the The Courier and the Daily Comet newspapers in Houma and Thibodaux. He covered Richmond city hall for the Richmond Times-Dispatch from 2012 to 2013 and worked as a general assignment and city hall reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 2013 to 2016. He returned to Richmond in 2016 to cover energy, environment and transportation for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. He grew up in Miami, Fla., and central New Jersey. A former waiter, armored car guard and appliance deliveryman, he is a graduate of the College of William and Mary. Contact him at [email protected]