Senate Republicans on July 25 voted to start debate on a health-care bill as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) urged senators from both parties to work together. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

As Republicans struggle to figure out which spectacularly unpopular, viciously cruel and perfunctorily considered version of their health-care bill they want to become law, one former member of the House leadership has come out with an extraordinary admission about what a scam the whole project is. In an interview with Elaina Plott of Washingtonian magazine, former House majority leader Eric Cantor, who was defeated in a primary in 2014 by a tea party extremist, explains that Republicans knew they were lying to their base about their ability to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but they just couldn’t help themselves:

“To give the impression that if Republicans were in control of the House and Senate, that we could do that when Obama was still in office . . . .” His voice trails off and he shakes his head. “I never believed it.”

He says he wasn’t the only one aware of the charade: “We sort of all got what was going on, that there was this disconnect in terms of communication, because no one wanted to take the time out in the general public to even think about ‘Wait a minute—that can’t happen.’ ” But, he adds, “if you’ve got that anger working for you, you’re gonna let it be.”

It’s a stunning admission from a former member of the party leadership—that the linchpin of GOP electoral strategy for the better part of a decade was a fantasy, a flame continually fanned solely because, when it came to midterm elections, it worked. (Barring, of course, his own.)

What’s truly remarkable isn’t that a bunch of cynical politicians thought they could ride their base voters’ anger into control of Congress by lying to them about what they could actually accomplish; it’s that their voters actually believed it. And then those voters got even angrier when it turned out that the president had the ability to veto bills passed by a Congress controlled by the other party. Who knew! So instead of looking for a presidential candidate who would treat them like adults, they elected Donald Trump, a man who would pander to their gullibility even more.

Which brings us to where we are today. Republicans couldn’t be bothered for seven years to actually think about what repealing and replacing the ACA might involve, or whether there would be trade-offs and choices to make, or whether setting up a system that accorded with their conservative philosophy might not actually solve the problems of the health-care system. They thought it would be enough to tell their voters to get mad, and worry later about what it would take to keep the promises they made.

So now they find themselves with a bill that nearly everyone hates. If it passes (in whatever form), it will be a disaster for the health-care system and will be a political disaster for them as well. But they’ve convinced themselves that the only thing worse politically would be to not pass anything, because that would incur the wrath of those same base voters. In other words, their current position is, “We know how catastrophic this bill would be. But we got here by lying to these knuckle-dragging mouth-breathers for years, and if we don’t follow through, they’ll punish us.” They believe that their voters will say, “Okay, so I lost my health coverage because of you, but you’ll get my vote again because you kept your promise.”

Trump supporters at a speech in Youngstown, Ohio, on July 25, rallied behind the idea of repealing Obamacare, but remained divided on how Congress should replace it. (Reuters)

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of outright malice in what Republicans are doing, because there is. Their contempt for people who struggle economically is boundless. They’ve wanted to destroy Medicaid for decades, and they just might be able to do it. But their strongest motivation right now is fear, fear of the voters they regard as too dim-witted to be able to make a rational judgment about the most consequential policy question one can imagine.

Am I being unkind? Consider what the president is up to at the moment. This morning he announced that he’ll be banning transgender people from serving in the military, serving up a bogus rationale about how they cost too much money. A White House official told Axios that this is a political masterstroke:

“This forces Democrats in Rust Belt states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, to take complete ownership of this issue.”

Yes, the 2018 elections will hinge on transgender people serving in the military. That’s mind-numbingly stupid, but to believe it you’d have to think that voters are complete idiots. And as The Post reports, Trump addressed a big crowd of his voters yesterday in Youngstown, Ohio:

Here in the heart of the industrial Midwest, Trump promised to refill lost manufacturing jobs in factories or to “rip ’em down and build brand-new ones.”

“That’s what’s going to happen,” Trump said at a campaign rally in a packed hockey arena that holds 7,000 people … Trump said: “They’re all coming back. They’re all coming back. They’re coming back. Don’t move. Don’t sell your house.”

In fairness, many people in the area, even Republicans, understand that’s a complete crock. Those jobs aren’t coming back, and the region’s future won’t be built on factories that employ huge numbers of people who can move into high-wage, high-benefit jobs with little preparation. Yet they still show up at his rallies and cheer while he lies right in their faces.

If there’s a note of hope to be found in all this, it’s that this health-care effort has been such a farce — in large part because the public has finally begun to clue in to what the Republican proposals might actually mean. That idea terrifies Republicans in Congress, which is why they are pushing through one of the most sweeping and consequential pieces of legislation in American history without a single hearing and with only a few hours of floor debate. Since one version of the bill was voted down yesterday, the current strategy seems to be to pass “skinny repeal,” which would do nothing except eliminate the individual and employer mandates and a tax on medical devices.

If that were to become law, it would immediately destroy the individual insurance market, since you’d be able to wait until you got sick before buying insurance and insurers would still have to cover you. Republicans in Congress don’t know a lot about health-care policy, but they know enough to understand that. They’re hoping, however, that the public is too dumb to realize just how destructive the idea would be.

There’s one other path open to them, which is to pass skinny repeal, then go to a conference committee with the House, in which an entirely new bill would be written incorporating the other things Republicans want to do. That bill could then be presented to both houses as a last chance to repeal the hated Obamacare, in the hopes that members would vote for it despite its inevitable unpopularity and cataclysmic consequences for Americans’ health care.

If and when that happens, Republicans will make that same calculation again: This thing is terrible and most everyone hates it, but we have to pass something because we fooled members of our base into thinking this would all be simple and we could give them everything they want. Or as Trump said during the campaign, “You’re going to have such great health care at a tiny fraction of the cost, and it is going to be so easy.”

That was just one of the many lies they were told, and they ate it up. Now we’ll all have to pay the price.