That Rep. Devin Nunes serves as the ranking member on something called the Intelligence Committee has always been a contradiction in terms. The California Republican displayed his intellectual heft earlier this year by suing a fictitious dairy cow that was mean to him on Twitter.

Even so, what he said on the House floor during Thursday’s debate to authorize a formal impeachment inquiry was jaw-dropping. He railed about the sort of person who believes in “conspiracy theories” and relies on “defamation and slander,” who spins a “preposterous narrative” with “no evidence” and only “bizarre obsession.”

Surely he was describing one Donald J. Trump to a T?

On the contrary, Nunes applied these Trumpian signatures to Democrats.What we’re seeing among Democrats on the Intelligence Committee,” he said, “is like a cult. These are a group of people loyally following their leader as he bounces from one outlandish conspiracy to another.”

It was perhaps the most extraordinary case of projection ever to present itself on the House floor.

At a GOP leadership news conference, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) attacked Democrats who backed a vote to formalize the impeachment process. (The Washington Post)

Republicans are defending President Trump, who believes windmills cause cancer, in impeachment proceedings literally sparked by his pursuit of a debunked conspiracy theory in Ukraine — and Democrats are the ones loyally following the conspiracy theories of their cult leader, who apparently is Rep. Adam Schiff?

Maybe this is how Republican lawmakers survive the strain of the Trump era. They represent family values but defend Trump through “Access Hollywood” and Stormy Daniels scandals. They represent military hawkishness but acquiesce to his Syria pullout and subservience to Moscow. They represent free markets and fiscal discipline but justify his trade wars and trillion-dollar deficit. They represent law and order but excuse his obstructions of justice.

Republicans, therefore, need a defense mechanism to displace these unpleasant feelings onto somebody else. The Grand Old Party is grossly projecting. It’s Trump’s “No puppet. You’re the puppet!” defense, but now his entire party is doing it.

Trump has repeatedly advanced Moscow’s agenda, pulling out of Syria, siding with Russia over U.S. intelligence on election interference and withholding military aid to Ukraine. But Republican Whip Steve Scalise (La.) displayed on the House floor a poster of a hammer and sickle and the Kremlin and said Democrats are the ones doing things “Soviet-style.”

Trump put national security second to his political needs when he withheld aid to Ukraine in order to get dirt on Joe Biden. But Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), the GOP conference leader, said Democrats are the ones “putting politics above national security.”

Fear-driven Republicans have been enablers of President Trump with their silence, argues Post columnist George F. Will. (The Washington Post)

Trump dismissed the threat of foreign election interference, while his allies fought off legislation to strengthen election security. But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) alleged that Democrats are the ones undermining “the integrity of our electoral process.”

And then there was Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.). “For one man to turn this country upside down,” he said, is something “our Founding Fathers warned about.” Surely this was about Trump? Nope — Schiff.

For years, the primary complaint against Trump has been that he tears the country apart — and that his constant chaos has put the nation through extraordinary stress. But during a GOP news conference after the vote, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) said Democrats are the ones “eagerly ripping our country in half,” and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) lamented “what the Democrats have put our nation through for now almost four years.” (He specifically blamed them for the Mueller probe, launched by Trump appointees.)

McCarthy scolded Democrats for not living up to a pledge to be “bipartisan,” then walked out fist-bumping his fellow Republicans, who laughed at Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) when she pounded the lectern, and jeered Rep. Jim McGovern (Mass.), the Democratic floor leader.

Trump, who made the politics of projection an art form, held his own. His campaign put out a quote from him saying “Democrats have committed themselves to destroying democracy.” And Stephanie Grisham, press secretary for the chaotic White House said after the vote: “I’ve got to say, Nancy Pelosi has lost all control over there.”

Pelosi’s impeachment resolution prevailed, 232-to-196, with just two Democrats opposed and one independent, Rep. Justin Amash (Mich.), supporting it. Scalise, holding up a vote tally, celebrated the unity of “every single Republican.”

Alternatively, you could view that as cult-like behavior. Once he declared his support for impeachment proceedings this summer, Amash was essentially banished from the party. Also cult-like: Republicans’ claims not only that Trump did nothing impeachable but also that he did nothing wrong when he withheld an ally’s military aid for a promise to investigate a political opponent.

At their post-vote news conference, Republicans were asked: “Will you all go on the record and say the president did nothing inappropriate?”

“Yes,” chorused the 50 men and three women onstage.

“A very clear yes,” said McCarthy.

Doesn’t he know that cults always end badly?

Read more from Dana Milbank:

Interested in following Dana Milbank’s take on the impeachment inquiry? Sign up here to receive future installments by email.