When President Trump refused to acknowledge Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election, it quickly became clear that the myth of a stolen election would exert a powerful hold on the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Some of us even suggested that it could become the new “birther” lie, a way for much of the party’s base to dismiss the incoming president as illegitimate.

But now it looks like it’s going to be even worse.

Trump’s legal and public relations campaign to overturn the election is simultaneously dangerous and pathetic, made up of farcical pratfalls and appalling authoritarian moves. But its ultimate failure will not weaken the “stolen election” myth’s grip on the GOP, and we’ll be feeling the effects for years to come.

The battleground states have certified their results, and Joe Biden won handily, by 306-232 in the electoral college and more than 7 million votes. Despite all their efforts, Republicans have been unable to find any real evidence of fraud, let alone the massive conspiracy involving thousands of accomplices across the country that would have been required to steal the election.

Yet with just a few exceptions, the Republican Party as a whole refuses to accept that reality. When The Post contacted all 249 Republicans in Congress to ask them a simple question — Who won the election? — only 27 would admit that Biden won. Even more shockingly, only 32 said that if Biden wins a majority in the electoral college (which will officially vote on Dec. 14), they’ll accept him as the legitimately elected president.

You might think that once Biden is inaugurated, that will change. But don’t bet on it. In the future when you ask Republicans if Biden won the election, even the supposedly responsible ones will say, “People have different opinions on that, but he’s in the White House now, so I’m fighting him every day.”

Keep in mind that it’s increasingly looking as though Trump will spend the next few years holding the Republican Party in his grip, by leaving open the possibility that he’ll run again in 2024. As he demands attention from everyone and fealty from Republicans, he won’t be doing so on the basis of his passionate advocacy for low taxes and small government. It will all be about his insistence that he was the rightful winner of the 2020 election. That is what other Republicans will have to agree to, or risk his wrath.

For Trump loyalists invested in the internecine battle over the party’s future, this will be the clearest way to divide ally from enemy: Will you say publicly that Trump really won in 2020? If you will you’re a true conservative, and if you won’t you’re a coward, a quisling, an establishment stooge who must be purged.

That will keep the stolen election myth in the forefront of Republican thinking — something they use as a litmus test of loyalty. Conservative media will keep the myth alive, using it as fuel for outrage and the feeling of victimization that has become so central to conservative ideology. As the president himself said at a rally in Georgia on Saturday, “We’re all victims. Everybody here, all these thousands of people here tonight, they’re all victims. Every one of you.”

That will become the easy justification for complete Republican obstruction of the Biden presidency — not just on disputed policy questions but on everything, including Biden’s ability to fill judicial vacancies and even staff his administration. Every senator who contemplates confirming even a district court judge will know that doing so will produce cries of “Traitor!” Because how can Biden be allowed the privileges of the presidency when he isn’t really the president?

At the state level, the stolen election myth will become the justification for a whole new round of draconian voter suppression laws. New purges of voter rolls, stricter voter ID laws, restrictions on mail voting, closing of polling places, limits on early voting, even the elimination of drop boxes will all be on the menu in GOP-controlled states. They’ll be carefully designed to make sure they fall more heavily on Blacks, Latinos, Native populations, young people, students and anyone else more likely to vote for Democrats. All of it will be justified by saying “We can’t allow them to steal another election like they did in 2020.”

And the new conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court will be there to approve every suppression measure, along with any hyper-partisan gerrymandering Republican-controlled state legislatures can manage (the court already ruled that partisan gerrymandering, no matter how ruthlessly it disenfranchises voters, is just fine).

With Trump keeping the stolen election myth salient, Republican candidates for state offices will have to pledge in advance their willingness to take every step necessary to ensure Republican election victories, all the way up to overturning the results if Democrats should win. In state after state, Republicans will have to sign on to the idea that any Democratic victory — not just in the past but in the future as well — is inherently illegitimate and proof that fraud was committed.

Trump may be the primary purveyor of this poison, but it’s because his party so wholeheartedly embraces it that the long-term damage will be done. Which makes it all the more important that when Democrats take power, they use it to enhance and secure Americans’ voting rights.

Post Senior Producer Kate Woodsome talks to Americans who voted for Trump, or simply don't feel like denouncing him, about why they feel wrongly scorned. (The Washington Post)

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