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Opinion What would it take to drag the GOP back to reality?

A contractor working for Cyber Ninjas works to recount ballots from the 2020 general election in Phoenix on May 1. (Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images)

If you haven’t followed the “audit” of ballots in Maricopa County, Ariz., ordered by the Republican-controlled state Senate, you’re missing one of the most extraordinary electoral freak shows in American history. Even more troubling, the Republican faithful seem determined to drive that clown car all over the country, not just to re-litigate the 2020 election but in future elections as well.

Not too long ago, sensible people doubted we’d still be in this place more than six months after the election. Yet since then, we’ve seen one episode of buffoonery after another — disturbed former motivational speaker Rudolph W. Giuliani ranting in the dingy industrial parking lot of Four Seasons Total Landscaping, the “Kraken,” the dripping hair dye, the stylings of the My Pillow guy.

With each of these, one could observe the spectacle and think, Well, this is surely the low point of former president Donald Trump’s campaign to reverse the results of the election. After this humiliation, the party has to come to its senses.

But in the ensuing months, the mania that has gripped the GOP has only spread. There simply is no low point, no bottom, no conspiracy theory that cannot win millions of Republican adherents and force the party to pretend it’s something other than pure insanity.

What can pull the GOP back to reality? To answer, consider three major forces within the party right now:

  1. The Crazies, who sincerely believe there is a far-reaching conspiracy that includes both elected representatives and election officials at every level, many of whom are Republicans, to steal every election through complex schemes of fraud and vote-rigging.
  2. The Cynics and Cowards who pander to the Crazies, either out of fear for their careers (and in some cases their personal safety) or because they see in the Crazies a vehicle for their own ambitions or an army that could help them steal elections they don’t actually win.
  3. The Sane, who are larger in number than you might think but are too ineffectual to pull the party back to reality.

Unfortunately, the party’s leaders almost all reside within the ranks of the Cynics and Cowards. And among the Sane there is no one with the charisma and talent to create a movement that could overcome the grip the Crazies have on the party.

The ongoing “audit” in Arizona shows us why. This description by election expert Jennifer Morrell explains just how bizarre it is; the half-wit conspiracy theorists hired by the state Senate have been holding ballots under UV lights, trying to find bamboo fibers on them (because that would be evidence of a link to China, perhaps through its panda-based espionage operation), and obsessing over traces of Cheeto dust.

Some Republicans are appropriately appalled by this circus. The Maricopa County Board of Supervisors — four of whose five members are Republicans — has grown incensed with the absurdity of the audit and the behavior of the state Senate and its leader, Republican Sen. Karen Fann. The board unloaded on Fann in a stunning letter earlier this week:

You have rented out the once good name of the Arizona State Senate to grifters and con-artists, who are fundraising hard-earned money from our fellow citizens even as your contractors parade around the Coliseum, hunting for bamboo and something they call “kinematic artifacts” while shining purple lights for effect. None of these things are done in a serious audit. The result is that the Arizona Senate is held up to ridicule in every corner of the globe and our democracy is imperiled.

On one hand, they’re right. On the other hand, it doesn’t matter, because what the grass roots of the party want is more audits like the one in Maricopa.

As The Post’s Amy Gardner and Rosalind S. Helderman report, Republican voters across the country are showing up to city council meetings, haranguing state and local officials about voting machine conspiracies, and demanding “audits” similar to the one in Maricopa where they live.

It all gets reinforced by the conspiracy theories promoted in conservative media, where the faithful watch as key figures from the national Republican Party validate the base’s delusions again and again. Even those who don’t explicitly agree with the “big lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump insist that those who do believe it have valid concerns that should be taken seriously.

That’s an important element of this mania: It isn’t just about 2020. For those who have fallen down the rabbit hole, 2020 was just one manifestation of the larger problem, which is that elections are pretty much all rigged and no result in which your party loses can ever be legitimate.

When you try to envision what could drag the GOP back to reality, it quickly becomes apparent how difficult it would be. Persuasive op-eds and fact checks won’t do it; you’d need a leader charismatic enough to create a movement that rejected the current madness. That would mean rejecting Trump himself — and winning more adherents within the party than him — and also rejecting what polls have shown a majority of Republican voters believe, that Joe Biden stole the election.

Who could be that leader? Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), or her colleague Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.)? Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.)? Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger? They and other Republicans have spoken the truth, and might win their own reelection bids, along with some praise in the media and some admirers within the party.

But none of them are going to lead a national movement. If there has been a time when a politician who disagreed with most of their party’s voters on a matter this central to the party’s identity managed to take that party over, I can’t recall it.

And defeats from outside the party, such as Trump’s loss to Biden last November, only give the Crazies more strength. Any change in the GOP will have to come from within, with Republicans who believe in reality overcoming those who don’t. If you can imagine it happening any time soon, you’re more optimistic than I am.

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