One of the most misleading ideas in our discourse right now is that Republican loyalty to Donald Trump is all about pledging fealty to his “big lie” that the election was stolen from him. It implies that this loyalty test requires nothing more than a willingness to tell a certain story about the past to soothe the former president’s hurt feelings.

An important new piece in the New York Times helps dispel this notion. As it reports, numerous Republican candidates for elected office around the country are not just pledging fealty to the “big lie.”

What they’re actually doing is considerably worse. They’re widely casting doubt on the idea that Joe Biden is the legitimate president of the United States, something that has alarming implications when it comes to future elections:

Across the country, a rising class of Republican challengers has embraced the fiction that the 2020 election was illegitimate, marred by fraud and inconsistencies. Aggressively pushing Mr. Trump’s baseless claims that he was robbed of re-election, these candidates represent the next generation of aspiring G.O.P. leaders, who would bring to Congress the real possibility that the party’s assault on the legitimacy of elections, a bedrock principle of American democracy, could continue through the 2024 contests.
Dozens of Republican candidates have sown doubts about the election as they seek to join the ranks of the 147 Republicans in Congress who voted against certifying President Biden’s victory. There are degrees of denial: Some bluntly declare they must repair a rigged system that produced a flawed result, while others speak in the language of “election integrity,” promoting Republican re-examinations of the vote counts in Arizona and Georgia and backing new voting restrictions introduced by Republicans in battleground states.
They are united by a near-universal reluctance to state outright that Mr. Biden is the legitimately elected leader of the country.

What’s often missing from these discussions is a frank acknowledgment of the degree to which Republicans seem to be untethering themselves from any sense of obligation to respect future election outcomes.

The Times report, however, corrects this defect:

Victories by these Republicans would expand the number of congressional lawmakers who have supported overturning the 2020 results, raising new doubts about whether Americans can still count on the routine, nonpartisan certification of free and fair elections.

The report documents numerous concrete examples of this. For instance, House candidates from Wisconsin and Nevada say House Republicans were right to vote to invalidate Biden’s electors in Congress. The one from Nevada, importantly, is already signaling he will take a hard line on certifying election results in 2024.

In South Carolina, a primary challenger to a sitting GOP congressman is campaigning on the declaration that he personally would have not voted to certify the 2020 results, claiming vaguely that there is “reason to doubt” their validity. That’s tantamount to a suggestion that he’ll refrain from doing so in 2024 if the election doesn’t go as hoped. The justification can be essentially invented just as easily as he proclaims “doubt” about 2020.

And in Michigan, a primary challenger to another sitting GOP congressman is running on a promise to pursue more voting audits. In the background, ongoing scrutiny of the vote counts in Arizona and Georgia is a topic of obsession for Trump and his propagandists.

Here again there is a forward-looking dimension: The idea behind these audits and examinations isn’t merely to rewrite the history of Trump’s loss to flatter him and/or energize his supporters. Instead, these should be seen as dry runs in manufacturing fake rationales for treating legitimate (but despised) election outcomes as illegitimate, thus fake-justifying maximal procedural efforts to overturn them.

There are other examples of this beyond what the Times piece documents. In Georgia, the primary challenger to GOP Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger — who defended the legitimacy of Trump’s loss and refused Trump’s efforts to corrupt him into overturning it — is effectively running on a promise to use the office’s powers to invalidate hated outcomes in a way that Raffensperger would not.

And House Republicans just elevated Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), in part because she publicly undermined the legitimacy of Trump’s loss in a way the excommunicated Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) refused to do. Importantly, Stefanik signaled her bona fides by endorsing the Arizona audit.

In a good piece, my Post colleague Perry Bacon Jr. argues that the defense of democracy going forward will require, among other things, media attention to the GOP drift away from democracy that is vigorous, sustained, unabashedly pro-democracy and focused in the states. Crucial to this, I think, is getting the forward-looking dimension to the Republican fealty to Trump right.

Republican candidates must be covered relentlessly in a way that unmasks their weakening commitment to respecting future democratic outcomes and exposes the very real signals they’re sending about being willing to act to overturn those outcomes. No more euphemisms about “fealty to Trump and the ‘big lie.’” We badly need to get this larger story right.

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