Donald Trump called in to a rally for Virginia Republicans late Wednesday night, joining a festival of derangement featuring former adviser Stephen K. Bannon hallucinating aloud that Trumpism will rule the United States for the next century. The former president declared Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin “a great gentleman.”

Yet that came only hours after Trump issued a splenetic statement about fellow Republicans, fuming that if they don’t “solve” the invented problem of a stolen 2020 election, “Republicans will not be voting in ‘22 or ‘24.”

How to reconcile Trump’s renewed endorsement of Youngkin with his tacit threat to punish Republicans for failing to reverse his election loss by urging his voters to stay home? Here’s how: In Trump’s eyes, Youngkin’s relentless pandering to Trump’s lies about 2020 has, for now anyway, passed his litmus test.

Which captures something essential about the post-Trump GOP: Republicans recognize that continuing to pander to those lies may be absolutely essential to keeping Republican voters engaged without Trump on the ballot doing it instead.

Trump’s statement has been analyzed as either the latest projectile vomiting to issue from his disordered mind or as a genuine political problem for Republicans. But few have paused to ask whether it might actually be true that energy among GOP voters turns on keeping alive the idea that the 2020 outcome was dubious or illegitimate, and what that might mean.

The Virginia contest is testing this premise. Youngkin has employed all sorts of oily and disingenuous tricks to pander to voters in thrall to Trump’s 2020 lies about our election system, while pretending not to.

For instance, one of Youngkin’s most devoted campaign trail surrogates is a Virginia lawmaker who has spun crackpot conspiracy theories about Democrats rigging the system against Trump, while alleging a plot to steal the election from Youngkin himself.

Youngkin has said the 2020 outcome was legitimate, while going to great lengths to send the opposite message from the other side of his mouth. He vows to restore “election integrity” and is demanding an “audit” of voting machines — both coded ways to humor Trumpian mythology that our election system renders rigged outcomes, and that Trump voters are the victims of it.

Youngkin recently refused to say whether he’d have voted as a member of Congress to count the rightful 2020 electors, before backtracking. That’s suddenly germane again: At Bannon’s rally, attendees pledged allegiance to a flag that was present at the Jan. 6 insurrection.

So Trump endorsed Youngkin at a rally where the insurrection continued to be treated as a glorious last stand of sorts that has been invested with near-messianic significance.

The most charitable interpretation of all this is that Youngkin is actively encouraging and seeking to harness this type of energy, while strategically paying lip service to the idea that 2020’s outcome was legitimate.

The straddle is obvious: Going too far down the Trumpian rabbit hole might complicate peeling off the educated and suburban voters a Republican needs to win in Virginia, voters Youngkin is appealing to with his businessman-turned-politican routine as well. But feeding Trumpian pathologies to whatever degree he can get away with is essential to keeping Trump base voters engaged.

That latter notion helps explain a key aspect of the continuing GOP enthrallment to Trump’s 2020 pathologies — the refusal of some GOP leaders to state unequivocally that he lost; the sham “audits” in numerous states; the trend in GOP candidates running on an openly declared vow to subvert future losses; and the relentless whitewashing of Jan. 6.

Indeed, Republicans themselves have basically copped to this motive. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) has suggested Republicans should mute criticism of Trump’s attacks on democracy because the GOP “can’t grow” without him, meaning siding with those attacks at a minimum is essential to keeping Trump voters in the GOP coalition.

Republicans in Pennsylvania, a hotbed of Trump fealty, have tacitly acknowledged this as well. And CNN reports that House Republicans are widely signaling that they would support a Trump 2024 reelection bid while propagandizing about Jan. 6 in their strongest terms yet.

This is at bottom an extraordinary display of naked cynicism: They are plainly doing this to keep Trump voters engaged for next year’s midterm elections. No doubt they would bow down and kiss Trump’s feet if he did run, but the immediate motive is crassly instrumental, and confirms Graham’s core insight as an operative one.

In Virginia, to be sure, Republicans are keeping the base energized in other ways. They’re demagoguing about critical race theory, which stokes White grievance and plays on parental anxieties about kids returning to school amid covid-19. Youngkin has been feeding anti-vaccine, anti-mask derangement as well.

But the idea that Democratic and liberal election victories are inherently illegitimate — that when Trump and GOP voters find themselves in the minority coalition, it constitutes a profound injustice that must be subject to nullification — is clearly seen as playing an increasing role in keeping them politically engaged.

Trump’s latest eruption shows, in reverse, that he understands this perfectly well. But what does the enthusiastic willingness of GOP leaders to exploit this derangement to their advantage say about the contempt they have for their own voters?