How does a lie become respectable?

Bit by bit, step by step, cowardly dodge by cowardly dodge.

Case in point: The Japan-America Society of Washington, D.C., inviting Republican Sen. Bill Hagerty (Tenn.) to its annual gala this week as featured guest and honorary chairman.

What, you ask, could that little bit of inconsequential politesse have to do with Donald Trump’s undermining of democracy? Well, bear with me for a moment.

Hagerty, a Tennessee businessman, was Trump’s ambassador to Japan and then returned to seek the seat of retiring Sen. Lamar Alexander, who backed him enthusiastically.

Alexander was such a fervent supporter, in fact, that whenever he was silent in the face of some Trump depredation, the explanation I heard was the same: “Lamar doesn’t want to do anything to make Hagerty’s life more difficult on the campaign trail.” Alexander believed that Hagerty would be a credit to the Senate long after Trump was gone.

But Trump is not, really, gone, and Hagerty, to the surprise of many, has emerged as one of his most loyal acolytes — and one of the most complicit in questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election.

As late as Jan. 2, Hagerty was vowing, along with fellow Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn, to vote in the Senate not to recognize Joe Biden’s victory in the electoral college. They said they had “concluded without any reservation that we will stand against tainted electoral results from the recent Presidential election.”

The Jan. 6 riot momentarily shook Hagerty’s Trumpian resolve. “What is happening at the U.S. Capitol right now is not peaceful, this is violence,” he said on Twitter. “I condemn it in the strongest terms. We are a nation of laws and this must stop.” When the Senate was able to resume business, he and Blackburn both voted to certify the electoral results after all.

He’s been trying to crawl back into Trump’s good graces ever since, including by sponsoring the Protect Electoral College Act, which calls for the Government Accountability Office to audit the use of absentee ballots in 2020.

“While some say we should simply move on, if we ignore this as if the 2020 election was normal, we risk disenfranchising the American voter,” Hagerty wrote in March. “If we do nothing, then nothing will change, and we increase the odds this will happen again.”

As long as Democrats maintain their Senate majority, Hagerty’s bill will not advance. But it serves to buttress Trump’s ongoing war on American democracy, reinforcing the toxically deluded view of many Republican voters that Biden was not legitimately elected — and setting the table for even more dangerous assaults on the process if Republicans lose elections in 2022 and 2024.

The Japan-America Society celebrates the friendship between the world’s oldest democracy and Asia’s oldest democracy. I asked Ryan B. Shaffer, society president, whether a willingness to acknowledge the legitimacy of elections, win or lose, shouldn’t be a minimum requirement for becoming an honorary chairman.

“The society has a policy of inviting the returning U.S. ambassador to serve as an Honorary Chairman,” he told me in an email. “This is an invitation that the Society has presented to every returning US ambassador to Japan in living memory. We’re proud of our non-partisan role advancing strong people to people ties between the United States and Japan.”

I get that. There’s an argument to be made that, at times of intense partisanship, it’s more valuable than ever that people from across the spectrum can encounter each other in nonpartisan arenas such as the Japan-America Society.

Certainly the harm of the society’s invitation is less than the damage inflicted on democracy when Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) welcomes Trump’s embrace at a campaign rally, or when House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) self-brainwashes to start denying the truth of Jan. 6 — or when Hagerty himself, even though he doesn’t have to face the voters again for six years, nonetheless feels the need to indulge Trump’s lie.

Really, only a few people will even notice: former residents of Japan (I’m one), people who do business in both countries, the small but fervent tribe devoted to U.S.-Japan understanding. But, in a way, that’s the point. By the accumulation of uncounted such little-noticed decisions, Trump’s lie is legitimized and an essential pillar of democracy is eroded: that the loser recognizes the winner, knowing another election opportunity will come around.

Just imagine the impact it might have had if the society had thanked Hagerty for his service and then said, out loud, that it would welcome him as honorary chairman — as soon as Hagerty honored that fundamental tenet of American, and Japanese, democracy.