As long as there have been politicians, they have tailored their messages to the audience in front of them: Assure the rich donors that their wealth will be protected, tell the regular folk that they’ll fight the power, convince the Society of Left-Handed Haberdashers that they’re passionate about the issue of tariffs on imported felt.

But Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.) set some kind of speed record for two-facedness on Sunday. First she went on Fox News to belittle vaccinations and tout “natural immunity” as the better alternative — i.e., getting a disease that has already killed nearly 800,000 Americans — and then on the same day she went on CNN to say “I have been a proponent of vaccinations.”

It might seem inconsequential, the kind of thing that makes people cynical about politicians. But it’s a perfect example of how even Republican officials who are considered the sensible ones — as Mace is — play a game that maintains their legitimacy while allowing dangerous lunacy to flourish in their party.

Here’s how it works:

  1. Supposedly sane Republicans like Mace appear on mainstream media to deliver an “I support vaccines, but…” message meant to sound reasonable even as it attacks mandates, vilifies public health officials and blames any covid-related problem on President Biden.
  2. More conservative Republican officials promote and amplify every loony pandemic-related idea that bubbles up through the far-right fever swamps.
  3. Conservative media work tirelessly to keep the issue politicized and discourage people from getting vaccinated, prolonging the pandemic.

The role of politicians like Mace is to maintain the idea that when having discussions about the pandemic we should continue to treat Republicans as legitimate interlocutors who have something worthwhile to contribute, rather than as representatives of a party that is actively working to undermine our ability to defeat the pandemic.

For instance, it’s only been a few days since news of the omicron variant broke, but Republicans and conservative media are propagating the utterly unhinged idea that this variant does not in fact exist, but is some kind of hoax cooked up by Democrats:

If your uncle said at Thanksgiving that the omicron variant was cooked up by the Democratic Party — in a conspiracy that apparently includes dozens of foreign governments — to persuade states to expand absentee ballots in the 2022 elections, you’d call a family meeting to discuss whether a mental health intervention might be warranted. Or maybe you’d put it down to the fact that he had four glasses of whiskey before dinner. Either way, your uncle isn’t a member of Congress, so it’s not as big a deal.

But Ronny Jackson is. Meanwhile, Kari Lake, whom Trump has endorsed in the race for governor of Arizona and who leads the primary there in at least one poll, tweeted that “They are going to try and sell us new ‘Variants’ for the rest of our lives if we don’t tell them to shove it.”

If you’re unfamiliar with conservative media this might seem bizarre, even nonsensical. After all, if Democrats have such control over the pandemic, wouldn’t they want to simply put an end to it so the electorate would thank Biden for allowing us to resume normal life?

But that’s not how this particular conspiracy theory works. It says that Democrats are so determined to impose new lockdowns to create totalitarian control over every American’s life that they want the pandemic to go on forever. That’s why “you can count on a variant about every October, every two years," as “Fox & Friends” claims.

The idea that the variant is a hoax is echoed by right-wing social media personalities, while networks such as Fox and OAN continue to tell viewers that vaccines don’t work and are dangerous or even deadly.

So rather than the emergence of the omicron variant providing yet another reason everyone should get vaccinated as soon as possible, they’re using it to convince people of just the opposite, that it’s a reason why you shouldn’t get vaccinated.

Yes, it’s crazy. But just as supposedly mainstream Republicans skate past their party’s ongoing attack on democracy and its continued lie about 2020 by saying they just want to make sure elections are free of fraud, they’re brought on news outlets such as CNN where they say almost the right things about the pandemic, then hop over to the Fox studios to spread misinformation and prop up conspiracy theories.

But unlike in earlier times, we can all see it happening. We don’t need a spy taking notes at an unnoticed speech or a closed-door gathering to discover that politicians are talking out of both sides of their mouths. It’s right there on TV and social media.

So if news organizations are going to interview officials such as Mace, they should demand right from the outset that they address the lunatic claims being made in their party. Do they think the new covid variant is a Democratic hoax to impose totalitarian tyranny? Do they think vaccines are killing thousands of people? If they can’t say no, then they shouldn’t be given a platform to pretend they aren’t aiding and abetting their party’s pernicious madness.