The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans have a choice: They can dump the kooks.

Republican candidates for Arizona governor Kari Lake (right) and Scott Neely shake hands before a PBS televised debate in Phoenix on June 29. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
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The mainstream media insist on treating the Republican Party as a normal party, routinely declining to press them on their party’s embrace of violence, lies and conspiracy theories. President Biden only gingerly dubs GOP proposals “ultra MAGA,” as if the problem were merely some absurdist policy ideas (e.g., taxing poor people). Neither Biden nor the media get to the nub of the problem.

Let’s be blunt: A great many Republican candidates are bonkers. Or they are pretending to be.

This includes an assortment of primary challengers to Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). Her main opponent, Harriet Hageman, cited in their recent debate the debunked film “2000 Mules” to question drop boxes and insisted the Jan. 6 insurrectionists were punished for “exercising their First Amendment rights.” The other Republican contenders echoed her lies.

The Wyoming candidates are not alone. GOP candidates for Arizona governor must have taken one look at their Wyoming colleagues and concluded, “You want crazy? We’ll give you crazy.” They, too, spewed irrational theories at their recent debate, with Republican favorite Kari Lake also repeating the lie about “mules” trafficking ballots. Those outside the cult of former president Donald Trump may find it unimaginable that Arizonans would entrust these people with a public office, let alone the governorship.

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Meanwhile, in an appearance on CNN on Sunday, Republican South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem refused to say that Trump, who sent an armed mob up to the Capitol, had any responsibility for the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Fellow Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) looked on aghast. “I’m blown away,” he said. “It’s like ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers.’ This is not the Kristi Noem I served with.”

And the insane lies coming from Republicans are not only about Trump. The active purveyors of the “big lie,” the vaccine deniers, the replacement theory provocateurs and the crowd that spun conspiracy theories about Ukraine when Trump was caught extorting its president are all either delusional or willing to pretend so. They are either hopelessly gullible or infinitely cynical.

Consider the six congressional Republicans who reportedly sought pardons after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Or Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), who carried Russian disinformation and was caught up in the coup attempt. Or Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who retracted his observation that Jan. 6 was a “terrorist attack” to avoid the ire of the MAGA base. Or the Republican National Committee, which declared violence on Jan. 6 to be “legitimate political discourse.” Such figures are unfit for office since they cannot grasp reality and defend the Constitution from foreign and domestic enemies.

How do we handle people so lacking in honesty or shame? Cheney promised during her debate, “I won’t say something that I know is wrong simply to earn the votes of people.” Perhaps she should have spelled it out: The other people on this stage are lying, or they cannot tell the difference between truth and lies.

The corollary to the nuttery is that spineless GOP leaders, such as House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), who once condemned the Jan. 6 attack and now evade questions about it, certainly know their defense of Trump rests on a foundation of lies. But with no capacity or desire to control the kooks, they are riding the wave of insanity to power. They are enablers and hence unfit themselves.

The result of this mass dishonesty has been the thorough radicalization of the GOP. As Cheney said in an interview with ABC News’s Jonathan Karl on Sunday: “Millions of people, millions of Republicans have been betrayed by Donald Trump. And that is a really painful thing for people to recognize and to admit, but it’s absolutely the case. And they’ve been betrayed by him, by the ‘big lie,’ and by — by what he continues to do and say to tear apart our country and tear apart our party. And I think we have to reject that.”

No doubt some GOP voters don’t believe the lies either, but they like tax cuts or forced-birth laws or just hate Democrats so much they would entrust nuclear codes to an unstable person such as Trump. The true believers may be beyond reach, but the voters who went along with Trump and the MAGA GOP for these reasons might reconsider the choices before them.

Democracy defenders pray that the spectacle of unhinged Republicans competing for office might shake some ordinary Republicans out of their stupor. They are not obligated to defend these candidates’ lunacy or to excuse the Jan. 6 insurrection. They can pursue policy outcomes they like without toting the MAGA baggage. Republican voters who know the MAGA pols imperil our democracy might even vote for moderate Democrats (oh, yes!), especially for offices responsible for election administration.

Still-reachable Republican voters — and the disengaged independents — might listen to the warnings from non-MAGA Republicans and Democrats. These voters need not renounce their past support for Trump; they just need to close the door on the era of crackpottery.