“It was stolen,” said conservative luminary William Bennett on a recent podcast. “The election was stolen.”

In a Dec. 10 open letter, a group of conservative stalwarts — including activist Gary Bauer, former senator and former president of the Heritage Foundation James DeMint, and head of the Family Research Council Tony Perkins — alleged that “President Donald J. Trump is the lawful winner of the presidential election.” They called on state legislators in battleground states to “appoint clean slates of electors to the Electoral College to support President Trump” and urged the House and Senate to reject competing slates reflecting the actual vote.

For some of us, watching prominent conservatives turn against rationality and democracy is not just disappointing; it is disorienting.

As a youth in the 1980s and 1990s, I could not accept the hardest-edged versions of the conservative tradition. Yet when leaders such as Bauer, DeMint and Perkins claimed to believe in ordered liberty, protected by democracy and the rule of law, I did not doubt them. I thought, by their own lights, they were people of conviction. And this was particularly true of Bennett, whom I viewed with awe. No one, I felt, better combined conservative reasoning with humane learning.

Much of what I believed is now suspect. Ideological stars that once seemed fixed to me have shifted, leaving an unfamiliar sky.

The intellectual bankruptcy and moral hypocrisy of many conservative leaders is stunning. People who claimed to favor limited government now applaud Trump’s use of the executive branch to undermine an election. A similar attempt by Barack Obama would have brought comparisons to Fidel Castro. People who talked endlessly about respecting the Constitution affirm absurd slanders against the constitutional order. People who claimed to be patriots now spread false claims about their country’s fundamental corruption. People who talked of honoring the rule of law now jerk and gyrate according to the whims of a lawless leader.

These conservative leaders no longer deserve the assumption of sincerity. They are spreading conspiratorial lies so unlikely and irrational, they must know them to be lies. But their motive remains a matter of debate.

Post Senior Producer Kate Woodsome talks to Americans who voted for Trump, or simply don't feel like denouncing him, about why they feel wrongly scorned. (The Washington Post)

Explanation No. 1: Occam’s razor might indicate simple cynicism. Perhaps the assertion of obvious falsehoods about the election has become an entry-level commitment of conservative relevance. Perhaps the base has become so disconnected from reality that sanity is viewed as a betrayal. Perhaps affirming the simple truth would result in declining fundraising, listenership and standing within the conservative community.

This fear is understandable but hardly admirable. It is the main justification of political cowards throughout history. How could the world survive, the coward calculates, without my influence? And if maintaining that influence requires a few ethical compromises, isn’t the greater good really served?

This is not just a failure in judgment; it indicates an absence of character. And the harm is compounded because conservative leaders are modeling political ethics for the next generation. Their shamelessness is likely to be replicated.

Explanation No. 2: Maybe these conservative leaders were always committed to the triumph of their views, but not to the values of democracy. Perhaps their main concern was the achievement of certain outcomes — the appointment of conservative judges, restrictions on abortion — and not the application of democratic procedures. If a democratic leader achieves their moral goals, that is fine with them. If it takes a soft authoritarian, that is fine as well.

The rebuttal here is practical: Rules that are bent in your favor can eventually be bent to your detriment. Also moral: Democratic norms are not mere procedures; they reflect a belief in the intrinsic and equal value of human lives. And patriotic: Such arguments are, by definition, unconstitutional and therefore un-American.

Explanation No. 3: Perhaps these conservative leaders view democracy as a secondary concern, compared with the broader crisis of Western civilization. Maybe resisting the impending arrival of cultural and economic Marxism requires conservatives to use whatever means are necessary — including the invalidation of a valid election.

This justification — “by any means necessary” — may be the least conservative arrangement of letters in the English language. Traditional conservatives have regarded such ideas as the path to tyranny, the highway to the guillotine. This approach assumes an emergency that does not actually exist. Are the barbarian hordes really arriving under the brutal, pitiless direction of . . . Joe Biden? Will the rescue of civilization from decadence really be accomplished under the courageous moral leadership of . . . Donald Trump?

Conservatism is supposed to produce the best of citizens — lawful, loyal and respectful of the Constitution. In some quarters, it is now producing the worst — fractious, resentful and cynical. A large portion of the responsibility rests on conservative leaders, who have sold their convictions cheap.

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