Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) didn't know he was talking to an undercover journalist last weekend when he expounded at some length on the results of the 2020 presidential election. What he made obvious in that conversation, though, was the way in which his party is using false claims of election fraud to widely diverging ends.

The video, recorded by Lauren Windsor, was filmed at an event near Milwaukee on Sunday. In it, Windsor — not dissuading Johnson from assuming that she’s a supportive voter — asks the senator about the results of the election in the state, which President Biden won by about 21,000 votes. She presses him on the point: Didn’t he think there was something wonky about what happened? What about that late-night “dump” of ballots that supporters of former president Donald Trump have so frequently emphasized?

Johnson waved it away.

“There’s nothing obviously skewed about the results,” he said, pointing to the fact that other Republican candidates at the state level did slightly better than the then-incumbent president. “He didn’t get 51,000 votes that other Republicans got,” Johnson said, “and that’s why he lost.”

This is right both in its specifics and in its implications. Trump supporters have for a long time separated out the presidential race from every other contest, accepting Republican victories in House and state races as legitimate while insisting that something weird happened with Trump’s race. At times, there have been efforts to explain this — such as: maybe Democrats were so savvy that they masked their rampant fraud by allowing Republicans to win other races — but normally it’s just ignored. A look at the county-level data in Wisconsin makes clear that there was nothing wonky about what happened in the state. Things shifted a bit from 2016, uniformly, and that turned a narrow Trump win five years ago into a narrow Trump loss.

This flash of rationality, however unintentionally offered, has no hope of illuminating the dark cave of conspiracy. How long has it been now that we’ve been promised irrefutable proof of fraud? How many times have deadlines come and gone? How often have isolated little blips been presented as conclusive proof that something sketchy happened, only for them to amount to nothing and be forgotten for whatever comes next on the conveyor belt?

That’s a good analogy, really, the conveyor belt scene from “I Love Lucy” — a scene that is familiar to many Americans now mostly as a metaphor and not as a cherished memory from watching the show. Lucy and her friend Ethel are tasked with wrapping chocolates passing by on a conveyor belt. In short order, the speed of the belt increases, and Lucy and Ethel are overwhelmed, incapable of completing the task at hand. Chocolates whip past, unwrapped. In this scenario, they are fact-checkers.

At this top level of conspiracy theorizing, there’s no real need to prove anything. Fraud is assumed, and the countless fraud-like shadows that are identified by Trump and his allies are simply casual reinforcements of the broader theme, like a “haunted house” in which every explainable creak nonetheless gets to the main point.

Trump keeps promising that the evidence is imminent, over and over and over — for 300 days and counting — and the failure of that evidence to emerge has never seemed to cause him much distress. Not that this is a new tactic for the former president.

For others in his orbit, investing money or energy in proving his unprovable claims offers its own utility. For Mike Lindell, who shifted from selling pillows to selling conspiracy theories, the urgent need to prove that fraud occurred is probably as much about proving to himself that he wasn’t conned as anything. (His promise to reveal definitive proof of fraud at an event last month came and went without anything resembling proof emerging, but he remains undeterred.)

For others, there’s fundraising value in keeping up the fight. The endless “audit” of results in Arizona’s Maricopa County has spurred millions in contributions and, as with Lindell, a recurring promise that proof is coming soon. True the Vote, a group that has long claimed to be uprooting voter fraud, has launched a new fundraising push focused on a claim that it obtained scads of cellphone location data allowing it to identify ballot-box stuffers — an assertion that should be treated as credible only once said evidence is offered. (A lawsuit filed against True the Vote by a donor, who was frustrated that the millions of dollars he had contributed didn’t yield any proof of fraud, was dismissed in April.)

There’s another motivation at play here, too. Any Trump supporter who finds proof of fraudulent votes cast is pretty much guaranteed at least one Fox News interview and scads of celebratory social media posts — not to mention a potential “attaboy” from Trump. There’s a community of people who earnestly believe Trump’s eternally dishonest presentations about fraud and want to prove it, envisioning a moment in which they’re the amateur sleuths who deliver the goods. This is an impetus of its own.

Johnson doesn’t believe any of that, at least not in Wisconsin. But he, being an elected Republican senator, nonetheless thinks that there should be an “audit” of the results in his state. Why? To draw negative scrutiny on electoral processes that increased turnout.

He said this to Windsor, too, in a separate video that’s attracted less attention. He didn’t endorse an Arizona-style “audit,” specifically, but did see value in reviewing votes. But he also thought that his side “should be focusing on the Wisconsin Elections Commission, the balloting in the park, the curing of the ballots, what [Facebook CEO Mark] Zuckerberg did, central counting in Milwaukee.”

Included in that list is an event at which ballots were collected at city parks and investments by a group focused on bolstering election bureaus that had received substantial contributions from Zuckerberg. Johnson, in other words, wants to expand the boundaries of scrutiny to include things that may simply have been factors in Trump’s loss.

This is the play for mainstream Republicans and has been since Trump’s loss became apparent: use Trump’s fraud claims to argue for broader systemic changes that will probably advantage the party. This has been the play for a long time, in fact, using decades of unfounded allegations about fraud to pass laws that often have the effect of tamping down Democratic turnout. With so much attention focused on fraud — and a Republican base clamoring for action — GOP legislators across the country have used the moment to pass laws ostensibly about election security but which can be expected to often also decrease the number of Democratic voters.

After an attempted blockade by Texas Democrats collapsed in recent weeks, the state’s legislature passed new voting restrictions in a special session this week. Among other changes, it scales back voting hours, limits the distribution of mail-in ballot applications and increases the ability of partisan observers to monitor — and some fear, intimidate — voters. There has been no evidence of any significant fraud in the state, despite the tens of thousands of hours spent searching by the office of the state’s Republican attorney general, but the haunted-house atmosphere of fraud provided enormous political cover for the legislation (even as most Texans didn’t buy it).

“Protecting the integrity of our elections is critical in the state of Texas, which is why I made election integrity an emergency item during the 87th Legislative Session,” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said in a statement after the legislation passed. "Senate Bill 1 will solidify trust and confidence in the outcome of our elections by making it easier to vote and harder to cheat. I look forward to signing Senate Bill 1 into law, ensuring election integrity in Texas.”

This is the sort of thing Johnson was advocating.

Well, not entirely. Ron Johnson is still Ron Johnson, so he also assured Windsor that he had “talked to the Sidney Powells and the Russ Ramslands” — referring to a lawyer recently excoriated by a federal judge for promoting debunked fraud claims and to a wealthy donor who’s been at the center of the fraud claims for years. Johnson has long sat comfortably on the boundary of the establishment and the fringe, and this moment is no different.

What is different now is that the fringe is big and loud enough not only to give legislators a public rationale for scaling back voting access but to actually pose a believable primary threat to Republican officials. That’s one irony here: that fear of losing a primary is contributing to changes that will probably make it easier to win the general.

There is no evidence of rampant fraud and no evidence that voting laws in states have holes that are being criminally exploited — no matter what Trump says and no matter what those fundraising on the idea might argue. But there are close contests in swing states that might be affected by changing the rules and plenty of cover to do so. So here we are.