Off and on for 25 years, I participated in National Review cruises as a speaker. I met lots of wonderful people who were intelligent, curious, and great company — but there were always cranks and conspiracy theorists, too. Once, during the Clinton administration, people at my dinner table were repeating the story that Hillary Clinton had killed Vince Foster. I choked down my bite of chicken Kiev and responded, as equably as possible, "Well, for that to be true, she would also have had to transport his body to Fort Marcy Park without the Secret Service or anyone else noticing." Several people at the table blinked back at me. Yeah? So?
In later years, I noticed that cruisers weren't citing mainstream publications for their information. They were getting their news from email lists and subscription newsletters.
There's a theory that people have rallied around President Donald Trump and alternative news sources because they feel disrespected by the mainstream, liberal-leaning press. There is some truth in this, but my experience with conservatives makes me skeptical of that as a complete explanation. Sure, the urban/rural divide is real — and not limited to the United States — but resentment of elites has always been with us. From suspicion of the First Bank of the United States among the Jeffersonians to the populist movement of the 1890s, "coastal elites" have always been despised by some. But it didn't drive people into abject lunacy in the past, or at least not on the scale we see today.
A theme that unified these conspiracy-minded people was a sense of superiority — not inferiority. They felt that they had access to the hidden truth that the deluded masses didn't understand. It is a key feature of Rush Limbaugh's appeal. He has frequently suggested that he understands that ugly reality beneath the polite fictions.
After decades of this stuff, and with an enormous turbocharge from Trump, the conspiracists are in the driver's seat of the Republican Party. This is profoundly worrying, because, let's face it: They've suspended their critical faculties. Trump spent months saying mail-in ballots were ripe for fraud. He openly declared that he would not accept the legitimacy of any election he were to lose. He pressured friendly state legislatures, like Pennsylvania's, not to count mailed-in ballots until Election Day so that he could weave a story of victory if he were to do well with in-person voting on election night, knowing that the count for mailed-in ballots would take longer.
Now consider the average Republican voter. If anyone of his or her personal acquaintance were to say about an upcoming company baseball game that the refs are all corrupt and the other team always cheats, and then, after losing the game, claim that it was all rigged, the voter would roll his or her eyes and say, "That guy is a little cracked."
But the normal, ordinary evaluations of character and credibility are suspended in Trump's case.
His legal challenges to the election results have been so absurd that if they'd been filed by anyone other than the president of the United States, they might have been thrown out as "frivolous." His lawyers have lost or withdrawn more than 50 suits they've filed — and not just lost but lost with blistering smackdowns from the judges, including those appointed by Trump. "Voters, not lawyers, choose the president," wrote Stephanos Bibas, a judge for the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
In case you missed it, the Republican Party of Arizona is apparently actually asking Republicans to "fight and die" for Trump's stolen-election lie. Retweeting Trumpist Ali Alexander, who said, "I am willing to give my life for this fight," the Arizona GOP replied: "He is. Are you?" (The account has since deleted the tweets.)
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn is calling for a military coup. One of the president's lawyers suggested that an official who oversaw election cybersecurity be shot at dawn.
Even more disturbing than the crackpot statements of hardcore cultists are the Republican elected officials who are behaving like automatons stamped out of a brain removal factory. The Washington Post contacted all of the Republicans serving in the House and Senate to ask who won the election. Two said Trump. Twenty-seven said Joe Biden. And 88 percent declined to say. Sen. Ted Cruz, Mr. "Constitutional Conservative," volunteered to argue Trump's utterly fraudulent stolen-election case before the Supreme Court. The court has other ideas.
And then there are the polls showing that shocking numbers of rank-and-file Republicans are buying this big lie. A YouGov/Economist poll found that 73 percent of Republicans have little or no confidence that the election was conducted fairly. A Morning Consult/Politico survey found that 67 percent of Republicans say the election was probably or definitely not free and fair. And a Monmouth University poll found 76 percent of Republicans are "not too confident" or "not at all confident" that the 2020 election was conducted fairly and accurately. Sixty-four Republican members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives have signed a letter asking members of Congress to throw out Pennsylvania's slate of electors.
We have now reached the stage where it isn't just that Republicans fail to rebuke Trump and are frightened into silence by fear of the base; it's that a critical mass of the Republican Party has adopted Trump's disordered personality for its own. The Republican Party is, in this iteration, a danger to American democracy. Our urgent task is — to borrow a phrase — to repeal and replace it.
Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the Beg to Differ podcast. Her most recent book is Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.