“Lord, Lord, how this world is given to lying!”

—“Henry IV,” Part 1, Act 5

For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing. For the party’s elected leaders, accepting the clear result of a fair election is to be a rogue Republican like the indomitable Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming—a target for Trump’s anger, public censure and primary threats.

Nothing about this is normal. The GOP is increasingly defined not by its shared beliefs but by its shared delusions. To be a loyal Republican, one must be either a sucker or a liar. And because this defining falsehood is so obviously and laughably false, we can safely assume that most Republican leaders who embrace it fall into the second category. Knowingly repeating a lie—an act of immorality—is now the evidence of Republican fidelity.

This kind of determined mendacity requires rolling out the big guns. Said the prophet Isaiah: “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil.”

Moral clarity against lying is sometimes made harder by our loose application of the term. When public figures disagree with you in their analyses of tax policy, or welfare spending or Social Security reform, they’re generally not lying. They’re disagreeing. When it’s revealed that someone was previously wrong about an issue—even on a grave matter of national security—it doesn’t mean he or she was lying all along. It means that person was wrong.

“To preserve the meaning of words,” said Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., “is the first responsibility of liberalism.” Precisely because principled disagreement is essential in a democracy, we can’t attribute every difference to deception. This form of false witness is a tool of polarization and a method of dehumanization.

It’s important to keep perspective about the stakes of any given lie. There is reason the English language has so many words to describe the shades of culpability in a deception. You can equivocate or dissemble or palter or mislead or prevaricate or fib or perjure. There are mortal lies and venial lies, cruel lies and merciful lies. Context matters.

Speaking of perjury, almost any GOP response to charges of deception will eventually include the words “Bill Clinton.” In a time of rampant whataboutism, Republicans often point out that Clinton was a spectacular liar defended by his party. What they fail to acknowledge is that many elected Democrats criticized his lying under oath, even as they opposed his impeachment. Clinton was not insisting his supporters share in his immorality to show their loyalty (though that might have had some appeal when it came to other human failures).

The context for Trump’s lies has been particularly damning. When Trump falsely asserted that Barack Obama was born in Africa and thus illegitimate as president, it was permission for racism. When he claimed he saw Muslims in New Jersey celebrating on Sept. 11, 2001, it was a vicious lie to feed a prejudice.

But the lie of a stolen election is the foundational falsehood of a political worldview. Believing it requires Trump’s followers to affirm the existence of a nationwide plot against him and his supporters—a plot led by ruthless Democrats and traitorous Republicans, and ignored or endorsed by useless courts and a complicit media. The claim’s plausibility is not the point. Does it really make sense that Attorney General William P. Barr, who found no evidence of election fraud that could have changed the result, was in on the plot? Were the conservative judges Trump appointed who dismissed his rubbish lawsuits really out to get him?

Such considerations don’t seem to matter. In the 1930s and ’40s, was it plausible that the democratic leaders of Weimar Germany had stabbed their own country in the back and betrayed its people? Or that an international conspiracy of powerful Jews was controlling world events?

Trump’s lie is not the moral equivalent of fascist propaganda. But it serves the same political function. A founding lie is intended to remove followers from the messy world of facts and evidence. It is designed to replace critical judgment with personal loyalty. It is supposed to encourage distrust of every source of social authority opposed to the leader’s shifting will.

The people who accepted this political mythology and stormed the Capitol were not lying about their views. They seemed quite sincere. And who knows what Trump really thinks? When a congenital liar surrounds himself with sycophantic liars, he can easily lose radio contact with reality.

No, it is the elected Republicans who are lying with open eyes, out of fear or cynicism, who have the most to atone for. With the health of U.S. democracy at stake, their excuses are disgraceful.

Michael Gerson’s email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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