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As Trump’s big lie of a stolen election began ricocheting across America in November 2020, Arizona’s Republican attorney general Mark Brnovich (pronounced “Burn-O-Vich”) spoke out forcefully on national television. He told the public that Donald Trump was projected to lose the swing state, and “no facts” suggested otherwise. (At the time I thought to myself “good for him. Maybe more Republican attorneys general will show some spine.”)

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That was then. Recently, Brnovich — now running for Senate in Arizona — came onto Stephen Bannon’s far-right podcast with the opposite message: Brnovich said he was “investigating” the 2020 vote and had “serious concerns.” He went on: “It’s frustrating for all of us, because I think we all know what happened in 2020,” without explaining what he meant by “what happened.” (Bannon titled the podcast segment “AZ AG On Interim Report On Stealing The 2020 Election.”)

It would be bad enough were Brnovich the exception. But he exemplifies what’s happened to the GOP over the last 19 months. Republican politicians who initially told the truth have since then embraced Trump’s big lie in order to gain Trump’s favor (or avoid his wrath) in their 2022 races. (Brnovich launched his “review” of the 2020 vote in Arizona in response to a widely-ridiculed “audit” commissioned by Arizona GOP lawmakers.)

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It’s the same story with J.D. Vance, Republican candidate for the Senate from Ohio, who initially told the truth about the 2020 election but then pushed Trump’s lie to curry favor with Trump — and was rewarded last week with Trump’s endorsement and $10 million in campaign funds from right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel.

It’s the same with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who held on to his scruples for a few minutes after the January 6 insurrection — when he publicly criticized Trump and told House colleagues he’d urge Trump to resign — but then promptly did a one-hundred-eighty and traveled to Mar-a-Lago to display his total loyalty to Trump, even bestowing on his madness a jar of his favorite pink- and red-flavored Starbursts. (McCarthy has denied ever telling his colleagues he’d urge Trump to resign but was caught doing just this).

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And the same for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who initially condemned Trump and now won’t utter a negative word.

Up and down the ranks of the Republican Party, the new litmus test for gaining dollars, votes, and the coveted Trump Endorsement is to embrace the big lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. For the rest of us — and for posterity — it should be a negative litmus test for politicians who place ambition over principle, narcissism over duty, and cowardice over conscience.

How are Republican voters ever to know the truth when these toadies, sycophants, and unprincipled pawns repeat and amplify Trump’s big lie? Fully 85 percent of Republicans now believe it (35 percent of Americans overall believe it).

The Republican Party now stands for little more than the big lie — not for fiscal prudence or smaller government or stronger defense, not for state’s rights or religious freedom or even anti-abortion, but for a pernicious deception. How can what was once a noble party — the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt — descend to such putrid depths, sowing distrust in our electoral system and in the peaceful transition of power that’s at the heart of democracy?

The real question — more in the realm of social psychology than political science — is how one profoundly sick, pathologically narcissistic man, who is obsessed with never losing, has been able to impose his narcissistic obsession on one of America’s two political parties? Which raises an even more troubling question: How can our democracy ever function when almost all Republican politicians are willing to sell out their oaths to the United States Constitution in order to kiss the derrière of this demented man? Why are no more than a handful of Republican politicians, such as Rep. Liz Cheney, willing stand up to this monstrosity?

This is how fascism begins.