A cynical ploy like Hawley and Cruz’s looks harmless. Until it isn’t.

Fake outrage — over election-fraud lies and other supposed offenses — has real consequences.

Washington generally shrugs at cynical theatrical gestures like the GOP Senate effort, led by Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), to object to the election results. Politicians see them as useful and harmless. Consider the regular news releases from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) making National Science Foundation projects sound ridiculous, or the House of Representatives’ decision in 2003 to have its cafeteria call french fries “freedom fries.” Wednesday’s episode in the Senate at first had the appearance of a dinner theater murder mystery in which the key suspects (Democratic operatives; sinister manufacturers of voting machines; the late Hugo Chávez) had been fingered by pro-Trump lawyers.

But this time, the prop revolvers were loaded with live bullets, and half the audience thought the drama was real. Hawley’s decision to challenge the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory transformed the process into a farce, in which Cruz and other Republican senators promised to outdo one another’s displays of loyalty to President Trump — until a mob of Trump supporters invaded the Capitol. Their gambit was too jaundiced even for Mitch McConnell (whose biographer dubbed him “The Cynic”); the majority leader exhorted senators to respect the people’s choice and not rely on others to do the right thing.

McConnell was right. The two main protagonists knew they were playacting. Hawley and Cruz graduated from top universities and law schools and clerkships. They know what the Constitution says and how elections work. Even before Wednesday, they understood that their maneuvers wouldn’t actually overturn the 2020 results, so there would be no real consequences. (As a senior Republican said of the president’s election fraud fantasies in November, “What is the downside for humoring him?”) Supposedly, the institutions of American democracy would hold, and they’d get to put on a show to further their presidential ambitions by encouraging a popular delusion on the right.

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