Any connoisseur of right-wing nuttiness can attest: It doesn't get any weirder than the conspiracy theory carnival that is the Arizona vote "audit" of the 2020 election being conducted in Maricopa County.
The audit — which was ordered by Republican state senators in order to please their master, Donald Trump — has no legal impact and can't change the results of the election, no matter what Trump likes to insinuate to his followers. Joe Biden won that county by over 45,000 votes, the kind of margin that any legitimate recount effort would never have a chance of closing since recount efforts rarely find more than a handful of ballots that were wrongly counted in the first place.
But, of course, this is not a legitimate recount.
As the New York Times reported Friday morning, it "is perhaps the most off-the-rails episode in the Republican Party's escalating effort to support former President Donald J. Trump's lie that he won the election." Ballots are "receiving microscope and ultraviolet-light examinations, apparently to address unfounded claims that fraudulent ballots contained watermarks that were visible under UV light" and "[u]ntrained citizens are trying to find traces of bamboo on last year's ballots, seemingly trying to prove a conspiracy theory that the election was tainted by fake votes from Asia."
The whole thing is like trying to bake a cake off a recipe, but replacing the sugar and butter with fairy dust and leprechaun snot, and then throwing it at the sun instead of putting it in the oven to bake it.
Katie Hobbs, Arizona's secretary of state, finally got fed up this week and sent a letter on Wednesday to the liaison to the Senate's audit, warning him, "Though conspiracy theorists are undoubtedly cheering on these types of inspections — and perhaps providing financial support because of their use — they do little other than further marginalize the professionalism and intent of this 'audit.'"
All of that is true, of course, but here's the darkest part: It's all by design.
The conspiracy theories, the sloppily handled ballots, the general disregard for security, facts, or even a modicum of fairness in the process? It's all deliberate. This entire process is a dramatic production, put on for Trump and the GOP base, to illustrate how easy it would be to steal elections if their people could just gain control over state elections boards.
Call it coup theater.
It's about ginning up enthusiasm for the GOP's continued efforts to undermine democracy and install the white conservative minority into power through cheating. It's about reinforcing the Republican Party's belief that they are entitled to rule, no matter how many Americans reject them at the polls. If manipulating ballots and conspiracy theories are required to get there, then so be it. That's why Republicans aren't embarrassed at how silly this entire fake audit is. It's meant to be ridiculous, precisely because the more ridiculous it is, the more it undermines faith and trust in the very concept of free and fair elections.
There's a tendency in mainstream and even progressive media to view right-wing conspiracy theories through a prism of believability. Journalists and pundits look at polls showing, for instance, that 70% of Republicans believe that Biden didn't win enough votes to be president and talk about how these folks live in such a major bubble of disinformation that they can't even grasp basic realities.
What this approach fails to take into account is that, for conservatives, facts matter less than justifications. How they can believe such nonsense isn't as important as why they believe such nonsense.
It doesn't matter that the accusations that Biden stole the election are false. What matters is such accusations provide the moral justification for future efforts by Republicans to steal elections. It doesn't matter that conspiracy theories about watermarks and bamboo have no basis in reality. All that matters is that it's a bunch of stuff Republicans can say that allows them to argue that they're entitled to throw out the ballots of people who voted for Democrats.
"There is a long-standing belief on the right that Democratic Party victories are inherently fraudulent," Jonathan Chait of New York Magazine wrote on Thursday.
This certainly isn't a belief arrived at through a sincere and fair assessment of the evidence. It is more an article of faith and one that increasingly justifies, to Republicans, their fealty to winning at all costs. If that means throwing out all the votes of states that voted for Biden, so be it. If that means spooling out increasingly implausible conspiracy theories as a pretext for tossing Democratic votes, they're fine with it. It's not really about facts, so much as it is about polishing and refining the lies and strategies that will get them closer to being able to successfully do what Trump failed to do, which is to steal an election.
The fake audit in Arizona functions, for the right, much like Occupy Wall Street did for the left: As a theater of the possible. Moral concerns aside, of course. No one really thought that the death grip the investment class has over our politics would be destroyed by a few campers in Zuccotti Park. Still, the drama and intrigue of the whole thing did draw attention to the cause and, arguably, laid the groundwork for the shift to the left we're seeing in the Democratic Party right now.
By a similar token, few on the right think they can overturn the 2020 election with this fake audit. But the whole thing sends a signal about how elections can be stolen by the GOP in the future. And Republicans are acting swiftly to turn that fantasy into a reality, passing laws to exclude voters who they perceive as too liberal and, perhaps even more importantly, to seize control of election boards. The ridiculousness of the Arizona audit helps conservatives to picture what the future might hold, and how they might turn real ballot counts into a similar circus that allows them to disappear all those inconvenient votes for Democrats.
Liberals look at the antics in Arizona and flinch because it's all so undignified, with people spouting conspiracy theories like idiots. But what we often fail to understand is that, for the hard right, dignity doesn't matter at all. Nothing matters but power. If you have enough power, after all, you are the one who gets to dictate the meaning of concepts like "dignity" and "truth."
It's why Trump's clownishness is so thrilling to his followers. He proved, time and again, that it doesn't matter what kind of pompous idiot you are, because power means people have to kiss your ass anyway. Liberals can laugh as much as we want. Republicans know that, if they are successful in their efforts to end free and fair elections, they'll be the last ones laughing.