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Column: The Costanza principle
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Column: The Costanza principle

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President Donald Trump continues to make absurd claims of widespread election fraud and to explore far-fetched schemes to overturn Joe Biden's victory. On Thursday, we learned that he had summoned Republican legislative leaders from Michigan to the White House, raising speculation that he might try to enlist them in an attempt to deny Biden that state's electoral votes.

Trump's defiance and bad faith are depressing. Equally depressing is the fact that many of his supporters believe his false claims about a rigged election.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll found that 52% of Republicans thought that Trump had "rightfully won" the election. A Politico/Morning Consult poll served up an even more alarming result: 70% of Republicans don't believe the election was "free and fair." A Monmouth University poll found that 77% of Trump supporters attribute Biden's victory to fraud. An Economist/YouGov poll found that 4 in 5 of Trump's supporters believe fraud changed the outcome nationally.

These findings may boggle the mind of anyone who has closely followed the hapless campaign to reverse the outcome of the election in court — a campaign now led by the embarrassing Rudy Giuliani. On Thursday, Giuliani and other Trump lawyers held a news conference in which Giuliani suggested that Trump was the victim of a plan hatched in a "centralized place" to perpetrate voter fraud across the country.

The fact that Trump was predicting fraud even before the election ought to have inspired skepticism about these kinds of post-election claims.

Obviously, many Trump supporters will believe anything he says. It's also possible that the president's flurry of court challenges to the election might create the impression for the casual observer that at least some of the lawsuits must have merit.

Finally, Republican voters who might otherwise be receptive to a reality check may be taking their cues from congressional Republicans who have echoed, or at least not challenged, Trump's claims in public pronouncements. (In private, it appears to be another story.)

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who at one point said "President Trump won this election" is now being more circumspect. But in an interview with The New York Times published this week, McCarthy suggested that Joe Biden might have trouble cooling the political temperature if "you have 70% of Republicans who thought he cheated." (The reporter rightly interjected: "He didn't, of course.")

Writing in The Atlantic, Ronald Brownstein suggested that Republican complicity in Trump's deception may ultimately harm the party. He argued that "by supporting Trump's claims — either overtly or through their silence — Republicans are simultaneously cementing his position as the dominant figure in the GOP, snuffing out their chances of reconsidering the course he has set for their party."

But Brownstein also concluded that "everything that's happened since Election Day has steadily reduced the odds that the party will emerge from his shadow at any point in the near future." So propping up Trump's absurd claims about a rigged election may serve Republicans' immediate self-interest.

That doesn't make it any less reprehensible.

George Costanza, the prevaricating nebbish on "Seinfeld," famously said that "it's not a lie if you believe it." Some Trump supporters seem to be operating on the same principle. And even if Trump is unsuccessful in his attempts to overturn the results of the election, their credulity will make it harder for Biden to govern.

Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times' senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C. This was distributed by Tribune Content Agency LLC.

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