CNN  — 

Ex-President Donald Trump’s big lie came full circle on Saturday as he traveled to Arizona to dangerously seize on the false fruits of a sham election “audit” precipitated by his own discredited claims the 2020 election was stolen.

On a late afternoon of delusion and incitement, Trump offered a preview of how he could exploit grievances of millions of supporters who buy his lies about voter fraud to power a possible new presidential run in the future.

His speech underscored the nation’s split reality over last November’s election — the real one in which he lost and President Joe Biden was fairly elected and the nonsensical but powerful one that he sells to his supporters.

The now self-sustaining myth that Trump was improperly ejected from power is at the center of a belief system that the ex-President is imposing on his party and is making a litmus test for 2022 GOP candidates seeking his endorsement, including in the Arizona Senate race, which is one of the GOP’s top targets as they try to take back the Senate.

In his latest return to campaign speeches, Trump showered praise on Arizona state senators who organized the non-scientific audit. He insisted he wasn’t involved, trying to create a false impression of independence and legitimacy in a politicized process inspired by his lies.

“There is no way they win elections without cheating,” the former President said of Democrats, at a packed event entitled – with Orwellian overtones – the “Rally to Protect Our Elections.” The one-term, twice-impeached ex-commander-in-chief related prolonged and false stories of election fraud across the country. He also claimed that many more Republican-run states were seeking their own audits of election results, even though multiple judges have ruled that there was no election fraud.

Trump’s appearance was full of the usual bluster, boasting, self-pity and too many falsehoods to count, and was in many ways a sideshow compared to the critical current challenges — including a pandemic that is quickly worsening again because millions of Republican voters will not get vaccinated.

But his appearance was also a warning of one of the most dangerous problems haunting a divided nation’s deeply polarized politics — the fact that lies and conspiracy theories now represent sincerely held views of a large minority of the electorate thanks to Trump’s mastery of demagoguery and the endless flattery of a compliant right-wing propaganda machine.

Trump reinvents the big lie

The ex-President did tell his supporters to get the vaccine on Saturday — but in such a way that offered an out for those who have bought into conservative misinformation about it – and in an attack on Biden, he further politicized the issue. Yet again, Trump showed that he was not willing to diminish his own political capital for the greater good.

“I recommend that you take it, but I also believe in your freedoms 100%,” Trump said, before adding, “because they don’t trust the President, people aren’t doing it.”

On the vaccine, and many other issues, Trump is seeking to do nothing less than create a new truth.

“The big lie they call it, you know what is the big lie? The opposite was the big lie. The election was the big lie,” Trump said, in a concise example of his malevolent method as he seeks to reshape Republican orthodoxy.

“Does everybody here understand that the 2020 election was a total disgrace?” the ex-President said at the rally, inciting a frenzied chant of “Trump, Trump, Trump,” that demonstrated how effective his wholesale lying has become.

Trump also lashed out at Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for refusing to buy into his lies and conspiracies about the last election. He also attacked former Vice President Mike Pence for fulfilling his constitutional duty to oversee the certification of the election in Congress and former Attorney General William Barr for saying there was no election fraud.

Among unanswered questions is whether Trump’s campaign of falsehoods and refusal to accept the result in 2020 — which is rife among his base voters — will further alienate the suburban and more moderate voters who were crucial in his defeat last November. The coming months and years will also show whether Republican voters — especially when the next presidential primary race heats up — want to spend the entire campaign going over lies about the last election or will seek new candidates who might share Trump’s populist extremism but offer a path to the future.

But there is no doubt about the power of Trump in fast forming primary races ahead of the midterm elections next year. A stream of pro-Trump candidates has made the journey to Arizona to curry favor with the ex-President by highlighting the unofficial audit that has so far shown no evidence of voter fraud but has twisted the facts about the election.

In a briefing earlier this month, about the “audit” of votes in Maricopa County – the crucial battleground where Biden outpaced Trump to win the state and its 11 electoral votes – the firm running the process expressed multiple untruths.

Doug Logan, the chief executive of Cyber Ninjas, a firm with no experience in election audits, claimed that the audit uncovered 74,243 mail-in ballots with no clear record of them being sent.

The claim was quickly picked up by Trump and some of his supporters as the narrative of “magically appearing ballots” quickly gained steam among “Make America Great Again” supporters online.

A CNN fact check found that there is no evidence of either fraud or significant problems with these ballots. There are complicated reasons why it is not unusual that Maricopa County’s submitted ballot lists includes a number of voters that do not match up with requested-ballots list. Logan’s comments appear to be informed by misunderstandings, deliberate or not, about the county’s voting procedures. The situation has been explained by several election experts, including Garrett Archer, an election analyst at ABC15 television in Phoenix and a former official in the Arizona secretary of state’s office, who is regarded as an expert on the state’s election procedures.

What is going on is ‘dangerous’

Arizona Secretary of State Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, called Trump a “sore loser” on CNN on Friday. On Saturday, she argued that the whole “audit” was designed to feed Trump’s “ego, to placate his hurt feelings because he lost the election. And he’s grifting a lot of people to pay for it instead of paying it for himself.”

The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Trump’s political action committee had raised about $75 million so far this year but had not sent any money to the Arizona ballot review.

When CNN’s Pamela Brown told Hobbs that the ex-President’s crowd was chanting “lock her up” in reference to her at the Saturday rally, Hobbs warned that he was playing with political fire.

“What’s going on right now really is dangerous and the former President is continuing to incite his followers to action that could end up with another insurrection and needs to be held to account for that,” said Hobbs, who is running for governor in 2022.

It doesn’t actually matter to Trump or his supporters if the allegations made in the audit are true or not. Trump’s list of supposed irregularities that he spouted in a speech, which was often incoherent, made very little sense. But the conspiracies help fuel the massive nationwide lie that Trump created in order to avoid admitting he lost the election. Any morsel of information, no matter how quickly it is discredited, further expands the big lie. And as months pass, those who buy in travel so far from the truth that facts become meaningless.

The impact on American democracy, however, of millions of Americans losing faith in the election system — which is actually remarkably free of fraud — is deeply corrosive.

Trump’s perpetuation of his own election fraud is taking place alongside a broader Republican effort to not just whitewash the behavior of the ex-President and his supporters during the Capitol insurrection on January 6 but to write an alternative history of events to cover up the truth.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who has anchored the GOP’s bid to win back the House next year on Trump, and Republicans are arguing that Speaker Nancy Pelosi was to blame for what happened, apparently because she did not beef up security at the Capitol (even though the speaker is not in charge of security).

These claims are coinciding with regular releases of footage from the Justice Department and elsewhere of Trump supporters beating up police officers as they forced their way into the citadel of American democracy. But there is no place for evidence inside Trump’s parallel reality bubble.

Like the Capitol riot, the Arizona audit was sparked directly by Trump’s lies that the election was stolen from him. Saturday was the latest sign that he intends to pollute future election cycles with his dangerous grand illusion.