Last week, the US party primaries ended, setting up the crucial November midterm elections. The Democratic and Republican parties are profoundly divided, but while the Republican Party continues to charge towards the extreme right, with rare exceptions Democrats are tenaciously sticking to the moderate centre embodied by President Joe Biden – at least for now.
American "polarisation" is not yet between left-and right-wing coalitions each becoming increasingly radical, though that could eventually develop. To the contrary, US voters will be largely faced with choices between relatively restrained centre-left Democratic candidates and a Republican Party that is becoming further radicalised.
During the Donald Trump presidency, many wondered if the Republican Party would return to less extreme and personality-driven politics once he was out of office, and if his style of high-octane demagoguery could transfer successfully to other candidates. The answers, at least within the party itself, are now clear. The party base is becoming more radical, and Mr Trump’s style of politics has proven all-but-essential for would-be Republican officeholders. Many of these politicians may not be fanatics privately, yet they are following their own voters down highly alarming rabbit holes.
But what was unanticipated until the aftermath of the 2020 election was that the Republican Party would be seized by a highly disturbing form of mass psychosis. Judging by opinion polls and the primary outcomes, most Republican voters believe in, and successful candidates repeat, the false idea that the 2020 election was fraudulent and somehow "stolen" from Mr Trump by Mr Biden.
There is no evidence whatsoever to support such claims, which were tossed out in over 60 failed lawsuits. There is no coherent or consistent – let alone plausible – narrative about how such fraud was committed. There is no explanation for how it was possible to rig an election simultaneously in hundreds of districts with different systems, but only for Mr Biden and not the many successful Republican candidates other than Mr Trump when they were all on the same hundreds of completely different district ballots.
There is also no explanation for why Democrats rigged the presidential election but did not bother to give themselves a majority in the Senate or more than a razor-thin margin in the House of Representatives.
Yet the article of faith that the 2020 election was “stolen” – a thoroughly irrational dogma that is objectively, verifiably, and obviously, false – is now the defining centrepiece of Republican politics and was the driving force in Republican primaries this year.
One of the two parties in the two-party American system is, therefore, firmly in the grip of a collective delusion. It would be preferable not to have to use such dramatic language, but it is not hyperbole at all.
Meanwhile, while Democrats are campaigning on familiar liberal themes about increased social spending, especially on children, protecting abortion rights and marriage equality, raising taxes on corporations and the wealthy, empowering unions, and so on. Their winning candidates generally shied away from hot button culture war issues such as "defunding the police," "abolishing the immigration enforcement services," or an expansive "Green New Deal”.
It is particularly alarming that Republican voters in many states have nominated scores of election deniers for state and local roles that supervise elections, count votes and certify results. One key ringleader of this campaign is Steve Bannon, who was recently indicted in New York State for allegedly defrauding contributors, Mr Trump pardoned him on federal charges arising from the same acts.
No Republican officials, up to and including former Vice President Mike Pence, suppressed accurate results or otherwise cheated on behalf of Mr Trump, in 2020. So the goal now is to put in place a small army of Trump acolytes ready to do just that after the next presidential election.
Fifteen Republican nominees for state governor, 11 for secretary of state (which usually oversee elections), and 10 for attorney general are avowed election deniers, and appear prepared to suppress democratic outcomes. Many, like Mr Trump, are also still hawking the preposterous QAnon conspiracy theory.
Worse still, North Carolina Republicans are asking the Supreme Court to endorse a once-fringe legal theory that elected state legislatures alone control all election-related decisions, independent even from court review, which could allow state legislatures to effectively cheat the voters within the bounds of a reinterpreted Constitution.
It is therefore vital that the federal Justice Department and Georgia prosecutors are both conducting extensive criminal investigations into plots to overthrow the 2020 election.
Last week, the Justice Department issued an astonishing 40 subpoenas for a huge array of former Trump aides and officials. They are not only looking into the January 6 assault on Congress, but also plots to submit slates of false electors purporting to represent Trump wins in states in which Mr Biden's victory had already been certified.
Mobile phones belonging to Mr Trump's aides Boris Epshteyn and Mike Roman were seized by the FBI pursuant to the scheme, which another of his attorneys, Jack Wilenchik, accurately described as involving "fake electors". The FBI also confiscated the phone of the chief executive of a pillow manufacturing company and notorious conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell, for reasons that remain murky.
It is now unmistakable that the Department of Justice is investigating a huge range of current and former Trump aides pursuant to a wide variety of alleged conspiracies and other major potential felonies. That is in addition to the ongoing probe into why Mr Trump unlawfully removed thousands of government documents, many highly classified, to his Florida hotel, and refused to return them even after they were subpoenaed by a grand jury, with his attorneys formally but falsely attesting that he did not possess them.
Whether or not it is intentional, there is a direct correlation between efforts to install 2020 election-deniers in key election-related positions in states throughout the country and counter-efforts by the Justice Department that should make the potential consequences of such actions crystal clear through these expansive investigations, subsequent prosecutions, and, hopefully, instructive convictions and exemplary sentencings.
Even if anti-democracy candidates win key state-level posts in November, presumably they will be on notice long before they might try to subvert, reject, or tamper with the outcome of the presidential election in 2024: conspiracy to defraud the United States and similar major felonies can lead directly to prison. The reality of an awaiting cell ought to prove more powerful than the most beguiling, paranoid or cynical political mirage.