In the few days after January 6, it appeared the Republican establishment that had tolerated four years of naked corruption and frequently undisguised racism had finally lost its patience with Donald Trump. A Mike Pence adviser said the vice-president was “done with Trump’s bullshit.” Kevin McCarthy, whom Trump customarily addressed as “My Kevin” as though he were his manservant, had a private screaming match. Several Cabinet members publicly resigned, and Murdoch-owned media outlets called for his resignation.
By the end of January, all the momentum to purge Trump had dissipated. Instead the party settled on a fragile internal peace, with Republicans who favored violent insurrection to hand Trump an unelected second term working alongside those who didn’t. That armistice is now ending. The momentum has now completely reversed, and the Republican party is in the process of liquidating all internal dissent against Trump’s authoritarianism.
The current theater of conflict is a looming purge of Liz Cheney from her position as House conference chair, the third-ranking position in its leadership. Cheney’s crime is that, unlike almost every other prominent Republican not named Mitt Romney, she hasn’t budged from the posture she adopted January 6. Rather than accept the facts on the ground — namely, that the party’s base overwhelmingly believes Trump’s lie that Joe Biden stole the election — Cheney has continued to affirm the legitimacy of Biden’s win and denounce Trump’s coup.
As punishment for her stubbornness, she is facing not only a Trump-backed primary challenge but also an approaching vote to strip her of her leadership rank. McCarthy has been subjecting Cheney to the slow fade-out. McCarthy has been “refusing to appear with Cheney at press conferences for months” and denied her “a moderating role at the [party’s] retreat,” reports Politico.
His allies have made no effort to disguise their intentions. “There is no way that Liz will be conference chair by month’s end,” one McCarthy ally texted a reporter Monday. “Liz is gone. Just a question of how and when,” a senior Republican tells CNN. Fellow Republicans are already angling for her soon-to-be-vacant job. McCarthy himself tells Fox News, “I have heard from members concerned about her ability to carry out the job as conference chair, to carry out the message,” all but handing her a termination letter on-camera.
The rationale for Cheney’s defenestration is that she has violated decorum. Her forceful denunciation of Trump’s lies “suggested that Cheney was not looking to persuade but to bludgeon. Rhetorical devices like putting THE BIG LIE in all caps gave the tweet a feeling of something one might hear on CNN or MSNBC,” explains Byron York. “The question is, how to address those Republicans and their beliefs.” National Review’s Dan McLaughlin adds, “If she can’t move off this topic as Mitch [McConnell] has, she needs to do that from the back benches.”
The catch, of course, is that Trump and his minions have neither modulated their tone nor moved off the topic. Nor, for that matter, has the rest of the party. The Republican establishment has made a display of affirming the defeated president’s status as its leader. Republicans leaders have made the pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss the ring of their president-in-exile. Aspiring candidates — including not just Trump sycophants like Josh Hawley, but even candidates who have maintained some distance from him, like Nikki Haley — have announced that they will defer to Trump rather than run against him.
The Republican party has embraced or placated Trump’s lies about fraud by enacting voting-restriction measures. Both the official Republican party and its affiliated media have continued to magnify Trump’s lies. Senate Republicans went so far as to present Trump with a newly created “Champion of Freedom” trophy, which is not the thing you would award somebody fresh off a coup attempt.
The demand that Cheney stop forcefully refuting Trump’s lies about the election is designed to force his enemies into unilateral disarmament. Republican leaders are free to flatter and placate him, but they are not free to call out his lies or return his attacks in kind. Trump’s critics can stay in the party, for now, but they must act like guests in somebody else’s home.
What’s astonishing about Cheney’s dissent is not only that she is such an unlikely figure to mount a doomed and lonely stand. She was born to the party and the conservative movement; she hasn’t got a moderate bone in her body. What’s more unusual still is that she has no obvious rationale other than sheer principle. Elected officials, faced with an unwinnable fight, nearly always yield to realism. Cheney apparently believes that respect for the rule of law is a nonnegotiable principle of conservatism.
Her conviction is admirable, but her analysis is clearly wrong. The movement and the party have made a choice. Their loyalty lies with Trump. If Cheney insists on defending the election and condemning sedition, the party will go on without her.