In early February, House Republicans voted, by a margin exceeding two-to-one, to retain Liz Cheney in her leadership post. That vote took place during a moment in time that, with the benefit of hindsight, we now see as a fragile equilibrium. The party elite had quickly given up their brief determination to expunge Donald Trump over his role fomenting an insurrection. But they were not yet ready to cede full control back to Trump. The first vote to retain Cheney was a kind of truce. “We’re not going to be in a situation where people can pick off any member of leadership,” she said afterward.
During the three months that have passed, the constellation of power within the party has shifted decisively. Trump has indeed been picking off Republicans who denounced his attempt to stay in office despite his election defeat. State officials in Georgia, Michigan, and Arizona who resisted Trump’s coup attempt are being replaced or stripped of authority. And now Cheney, his highest-profile target, has been purged as well.
The official explanation for supporting Trump’s demands to remove Cheney is that she has been causing the party problems with her tedious yammering about democracy and the rule of law. Democracy simply cannot endure if one party refuses to accept the legitimacy of election defeats. After the horrifying spectacle of January 6, most Republicans initially tried to bring their party into line with democratic values. Having seen their efforts fail, they are instead co-opting Trump’s grievances into state-level measures designed to restrict voting.
Cheney is attempting to explain to her colleagues why her dissent is not about policy (she remains a right-wing conservative who supported Trump’s agenda at a higher rate than her successor) nor about personality (she tolerated Trump’s abuses and corruption for four years with barely a peep.) She is arguing that Trump’s campaign to overturn and sow doubt in the election poses a singular danger to the republic that supersedes every other political question. In her speech to a mostly empty Congress, she described Trump’s ongoing efforts to undermine the election as “a threat America has never seen before. A former president, who provoked a violent attack on this Capitol in an effort to steal the election, has resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him.”
It is telling how shy her Republican critics are about engaging her moral reasoning, or even conceding that any kind of moral reasoning might apply. “It’s not about right or wrong,” said House whip Steve Scalise, revealing perhaps more than he intended, “it’s about the focus of our conference, and focusing on pushing back on the agenda that’s being pushed by the Biden administration.”
The point Scalise blurted out explicitly — that considerations of right and wrong do not enter his calculus — is one that other Republicans have been making implicitly. Kevin McCarthy’s statement advocating the purge does not take direct issue with Cheney’s argument with Trump, instead insisting she stop “relitigating the past,” focusing on “shared goals,” and so on. Senator John Cornyn likewise expresses his hope that the party can “get as unified as possible,” presumably sans Cheney.
The Republican strategy is somewhat reminiscent (in kind, if obviously not in scale) to the decision by France, Britain, and the United States to withhold support from all parties to the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s. The result of this neutrality was to starve the Republican government of support while Germany and Italy lavished arms on Francisco Franco’s Nationalist rebellion, which eventually crushed the Republic.
Trump and conservative media have not stopped promoting his election lies. The scale of his success is astonishing. Seventy percent of Republicans believe Trump legitimately won the election; of those who believe this, a Republican poll found, half attribute Joe Biden’s stolen election in whole or in part to hacked vote-tabulation machines. Another poll, asking Trump supporters what happened on January 6, found three-fifths blamed antifa.
Virtually the entire party has tried to co-opt Trump’s lies by diverting the effort into voter-suppression bills premised on his fantasies. Almost none of them will admit Joe Biden legitimately won the election. Instead they will concede he simply is the president right now and immediately change the subject. Asked if Biden is the legitimate president, Representative Jim Banks said only, “Yes, Joe Biden was elected. He was inaugurated.” Asked the same question, Representative Elise Stefanik, Cheney’s replacement, replied, “President Biden is president and the focus is on defeating his radical agenda.”
Republican Byron Donalds casually explained that Cheney has to go because she has contradicted a core point of party doctrine: “If you had a member of the Democratic leadership and said they didn’t believe in climate change anymore. Do you think they would still remain in Democrat leadership? I don’t think so.”
The parallel is quite revealing. A Democrat would be disqualified from leadership for refusing to accept scientific truth, while a Republican is disqualified for refusing to accept a lie.
This is the pabulum Cheney refuses to spout, and her punishment all but guarantees it will become the unchallenged party line. “I think [Cheney’s removal is] very much viewed as a massive defeat,” a pro-impeachment Republican told the Washington Post. “Having someone in leadership was validation and proof … that even though Trump was attacking us, we still have leadership backing us and are allowed to survive within the conference.” Trump, smelling hesitation and weakness among the party’s leaders, is now free to hunt his enemies to extinction.
Convenient as it may be to focus on questions that poll better, there’s no avoiding the democracy question in the Republican Party. Cheney has decided to oppose Trump’s authoritarianism. Her party’s leadership has decided to abet it.
This column has been updated.