The Republican Party’s descent into the abyss is crossing yet another threshold at its winter meeting. The party is voting to officially censure Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their participation in the committee investigating the January 6 insurrection, and to support Cheney’s primary challenger. (Kinzinger, like most of the surviving Republicans who supported impeaching Trump, is leaving office.)
Cheney’s crimes against the party have both a specific and a general nature. Her specific offense is participation with the committee. It’s worth noting that, for a brief period of time (after Republicans gave up on impeaching Trump), support for an investigation into January 6 was a standard-issue Republican position. The committee has uncovered an impressive and still-growing list of revelations of Trump’s efforts to overturn the election result. The Republican Party is registering its official regret that this information has come to light.
Disturbingly, the committee resolution echoes Trump’s line about the insurrection itself. The resolution describes the investigation as a “Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” And it condemns the Justice Department’s charges of the rioters as a “Democrat abuse of prosecutorial power for partisan purposes.”
The party’s stance has moved rightward at such a dizzying rate that the full implications of every iterative move can be difficult to absorb. It’s helpful to pause and let this part sink in: The Republican Party is now on record as not only in favor of covering up Trump’s attempted coup, but also against charging the radical violent vanguard that attempted to carry it out on the ground. The insurrectionists, per official Republican Party doctrine, are martyrs.
Cheney’s larger crime, and the one that consumes most of the text of her censure resolution, is a broader refusal to get onboard with Donald Trump. The resolution explains this point with admirable clarity. The Biden administration is engaged in “a systematic effort to replace liberty with socialism,” it asserts, as a feverish yet banal starting point. Therefore, winning back Congress “must be the primary goal,” which requires the party to “pull together.” Cheney and Kinzinger have shown they “support Democrat efforts to destroy President Trump more than they support winning back a Republican majority.”
The choice, as the resolution frames it, is essentially correct. There are two objectives in tension: disqualifying Trump, and maximizing Republican gains. In the aftermath of the insurrection, most Republicans believed those two goals were compatible. Indeed, pushing Trump out, they believed, would make it easier for Republicans to regain power.
They discovered that these goals are not compatible. Trump’s hold on the party was not disappearing, and there was no path forward without his enthusiastic assent.
Cheney’s position is that Trump’s disqualification is the paramount objective. His authoritarian ambitions are undeniable, and ensuring the survival of the republic requires ruling out any possibility that he can be given control of the White House again.
Virtually the entire Republican Party has taken the opposing view. Whether or not Trump should be the 2024 nominee — and there remains intense disagreement on this point — Republicans will support him if he does win the nomination. This consensus includes even such Trump targets as Mitch McConnell and Susan Collins.
Everybody within the party now sees clearly that the price of power is to accept Trump’s authoritarianism — to cover up his efforts to secure an unelected second term, and even to free (and eventually pardon) the insurrectionists. Cheney and Kinzinger, almost alone, refuse to pay that price. That is why the party is determined to destroy them.