Cheney privately called Republicans’ embrace of the stolen-election conspiracy theory ‘a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy’. She’s right
O dds are that the erstwhile Republican party comrades of Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming will soon vote to purge her from the ranks of their leadership. Cheney, who occupies the third-highest position in the House Republican Conference and is the daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney, survived a similar removal effort in early February, after she was one of only 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach former president Donald Trump. At the time, House Republicans decided to retain Cheney as conference chair by a 145-61 margin, while the House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, told reporters that “Liz has a right to vote her conscience.”
But that was three months ago, when even Republican leaders like McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell acknowledged that Trump was “practically and morally responsible” (in McConnell’s words) for provoking the mob that stormed the Capitol on 6 Januaryin an attempt to overturn the election. Since then, however, the Republican base has continued to uphold Trump’s false claim that the election was stolen from him and have pushed to remove any party officeholders who say otherwise. A recent CNN poll confirmed that 70% of Republicans say Biden did not win enough votes to be president and half believe (without evidence) that solid proof of Trump’s victory exists.
Liz Cheney a martyr to resistance as Republican party picks cult of Trump
So congressional Republicans, always reluctant to stand up against Trump and his supporters, are edging toward the view that Cheney must go. Her crime, as they see it, is that unlike McConnell and McCarthy she did not fall silent about Trump in the aftermath of impeachment and publicly declared that she would not support him if he were to run for the presidency again in 2024. As Trump has howled for Cheney’s political demise, internal Republican criticism of her has mounted. McCarthy has openly withdrawn his support for her. She has responded with a defiant op-ed in the Washington Post calling on Republicans to “steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality” and support the creation of a bipartisan, fact-finding commission to investigate the 6 January attack on the Capitol.
Republican critics of Cheney aren’t wrong, exactly, when they say she’s being divisive. Focusing on the Biden administration’s overreach, rather than waging an intra-party debate over Trump, would give the Republican party a better chance of retaking the House majority in 2022.
But unity on those terms would amount to putting party over country in the worst possible way. Cheney was absolutely correct when she told the former House speaker Paul Ryan, at a recent conservative conference, that Republicans can’t embrace the view that the election was stolen: “It’s a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy. We can’t whitewash what happened on January 6 or perpetuate Trump’s Big Lie … What he did on January 6 is a line that cannot be crossed.”
Republican hopes that this anti-democratic movement within their ranks can be ignored or will somehow go away are futile
Trump’s fraudulent claim of a stolen election, and his continuing efforts to undermine the legitimacy of his successor, is an intense and very real danger to American democracy. In the recent observation of Michael Gerson, the former chief speechwriter for ex-president George W Bush, “the lie of a stolen election is the foundational falsehood of a political worldview”, one that makes facts and evidence irrelevant and encourages “distrust of every source of social authority opposed to the leader’s shifting will”.
Republican hopes that this anti-democratic movement within their ranks can be ignored or will somehow go away are futile. It will have to be confronted sooner or later, and the plausible outcomes become more ominous the longer the confrontation is deferred. If Cheney’s Republican colleagues resent that her resolve makes them look like cowards by contrast, voting to retain her in her leadership post would be a small step in the direction of integrity.
Even Republicans who prefer to place party over country should consider that under these circumstances purging Cheney inevitably will amount to choosing Trump and his lies over what Cheney called “critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work – confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law”. How will that look to the college-educated middle-class voters whose revulsion from Trump in 2018 and 2020 gave Democrats control of both houses of Congress and the White House? For that matter, how will defenestrating the sole woman in the party’s congressional leadership help Republicans shore up their declining support among female voters?
Many Democrats in the grip of their own version of party-over-country consider Cheney’s likely downfall a form of karmic retribution. It’s true that Liz Cheney is as deeply conservative as her father, the former vice-president under George W Bush. It’s also true that both Cheneys, in different ways, played a role in marginalizing the Republican party’s once-robust moderate wing, and that the party’s resulting monolithic ideological rigidity made it ripe for Trump’s authoritarian-populist takeover.
But in this moment of national crisis, the critical factor on which a politician must be judged is his or her commitment to liberal democracy. It’s irrelevant that the leading candidate to replace Cheney as conference chair, Representative Elise Stefanik of New York, once had a reputation for moderation and bipartisanship. She now endorses Trump’s massive lie of a stolen election, and that negates anything else she has ever stood for. I hope that Americans from both sides of our widening partisan divide who share a common interest in preserving democracy can come to see the necessity of uniting around that principle, at least, before it’s too late.
Geoffrey Kabaservice is the director of political studies at the Niskanen Center in Washington, as well as the author of Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party
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