Republicans Lean Into New Role as Trump’s Willing Hostages
They’re desperate to placate Trump, but booting Liz Cheney from the party’s House leadership may just give her a bigger platform to call out his yuge lie.
As House Republicans met behind closed doors on Wednesday morning for a secret vote to oust Liz Cheney from their leadership, so they could “move on” from November 3 and especially Jan. 6, Republican senators were seeking to derail a sweeping Democratic voting rights bill.
There is a common thread: In both cases, Republicans were following the wishes of Donald Trump.
“Liz Cheney is a bitter, horrible human being. I watched her yesterday and realized how bad she is for the Republican Party,” he said after she was pushed out. And as Republican senators took pains not to tie the voting rights bill fight to Trump’s Yuge Lie about his election defeat, he blew that up with a statement saying new voting restrictions were needed “so we never again have an election rigged and stolen from us.”
“In an age of disinformation,” tweeted writer Dana Hall McCain, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act…” If you’re scratching your head wondering why Cheney was defenestrated by her fellow House Republicans for the sin of telling the truth about Trump’s attempt to undermine democracy, or about why Cheney has persisted in that sin, it’s important to consider the motivations.
She is operating under the assumption that her primary responsibility and loyalty is to the country and to the Constitution. She knows that the reason Trump always gets away with outrageous things is that people want to move on and not telegraph their impotence. So she won’t let them.
If you’re Kevin McCarthy, you may see it differently. He’s just trying to survive and become Speaker of the House. He knows that there’s nothing he can do to break the spell Trump has over the base, so he’s trying to manage it the best he can. The last thing he needs is Cheney reminding everyone about Jan. 6, and since control of House leadership is one of the few hammers at his disposal, she’s the nail that gets hammered down—although it remains to be seen if that lets the party, let alone the country, actually move on from supporters of the president storming the U.S. Capitol building just four months ago.
Thomas Jefferson said of slavery that it’s like having a tiger by the tail, and you can neither hold on nor let go. Republicans in thrall to Trump must feel the same way. They are desperate to move on, but they can’t face the pain of letting go. Since Trump can never be blamed, Cheney was the sacrificial lamb.
This feels like a big moment. For years now, the Republican party has been shifting from a serious and responsible party to a childish and dangerous one, and Cheney’s punishment may signal that the transition is complete.
Knowing what was coming on Wednesday, Cheney delivered a powerful speech Tuesday night where, instead of bemoaning her own persecution, she talked about the importance of American institutions like the rule of law and told stories about “an immigrant who escaped Castro's totalitarian regime; a young man who grew up behind the Iron Curtain and became his country's minister of defense; and a dissident who spent years in the Soviet gulag have all told me it was the miracle of America captured in the words of President Ronald Reagan that inspired them.”
These were once patriotic and compassionate ideas that drew applause from conservative crowds, but that optimistic Reaganite party that cares about moral authority, advancing the cause of freedom, and American exceptionalism, is now gone, replaced by careerists like McCarthy, and out-of-control operators like Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, not to mention a thrice-married and even more often bankrupt casino magnate named Trump.
The bad news for those Republicans who just want to move on is that Cheney isn’t going away. If she wasn’t liberated before leaving leadership, she sure is now. You come at the queen, you better not miss. We could even see a sort of “Streisand effect,” where her attempted cancelation has the unintended effect of elevating her—and her message about Jan. 6 and the need for the party and the country to reckon with what happened then.
McCarthy and company want to sweep that day under the rug. They still don’t know how to talk about it. But Cheney does—in a way that is passionate and full of moral authority. Homeland Security is still trying to put together a commission. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if some of the remaining Never Trump conservatives who were still desperately clinging to the Party of Reagan see May 12 as a symbolic turning point.
In the story of the GOP’s transition from the Party of Reagan and Bush to the Party of Trump, this might be a date to remember.