When they jettison Liz Cheney on Wednesday, the Republican Party will send a message to whatever sane conservatives remain inside its circus tent: You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
There’s a routine where Trumpists, most recently Matt Gaetz, go on about how, “They aren’t really coming for me. They’re coming for you. I’m just in the way.” That’s not true (they’re after Gaetz, for instance, for allegedly paying for sex with teenagers) but it is another classic case of victimhood and projection.
No matter what nonsense House Minority Leader and craven Trump toady Kevin McCarthy says about how “we are a big tent party” that “embrace(s) free thought and debate,” ousting Cheney from her role in Republican leadership isn’t just about Cheney. It’s about rooting out millions of center-right Americans who just aren’t crazy enough to be members of today’s Republican Party,
If this sounds hyperbolic, consider that Cheney’s likely successor, Elise Stefanik—the soon-to-be No. 3 leader in the House GOP—just went on Steve Bannon's podcast and endorsed an election “audit” that involves picking thru ballots to see if there are any bamboo fibers in the paper. I wish I was exaggerating.
As Joe Biden flails at the border, fails to create jobs while racing to create inflation, and gives schools unions a pocket veto over fall school reopenings, Republicans seem determined to look this gift horse in the mouth and purge their own ranks on behalf of the losing president who cost them the presidency and the Senate.
House Republicans, too, are part of that political suicide squad, enabling Trump to bring up the Big Lie that inspired an insurrection, while punishing Cheney for calling out that lie. But this says more about them than it does her.
They claim that her failure to move on is the real problem as, in McCarthy’s words, “each day spent relitigating the past is one day less we have to seize the future.” To pacify Trump, the GOP is on an almost suicidal quest to become a permanent minority party.
Think of it this way. In the era of identity politics, modern political actors (especially the prominent ones) are, to some extent, also representatives of an identity constituency. If you doubt this, consider why Stefanik has leapfrogged longer-tenured and more conservative Republican men. Now consider the fact that the optics associated with replacing Cheney with a man would be too politically incorrect, yet there is no cost in today’s GOP for replacing a sane conservative with a MAGA loyalist.
This is insanity. Any rational political party concerned about winning elections would pause to ponder the consequences. Indeed, they wouldn’t have to look far for some data. According to a new report by Catalyst, which bills itself as a “data utility for the Progressive community,” in 2020 Joe Biden “made significant gains among white voters compared to 2016, particularly among white college and white suburban voters, who have shown a solid and consistent backlash against Trump’s Republican party.”
“White college women, who were evenly split in 2012,” the report says, “have been at 55% Democratic support or higher in the past three elections, topping out at 58% in 2020.”
This is an incredible amount of attrition in just eight years. And when one considers how close the 2020 presidential election turned out to be (especially in critical states like Georgia and Arizona), it’s reasonable to conclude that this was dispositive.
I don’t want to conflate suburban residence and a college diploma with sanity or the ability to conduct critical thinking—and I’m well aware that Cheney represents the rural state of Wyoming in the House—but these would seem to be the exact kinds of voters who might find Liz Cheney to be one of the few remaining Republicans they could get behind.
So why are Republicans doing this? To the degree that electoral strategy matters in a cult-of-personality party, the vicissitudes of the American political system have short-circuited their feedback loop. Despite winning the popular vote in only one presidential election this century, Republicans have occupied the presidency 12 out of 20 years. More recently, their improvement with Hispanics in 2020—which is confirmed by this same Catalyst report—provides yet another rationalization for postponing making any changes. Maybe things will just work out?
Or maybe not. A political party in the midst of a reordering might make a calculated decision to swap voters. But according to this same report, “white voters without a college degree…have dropped from 51% of the electorate in 2008 to 44% in 2020.” Trading college-educated suburban Republicans for non-college educated whites seems to be, in the long run, a demographic debacle. It’s also unclear to me why Hispanics and suburbanites couldn’t coexist in the same political coalition. Simply put, I’m not sure why any rational party would choose to alienate so many voters who still share many of their same traditional values. The only thing that makes sense is that this is a coalition where ethnic and gender diversity is increasingly welcomed, but dissent is not tolerated.
“A Republican Party that does not have room for a principled conservative like Liz Cheney does not have room for many of us,” writes Jonathan Frank, a former Republican congressional aide. “In scheming to overthrow her, House Republicans are sending a clear message that support for the former President’s policies is not enough. Meeting the new and ever-changing definition of a true Republican requires one to accept and parrot Trump’s every claim, the truth and the rule of law notwithstanding.”
Indeed, it’s symbolic that Trumpists seek to purge such legacy names like Cheney and Romney. They are symbolic of the larger purge of millions of Americans who once proudly supported that Republican Party.
Experience has taught us that logic rarely explains our behavior, and that cults sometimes commit mass suicide. The big GOP circus tent is shrinking down to the size of a clown car. And Republican leaders are evicting anyone who’s not willing to drive it over a cliff.