Liz Cheney has never been any liberal’s idea of a hero. But then, today’s GOP shouldn’t be anyone’s idea of a rational political party. Despite her unquestioned conservatism, Cheney’s radical rebellion — that is, accepting the reality of Donald Trump’s clear electoral defeat last year — has made her a marked woman among her fellow House Republicans.
So this is officially the litmus test now for leaders in one of America’s two major political parties: Promote a toxic lie that undermines the very foundation of democracy, or get out.
Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, is Wyoming’s sole U.S. representative and the GOP conference chair, the third-ranking House position in the party. It’s a position she likely won’t hold much longer.
Cheney was among just 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for inciting the mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 in an attempt to prevent the peaceful transfer of power — the most utterly impeachable thing that any president in America’s history has ever done. Cheney has since refused to participate in the GOP’s putrid campaign to rewrite that history. Red-state legislatures around the country are passing laws to make voting more difficult, justifying it by parroting (without one molecule of evidence) Trump’s continuing big lie that the 2020 election was stolen.
Cheney and a precious few other prominent Republicans (Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois) have put country ahead of lunacy to reject that lie. And unlike some of the putative adults in the party who have taken the ostrich approach of just trying to change the subject (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell), Cheney has chosen to confront this Trumpian cancer head-on. “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen,” she tweeted last week. “Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”
That’s as factual a statement as we’ve seen from any member of either party in Congress these days, and it’s about to cost Cheney her GOP leadership position. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy — whose sycophancy to Trump couldn’t be more pathetic if he started caddying for him at Mar-a-Lago — slammed Cheney for not “carrying out the message” of the party. McCarthy didn’t say what that message is, but it’s clearly something along the lines of: We’re loyal to a sociopathic ex-president first, and to democracy not at all.
Judging from media coverage last week, Cheney’s approaching removal from her leadership post is almost a given. As a headline on The New York Times’ website aptly put it Tuesday: “House Republicans Have Had Enough of Liz Cheney’s Truth-Telling.”
This isn’t about policy. At all. Cheney, like her father, has always checked every box on the traditional Republican agenda: anti-abortion-rights, anti-Obamacare, pro-tax-cuts-for-the-rich, pro-gun. Those positions don’t exactly endear her to those of us who believe that health care is an intrinsic right and that carrying around an arsenal isn’t. But it’s straight-up gospel in terms of stuff the GOP is supposed to stand for. No one could credibly question Cheney’s commitment to Republicanism — until Republicanism itself was twisted into something unrecognizable on Jan. 6 and its aftermath.
That transformation is illustrated by the likely choice to replace Cheney in leadership: Rep. Elise Stefanik, D-N.Y. By her voting record, Stefanik is one of the most moderate House Republicans. The conservative Club for Growth last week slammed her as “a liberal” with the 4th-worst ranking in the group’s rating system for Republicans, at 35% alignment with conservative positions. Cheney scores 65%.
So if Stefanik is literally just a little over half the conservative that Cheney is, why is Stefanik on the rise in the party as Cheney is about to fall? Simple: Stefanik is willing to lie in service to Trump’s ego (and in detriment to democracy), and Cheney isn’t. And in today’s GOP, willingness to lie for Trump is the only criterion. Nothing else matters.
The party has been headed this way for a long time. On issues like law and order, strength abroad and personal morality, Trump spent four years forcing Republicans to choose between him and their own principles. Cowed by his Twitter attacks and his bellicose followers, they generally chose him. Jan. 6 was the ultimate test. Would Republicans really continue standing behind a president who literally attempted to overthrow an election result so he could stay in office?
Now that we know the answer is yes, the daunting question becomes: Is there anything this party wouldn’t do for the sake of power?
Cheney last week wrote what was, given her view from the political scaffold, a remarkably optimistic op-ed in The Washington Post. “The Republican Party is at a turning point,” she wrote, “and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”
Her generous suggestion that such a choice is still possible is, perhaps, just some residual party loyalty on her part. Everything she’s facing indicates that the turning point has already passed. Today’s GOP — still firmly in thrall to a narcissistic madman and his unhinged followers — has already decided its priorities. Truth and the Constitution aren’t among them.