It was a tense closed-door meeting that lasted only fifteen minutes, and when it was over GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was no longer the chair of her party’s conference. Why the third-most powerful Republican in the House had been summarily relieved of her position was left for Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to explain: he said it was to preserve party unity ahead of the 2022 elections. And as everyone knows by now, “unity” for Republicans means buying into the falsehood that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. It also means perpetuating that lie—as loudly as possible, and for as long as needed.
Cheney was having none of it. Instead of toeing the party line, she emerged as Trump’s most high-profile Republican critic, first voting to convict him for inciting the January 6 insurrection in his second impeachment trial, and then, in the months that followed, insisting that Republicans needed to choose “truth and fidelity to the Constitution...and the rule of law” over blind loyalty to the former president. Her swift replacement by Trump loyalist Elise Stefanik of New York shows just how little her attempts at persuasion registered with her colleagues.
In some sense, it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Cheney. There’s a lot to dislike about her ideological conservativism and the positions she’s taken: her support for torture and the war in Iraq (she helped write her father Dick Cheney’s unapologetic memoir in 2011); her opposition to the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage (despite the fact that her sister, Mary, is married to a woman); and her recent fearmongering (delivered in the same Washington Post op-ed denouncing Trump) over “Biden’s border crisis” and the “illegal Black Lives Matter and antifa violence” of last summer. There’s also the simple fact that she cast her 2020 presidential vote for Donald Trump, a decision she now says she regrets.
But can Cheney really be surprised about how things turned out? Writing in Commonweal last fall, Yale historian Timothy Snyder (who helped popularize the term “big lie”) argued that because Trump made no secret of his intentions to declare victory regardless of the tally on Election Day, a vote for him meant voting “for a future in which voting does not matter.” The same “anti-democratic Trump cult of personality” Cheney now decries was the very thing she assented to in pulling the lever for him.
At the same time, we shouldn’t let reservations about Cheney obscure the frightening stakes of the moment. More worrisome than her removal from GOP leadership is what it reveals about the hardening anti-democratic core of the Republican party, which has made unquestioning acceptance of Trump’s falsehoods the sole requirement for belonging. Recent polling reveals that 80 percent of Republicans who have heard about Cheney’s dismissal approve of it. Two-thirds believe Biden lost the election and think that “loyalty to Donald Trump” is “important”; almost half say the party should prioritize “changes to the voting rules in states and districts” rather than the development of “popular policies and ideas.”
This is alarming. Our form of government depends on rational opposition rooted in principle and reality. We shouldn’t let Biden’s current popularity lull us into complacency about the very real risks Republicans now pose to American democracy. It’s no tragedy that Liz Cheney lost her job, or that her call for truth was lost to the winds. But what tragedy awaits as millions of Republican voters, goaded by their leaders, are increasingly convinced that the only way to achieve their aims is through deceit, propaganda, and even, as January 6 demonstrated, violence?