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Who Is a True ‘Turncoat’?
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Who Is a True ‘Turncoat’?

It’s not Liz Cheney or Mitt Romney.

By the time you read this newsletter, it’s likely that the Republican voters of Wyoming will have rejected Liz Cheney. After voting for Donald Trump twice and after voting for Trump’s policies in Congress 92.9 percent of the time, Cheney is losing her seat for one single reason—she has taken the lead in investigating the most shameless attempt to overturn a presidential election in American history, an attempt that ultimately led a howling mob to storm the Capitol and disrupted the peaceful transfer of power for the first time since the Civil War.

That’s it. That’s the reason. Don’t let anyone tell you that it’s because she hasn’t focused enough on her district. If she was as single-minded in opposition to the January 6 commission as she has been in support, she’d be able to serve in Congress indefinitely. She’d likely not even face a meaningful primary challenge. 

Yes, Cheney is demonstrating political courage. Yes, we should honor her for her stand. But I want to dig a bit deeper. I want to discuss the concepts of loyalty and honor and how the Trump right is turning them inside out and upside down. In MAGA world, Cheney is a “turncoat.” And she’s not the only one who faces allegations of disloyalty. Today Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen accused Mitt Romney of betraying his party by not endorsing Utah senator Mike Lee.

But this is false. Cheney and Romney (and Adam Kinzinger and Peter Meijer and other dissenting Republicans) are defending the party. They’re upholding its ideals. And to understand why, we have to understand the core argument of the Trump right. If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times. It has two parts:

First, it’s time to end the old ways. As a policy matter, Reagan Republicanism is dead. We need more government intervention in the market, fewer military entanglements abroad, and the greater use of state power to enforce conservative moral norms. A new “workers’ party” or “parents’ party” is going to be more progressive economically and more conservative socially than Reagan’s party. We appreciate The Gipper, but he was a man of his time, and that time has passed.

Second, it’s not just the old policies we reject. We reject the old rules of behavior. The left punches hard. We’ll punch harder. We tried nominating “good” people—like Mitt—and the left painted them as racist and misogynist. We didn’t make the new rules, but we’ll play by those rules, and the new rules tell us to fight fire with fire. Never back down. Never apologize. If cruelty works, be cruel. If lies work, then lie. Support for classical liberalism and the rule of law are luxury beliefs for a protected elite that doesn’t understand the present emergency. The existence of the nation is at stake. Act like it.

Note how thoroughly the Trump right seeks to change the GOP. The goal is nothing short of a revolution in ideology and character. In the new GOP, you will believe different things, and you will behave in different ways.

It’s the political revolutionaries who seek to remake the party. Cheney and Romney are doing what they can to not just defend the party as an institution, but—more importantly—defend its noblest ideals from a direct frontal attack. 

And those noblest ideals center more around character than policies. As times change, policies will change. The Republican Party wasn’t going to remain the anti-slavery party when slavery ended, just as it wasn’t going to remain the Cold War party when the Soviet Union fell. Ideological fights and ideological change are normal and healthy. Not every economic problem can be fixed with a tax cut, and not every foreign challenge can be met with military power. 

And so the first paragraph of the case for the new Trump right isn’t particularly alarming. I disagree on multiple points—especially in the new right’s faith in state power and its suspicion of our defensive military alliances—but those disagreements are both normal and healthy. We need to challenge each other’s conceptions of ideal social, economic, and foreign policy. Complex challenges require sophisticated debate and openness to new ideas. 

It’s the second paragraph that represents the threat. It’s the second paragraph that triggers the crisis. It’s the abandonment of truth, character, and respect for the institutions of our pluralistic republic that places our entire democratic experiment at risk. My colleague Jonah Goldberg has said that “character is destiny.” That’s true of people and institutions. Cheney hasn’t been betraying her institution, she’s been defending it from the low character that can destroy it—and potentially even the country it serves. 

There is a persistent and puzzling failure to see this risk and this reality. I respect Henry Olsen, but I find it fascinating that he wrote an entire column criticizing Mitt Romney for refusing (so far) to endorse Mike Lee in his race against Evan McMullin without once mentioning how hard Lee worked to enable Trump’s election lies. Lee went so far as to urge Trump to work with two of the most dangerous figures in the entire election challenge—Sidney Powell and John Eastman:

Lee’s texts show that, soon after the election, it was Lee who encouraged [Mark] Meadows to give Powell access to Trump, saying she would help him push forward the legal challenges. He provided Meadows with Powell’s contact information and initially seemed confident that Powell could help advance Trump’s case.

“Apparently she has a strategy to keep things alive and put several states back in play. Can you help get her in?” Lee texted.

Two days later, Lee once again vouched for Powell, calling her a “strong shooter.”

Powell wasn’t a “strong shooter.” She was dangerously deranged, and when that became obvious even to Lee, he backed John Eastman—right until Eastman advanced his own illegal schemes. To his credit, Lee ultimately voted to certify the election, but only after plunging neck-deep into Trump’s malicious efforts to steal an American election.

I ask you readers: Which senator is a bad Republican? Which senator truly betrayed his party? 

Throughout the Trump era, Republican dissenters have repeatedly asked themselves a key question: should I stay or should I go? There’s no easy answer. I left the GOP in 2016, and I still question whether that was the right decision. America needs two healthy political parties, and that means good men and women have to stay and fight.

Loyalty isn’t always a virtue. The unhealthy version is enabling. It goes along with institutional demands, even when the institution’s demands are unjust or dangerous. The healthy version is elevating. It holds an institution to a standard. It envisions that institution in its best incarnation and defends that vision. 

That’s why whistleblowers aren’t traitors. That’s why we ultimately honor as heroes those people who break codes of silence and expose the dark underbellies even of institutions they love. 

Liz Cheney might lose, and if she loses she’ll join most of those Republicans who dared stand against Trump. But their legacy isn’t one of betrayal. They were never “turncoats.” They lost while demonstrating that loyalty is never blind, and in its best version, it can defend an institution even from itself. 

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.