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Whining Is Winning
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Whining Is Winning

Liz Cheney is not the reason the Republican Party cannot move on from January 6.

This will shock neither friend nor foe: I agree with Liz Cheney. The January 6 assault on the Capitol was a singularly deplorable event. 

In unique and important ways, it is not comparable to other examples of political violence. For instance, Kevin McCarthy says we should have a commission that doesn’t just get to the bottom of January 6 but also looks at “political violence” generally. This is a wholly cynical posture. He wants to be able to let Republicans wave their hands like Kermit the Frog introducing the next act at the Muppet Theater about Antifa and Black Lives Matter and not be forced to talk about the attack on the Capitol. 

Let me offer just a few important reasons why violence committed by Antifa or BLM is not comparable to what happened on January 6: First, burning down a Footlocker is wrong—even evil. But it has little to do with trying to overturn the Constitution or stealing an election. Interfering—even rhetorically—with the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimate election is shameful and disqualifying for any president. 

Secondly, interfering with the transfer of power is what President Trump did for months prior to January 6. He may not have planned the storming of the Capitol, but he prepared the battle space long before election day and literally every day after. Even if there had been no violence, his plan was to intimidate Congress and his own vice president into shirking their constitutional, let alone moral, duties and obligations so he could cling to power after losing an election. The violence may not have been intended on his part, but it was certainly foreseeable. 

Finally, violence in Portland or Milwaukee is, for the most part, a state and local issue. Sure, it can be federalized by, say, calling in the National Guard. But it’s still very different from violence aimed directly at a core constitutional function of government. The legitimacy of the American regime in toto is not threatened by detestable anarchy in Portland. 

I think the above pretty much captures Liz Cheney’s position. I also suspect it’s pretty close to the actual position of most Republican House members, including Kevin McCarthy himself (as Steve Hayes notes on The Dispatch’s homepage). Obviously they don’t share Cheney’s outrage—or courage—to the point of saying so out loud. But intellectually, most believe Trump lost and that his behavior was somewhere between unhelpful and grotesque. So their problem with Cheney isn’t that she’s wrong; it’s that she won’t stop reminding people that she’s right. 

That brings me to my own theory about what this is all really about—and it’s not January 6. 

Again, I think Cheney sincerely believes everything she says about January 6. But January 6 isn’t the real issue—Trump is. 

Recall that Cheney isn’t a “NeverTrumper” by any even half-serious definition of that ridiculous term. She says she voted for him—twice. According to FiveThirtyEight, Cheney voted with Trump 92.9 percent of the time. This means Cheney cannot make standard NeverTrump arguments that he was always unfit for office without being dragged for hypocrisy. You can claim that she was a secret NeverTrumper all along (Always Trumpers love to read minds, despite being so terrible at it), but just looking at her record objectively Cheney behaved exactly the way pro-Trump Republicans said principled conservatives should behave—as a loyal Republican. Sure, she criticized a few specific policies, but she never took on an “anti-Trump” mien while he was president – until January 6. 

The media and the Democrats understandably want to make this all about her brave truth-telling about “the Big Lie” and the “insurrection.” But the real issue for Cheney—I believe—is only incidentally about all of that. Again, I’m not saying she doesn’t believe what she’s saying, but her real goal is to free the GOP from the Trumpian captivity and the ideological and political corruptions that stem from it. And she’s losing that effort, at least in the short run. 

Trump and his minions want to make loyalty to Trump the central litmus test of both conservatism and membership in the Republican Party. And because Trump is psychologically committed to the fiction that he didn’t lose, he’s made “the Big Lie” (a less than ideal term that has unfortunately stuck) the central litmus test for proving loyalty. (I say he’s psychologically committed to it, because politically this approach was idiotic and not in his interest. If he halfway-graciously accepted defeat—even while grumbling about election irregularities—he would be far better positioned to run again.) 

This loyalty-above-everything fatwa explains why so many avowed “real conservatives” are perfectly happy to replace Cheney with Rep. Elise Stefanik. The New York congresswoman is more liberal than Cheney. She voted with Trump less than Cheney did. But she is perfectly happy to suck up to Trump and peddle misinformation about the election. She is not not a principled leader but a loyal and pliable follower, which is exactly what Kevin McCarthy wants. 

Which brings us to the realist and partisan explanation of Cheney’s behavior: She’s a better Republican than McCarthy & Co. McCarthy wants to be speaker. He wants to raise money off of Trump. He’s a short-term thinker with a specific goal in mind. Cheney surely would like to be speaker (or president), too, but she also thinks that making the GOP into a cargo cult to Trumpism, will be bad for the GOP (and by extension the country) in the long term. Forcing Republican politicians in swing districts or states to put loyalty to Trump above everything else is an incredibly stupid thing to do if you care about growing the GOP, because contrary to Trumpist propaganda he’s not popular with many gettable Republican and independent voters.  

Also, when you make loyalty to Trump the defining attribute of the party, you create space for truly horrible politicians to join the coalition. Paul Gosar is a repugnant goon who plays footsie with white supremacists. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are national embarrassments and stains on the GOP and conservatism. But they are unflinchingly loyal Trump sycophants, and so Kevin McCarthy and full-blooded MAGA types can make room for them. The same charity is not extended to Liz Cheney or the other Republicans who rightly voted to impeach Trump. 

Trump put his personal desires ahead of the party in the Georgia Senate runoff, costing Republicans the Senate majority. The idea that he wouldn’t play similar games in the future is laughable. There is nothing in his record that would suggest anything else. 

Indeed, he’s still peddling the lie that the election was stolen from him. He’s not doing this for the party. He’s certainly not doing this for conservatism or the country. He’s doing this because his lizard-brain narcissism cannot process the idea that he lost, and because he has long believed that whining is a winning strategy. When Rich Lowry accused him of being “the most fabulous whiner in American politics,” Trump agreed:

“I think [Lowry’s] probably right. I am the most fabulous whiner. I do whine because I want to win. And I’m not happy if I’m not winning. And I am a whiner. And I’m a whiner and I keep whining and whining until I win,” he said. 

This illuminates the grotesque double standard applied to Cheney. The GOP caucus voted to keep her in leadership in February in part because most Republicans actually agree with her, in part because the vote was conducted in secret, and in part because many of them assumed she had her say and would “move on”—much the way Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy did. You had your say, you voted your conscience, now let’s move on.

Yet, as Mitch McConnell might say, she persisted.

One reason she’s persisted is that reporters keep asking her what she thinks and she has the audacity to answer the question honestly, without (Kevin) McCarthyite bloviation. Another is the aforementioned reason that January 6 isn’t the real issue, Trump is. 

But the third reason is that Trump won’t move on. He keeps saying the election was stolen. He keeps lying about the nature of the siege of the Capitol, claiming that there was “zero threat” to lawmakers from a mob that chanted, “Hang Mike Pence,” and tried to “arrest” Nancy Pelosi. 

This, not Liz Cheney, is the real reason the GOP can’t move on from January 6. But McCarthy & Co. won’t criticize Trump for saying this stuff. Instead, they’re angry at Cheney for not assuming the same supine pose that they have in response to Trump’s schtick. “Why can’t she move on!?” they ask without ever suggesting that Trump should, too. 

This is the double standard that has marked the entire Trump era. He gets to behave however he wants, belch out whatever absurdity or slanderous lie he pleases, and it’s okay because that’s who Trump is. But if you dissent, object, or just point it out, you’re the one who is obsessed. You’re the one who has “derangement syndrome.” You’re the one who can’t move on. 

If history is any guide, this is what I’ll hear from some readers who have internalized this abused-spouse-logic when it comes to Trump. Why are you criticizing Trump when Biden is doing X, Y, or Z? What about the media!? Why can’t you move on from Trump!? To which I say, “You first.”

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.