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The Defenestration of Liz Cheney
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The Defenestration of Liz Cheney

She wanted the GOP to move on from Trump. Instead, the party decided to move on from her.

Hi all,

Let’s just jump in, shall we?

A very inside-the-beltway thing happened inside the beltway this morning. The No. 3 person in the House GOP leadership—which is to say, the third-ranking person in the essentially powerless minority party in one half of the legislative branch—was removed by voice vote.

That person, of course, is Liz Cheney. I won’t repeat my whole take on what she’s doing—or what she tried to do—because I wrote about it last week. But here’s my view in a nutshell: Cheney committed to a strategy, grounded both in principle and long-term practical thinking, aimed at convincing the GOP to move on from Trump. The GOP—or large segments of it—decided instead to move on from her.

The bulk of Republicans who voted for the defenestration of Cheney did so neither because they approve of the January 6 siege on the Capitol, nor because they love Donald Trump. Most of them are closet-normals who’d much rather not talk about any of that stuff and, in their heart-of-hearts, probably yearn for Trump to vanish from the scene entirely. The calculation was pretty straightforward: The need to stay on the good side of Trump voters and donors—which necessarily means staying on the good side of Trump—was greater than the need to tell the truth about January 6, the “big lie,” or Trump generally.

What it means.

The whole thing is a Rorschach test. For some, this is a world-historic moment. On MSNBC this morning, it was described—with a mix of despair spiced with barely concealed schadenfreude—as, essentially, the death of the GOP.

For others, it was a minor blip—an inside-the-beltway non-event of the sort I described above that has been exploited by Democrats and Trump-obsessed media, and it will have few (if any) long-term consequences. Indeed, for some, the whole thing is a trumped-up nothingburger designed to distract from Joe Biden’s failures.

And of course, for a certain segment of Trump supporters, it was neither tragic nor trivial but a wonderful event that will help the Republican Party unify around the Trumpian “vision” of America First.

Again, if I had to guess, for most—though certainly not all—of the Republicans who voted to oust Cheney from leadership (including Kevin McCarthy and Steve Scalise, not to mention my friend Mike Gallagher), it’s none of these things. It’s a regrettable decision that will have negative consequences for the party and the country, but the alternative would have been worse. (The only difference in my attitude toward the three of them is that I’m disappointed in Gallagher.)

Still, as I often tell my daughter, there are basically only two kinds of hard choices in life: Choosing between two very good things or choosing between two very bad things. Even fools tend to be able to choose between a very good thing and a very bad thing. A thumb in the eye or a bowl of ice cream is not a hard choice. A thumb in the eye or a kick to the groin? Now that’s a hard choice.

Practically speaking, those who voted to oust Cheney have a credible argument. Her position is supposed to go to someone who can speak for the party authoritatively and enthusiastically. Cheney has made it clear she can’t do that so long as the party refuses to break with Trump. If her top priority was to put the short-term interests of the party—namely winning in the 2022 midterms—above all else, she’d stop criticizing Trump and his lies about the election. That’s not her top priority, so she’s a poor fit for the job.

Falling down the decision tree.

But the idea that this was just a tempest inside the beltway tea pot strikes me as profoundly wrong. History is a bit like one of those choose-your-own-adventure books. Small decisions that seem trivial move events, people, and institutions along paths that lead to more choices while simultaneously foreclosing other choices. If you’ve ever read a book about the lead up to World War I, you know this. 

I’m currently listening to a podcast series about the French Revolution, and what’s remarkable is how a string of decisions that seemed fairly low-stakes put the country on a path virtually no one at any stage prior to the revolution would have chosen. Consider another example: Jacob Malik, the Soviet Union’s representative to the United Nations, boycotted a Security Council meeting in 1950, and his absence allowed the council to launch the Korean War. 

So yes, Karol Markowicz is entirely correct that most people don’t care about this brouhaha, and many more don’t know anything about it at all. But “inside baseball” has consequences. The people at that meeting made a choice, and that choice will constrain, create, and close future choices to come. The next time Donald Trump lies about the 2020 election being stolen, Republicans will still have a choice to speak up or stay silent. But the costs of speaking up just went up dramatically.

Again, I think the emphasis of the “big lie” and January 6 in all the analysis of this episode is slightly off base. That stuff is a symptom of the underlying dynamic of Trump loyalty. If Trump was going around saying, “I’m the richest man in the world,” that would define the loyalty test. It’s deference to Trump’s narcissistic, fantastical thinking that drives all of this. Obviously, though, Cheney is right that his lies about the election are more dangerous and sinister than his other lies because they are poisonous to democracy and the American constitutional order.

Choose your own misadventure.

It’s worth dwelling on that for a moment. For five years now, we’ve watched as one political and psychological levee after another has been broken. If in 2016, I’d have hypothetically described the events that led to Trump’s first impeachment to, say, Lindsey Graham, he’d have been appalled. But he’d also have insisted such a scenario was farfetched. If I told him he’d be a shameless apologist for Trump, he’d have been profoundly offended. He’d probably even have been sincere. But because of a series of decisions he made over the course of Trump’s presidency, Graham acclimated to political and psychological appeasement to Trump.

But in 2019, even after that first impeachment and the years Graham spent incrementally selling his soul to Trump, if I hypothetically described the events that led to the second impeachment, he’d still have said, “There’s no way I would stick with Trump if he did all that.” This isn’t even speculation. We saw that Lindsey Graham resurface for a few days after the siege of the Capitol.

“Count me out,” Graham declared in the well of the Senate. In an interview he added that he’d “never been so humiliated and embarrassed for the country.” But now, he’s back in Renfield mode.

This is an old story. Most people don’t start out corrupted or evil. They make a series of seemingly easy and harmless decisions for short-term gain until one day the person they see in the mirror has suddenly become a villain. Whether it’s King Saul, Michael Corleone, or Walter White, the path to ruin is one long series of choose-your-own-adventure decisions.

The question now is this: If the GOP is willing to make peace with an attempt to subvert the Constitution and steal an election, what won’t it be willing to make peace with as it marches further down this road?

But let’s get back to more practical considerations. Republicans are claiming that the party needs Trump. As Graham put it in a conversation with Sean Hannity (of course): “I’ve always liked Liz Cheney, but she’s made a determination that the Republican Party can’t grow with President Trump. I’ve determined we can’t grow without him.”

Now, I think this claim glosses over the true calculation going on in the minds of the individuals who’ve gotten us into this crisis. Whether Trump will help the GOP grow is, at best, debatable. What matters more to the individual Republicans sticking with Trump is that doing so ensures their own reelection. But let’s take Graham’s spin seriously for a moment: It’s nonsense. As Kevin Williamson writes in a brilliant piece for National Review:

When Trump was elected in 2016, Republicans already controlled the House of Representatives and the Senate. In 2021, they control the board of commissioners in Minnehaha County, S.D., and several very highly regarded hills of beans. Trump never got even to 50 percent approval, the first president in a generation to stay underwater for his entire term in office — and also the first since Herbert Hoover to see his party lose the White House and both houses of Congress in one term. Trump-aligned figures are hearing footsteps in Republican states, with Senator Ted Cruz, for example, having come within a few points of losing reelection to a callow nobody in a race in which he lost every city in Texas more populous than Lubbock.

One in six of the people who identified as Republicans on Election Day in 2020 no longer associate themselves with the Republican party — only 25 percent of American voters do. That’s the political price of January 6 and Trump’s post-election shenanigans. Any more unity, and Republicans will be holding their next convention in a corner booth at Denny’s.

Kevin puts his finger on the real issue: The GOP is drunk on the cult of unity right now. One of the problems with the cult of unity (and there are many) is that unity excludes as much as it includes. The logic of “You’re with us or you’re against us” axiomatically creates at least two groups. Turning the party into a personality cult dedicated to an unpopular ex-president is simply stupid on the merits. Why? Because the pro-Trump group will be smaller than the other group. Sure, it’s likely that very few voters will have this episode in mind one way or the other in 18 months. But of those that do, precious few will be voting Republican.

But that misses the point. Think of it like dynamic scoring. This decision will have multiplier effects. The closet normals will become Trumpier, and some of them will follow the path of Graham and stop being normals at all. This event will make it harder to reject the next crazy thing Trump wants or says. Elise Stefanik will fulfill her mandate to signal that the GOP is Trump’s party, full stop.

Yes, the people saying the defenestration of Cheney spells the doom of the GOP are wrong. I still think it’s likely the Republicans will take back the House in 2022. But if the GOP does take control, it will be a different GOP, more beholden to Trump than just “Trumpism”—whatever the hell that is—and even less beholden to the Constitution and conservative principles.

This degenerative process will continue until Trump dies or the party—or the country—faces a full reckoning. The only question that remains is what Trump could possibly do between now and then that would lead Republicans to say, “This really is too far.”

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.