“Do you think your defiance will change the course of things?” taunts a prison interrogator.
The beaten inmate, imprisoned and slated for execution for refusing to bend to the demands of the leader of his tribe, answers, “If God gives us free will, we’re responsible for what we do…or fail to do. I can’t do what I believe is wrong.”
It’s a memorable exchange from the trailer of Terrence Malick’s wonderful movie, “A Hidden Life” (the lines are in the film as well, but broken into separate scenes). Though the war story depicts a much darker, more sinister time in world history than the one we’re in now, and thus drawing any direct parallels would be both tasteless and inaccurate, the broader theme of conscience, disobedience, and personal consequences is something I think about quite often.
It’s mainly because I don’t see a lot of profiles in moral and institutional courage these days, at least not in the realm of American politics, where I spend a lot of time writing. So, when one does present itself, like what we’ve seen with Rep. Liz Cheney since January 6th, I take notice.
By standing tall (with very few on her side) against the shameful deceit and unaccountability her party has largely committed itself to, in regard to that day and the election that proceeded it, she has likely ended her esteemed political career. She knew all along that she would lose both politically and professionally from holding steadfast to the truth, in the interest of defending her oath to her office and the Constitution… but she has done it anyway.
The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.
— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) May 3, 2021
For that, I have immense admiration and respect for her. And just as Cheney’s stance says important things about her character and devotion to her country, her impending removal as House Republican Conference Chair says even more about the current state of her political party. Along with demonstrating where the GOP’s priorities and loyalties lie, it — once again — dispels some myths that the Republican party has been trying to sell for the last five years or so.
Let’s look at a few of them:
Myth #1: The GOP is against the cancel culture
They clearly aren’t, not when cancellation is politically helpful to them. Aside from the fact that over 150 Republicans in Congress voted to effectively cancel the results of the 2020 election, Liz Cheney is being removed from her position as the third ranking Republican in the House for no other reason than that she won’t stop telling the truth about the election and its violent aftermath.
Myth #2: Support for Trump has always been about policies, not personal devotion
It bears repeating: Trump lost the election. He’s no longer a public official, and can neither sign nor block legislation. He can’t make executive decisions nor any decisions in government.
When he was in office, however, Liz Cheney’s votes aligned with his positions 92.9% of the time. The voting record of Elise Stefanik, Cheney’s much talked about and inevitable replacement, aligned with Trump’s positions only 77.7% of the time.
Cheney also has a far more conservative voting record than Stefanik, earning a 78% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union. Stefanik’s rating is only 44%. While it’s probably pointless to cite these particular numbers since the Republican party has largely abandoned conservatism in recent years, I did so because some Trump fans reading this piece will predictably argue that Cheney is a liberal. She clearly isn’t, nor is she a “Never Trumper,” being that she voted for Trump twice.
But in the arena of personal loyalty to Trump, which is measured not by policy platforms, but rather unconditional, passionate defenses of the man (as perhaps best exhibited by Rand Paul), Stefanik rates much higher than Cheney. She has not only served as an unapologetic, reflexively defensive Trump mouthpiece, but even voted against the certification of the Electoral College. Her explanation for doing so included a host of thoroughly debunked claims that contributed to the Big Lie that ultimately provoked what happened at the U.S. Capitol. And she’s still repeating those falsehoods in interviews (including this week).
In regard to the January 6th assault, some may remember that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was initially up front about Trump’s part in it. Five days after the attack, he even bragged in an interview about how he’d stood up to Trump on the phone, telling him to “Stop this!” and accept the results of the election. Two days after that, he bluntly echoed the words of Liz Cheney, stating on the House floor that Trump “bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters.” He also said, “Some say the riots were caused by Antifa. There is absolutely no evidence of that. And conservatives should be the first to say so.”
Stop this. Trump bears responsibility. Conservatives should be the first to say so.
But then, Republican polls came in showing what GOP members of congress were also hearing from their political base and donors: We don’t care what Trump did or didn’t do. We’re standing by him. You’d better too, if you know what’s good for you.
McCarthy waffled, abandoning his rhetoric and position, and also abandoning Cheney and other House Republicans who had the gall to continue telling the truth about what had happened (with some of those individuals backing it up with their impeachment votes). McCarthy flew down to Mar-a-Lago to meet with Trump, get back in the former president’s graces, and as The Dispatch’s Stephen Hayes puts it, “enlist Trump’s help in achieving his career-long objective of becoming speaker of the House.”
Since then, GOP state parties have censured Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, and have aggressively sought to primary them out of office in the next election. A few weeks ago, the House GOP went as far as holding a no-confidence vote to try and oust Cheney from her leadership position, and McCarthy was recently caught trashing her on an open-mic (for continuing to say exactly what he was saying a few months ago about the January 6th attack).
None of this has anything to do with policy. It’s all about servitude — servitude to a disgraced former leader who’s now a private citizen. Those who are sufficiently servile to that individual, of course, have nothing to worry about.
Case in point, openly bigoted conspiracy nut Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Matt Gaetz (who’s currently under investigation for having sex with a minor), are both in better standing in the GOP Congress, in the Republican party, and with Kevin McCarthy… than Liz Cheney is.
Myth #3: Trump’s critics can’t give him up
While it may be true with some, it’s actually the Republican Party who refuses — almost in its entirety — to give the man up.
Let’s review some of the things that Trump lost for the GOP over his four years in office: the presidency, the House, the Senate, Georgia and Arizona, the suburbs, lots of independents, and literally the party’s very platform. These losses have rendered the GOP largely useless in mounting effective opposition against President Biden’s progressive agenda and spending spree.
Yet, high-ranking leaders within the party are still unequivocally declaring that Trump is, in fact, the leader of the GOP. The House Minority Leader is still regularly meeting with him, along with other party leaders eager to get their Mar-a-Lago social-media pictures beside the former president. Elected Republicans who Trump has a personal beef with are being demoted, censured, and primaried (in some cases, all three). Aspiring Republican presidential candidates like Nikki Haley, who said in January that the GOP should have never followed Trump (and should never do it again), are now vowing not to run against Trump (and instead support him) if he runs in 2024. And of course, Trump remains a huge staple in the GOP’s fundraising efforts, even as he continues to spread the Big Lie, and very publicly trash prominent Republicans like Mitch McConnell, and even his former Vice President, Mike Pence.
Yet, some complain that it’s people like Liz Cheney, and those who still comment on Trump’s continued stranglehold on the GOP, who can’t “move on” from the guy.
Jonah Goldberg addressed this point in a recent piece, writing, “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.”
He’s right, of course. And as National Review’s John McCormack puts it, “Purging Cheney doesn’t help the GOP move on from Trump. It proves the party is terrified of moving on from Trump.”
Sadly, it’s that terror that continues to define the Republican Party. And I’m afraid it will for some time.