Many of us breathed a sigh of relief when it transpired in November last year that Donald Trump would not be serving a second term as US President. Yet, whilst his tenure in the Oval Office may have come to an end, the true extent of Trump’s impact upon the Republican Party and the political landscape of the US is only just beginning to become apparent.
Even within his own party, Trump has long been a divisive figure, but since the storming of the Capitol on January 6th— an act of insurgency precipitated by the then President’s obstinate allegations of electoral fraud — these fissures have become increasingly pronounced.
This week, Liz Cheney, Republican representative for Wyoming and daughter of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, became the first high-profile casualty of Republican Party infighting. In a vote held behind closed doors on Wednesday, Cheney was ousted from her role as chairwoman — the third highest ranking post in the House of Representatives. As the motion was voted on by voice, rather than ballot, exact numbers cannot be established. Her unseating, however, is thought to have been supported by roughly three quarters of voters.
The motion to dismiss her, put forward by representative Virginia Foxx, was provoked by a op-ed penned by Cheney and published in the Washington Post last week. Having written that she is committed to defending democracy “no matter what the short-term political consequences might be”, Cheney appeared fully aware of the piece’s potential repercussions. Outlining the quandary faced by Republicans, she stated that “[t]he GOP is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution”. She described the choice which must be made between short-term electoral success and commitment to the constitution and to democracy, writing that “[w]hile embracing or ignoring Trump’s statements might seem attractive to some for fundraising and political purposes, that approach will do profound long-term damage to our party and our country”.
This is not the first time that Cheney has faced backlash for her outspoken criticism of ex-President Trump and his unfounded claims that the election was ‘stolen’. Cheney openly condemned Trump for his role in inciting the Capitol Riots and was one of ten Republicans who voted with the Democrats to impeach him. Whilst House Republicans attempted to unseat her in a secret ballot soon after the impeachment trial, Cheney survived by 145-61 votes. This time around, Cheney was not so lucky.
It is important to note that the ousting of Cheney was not a matter of unseating a centrist or more liberal Republican. Cheney’s opposition to Trump does not equate to being moderate; indeed, she is a self-confessed ‘conservative Republican’ and her piece in the Post captures this position, referencing, for example, the threats of “the ridiculous wokeness of our political rivals, the irrational policies at the border and runaway spending that threatens a return to the catastrophic inflation of the 1970s”. Equally evident, however, is the value she places on integrity. She is assertive in her argument that “we Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality”. Worryingly, the Republican party appears to have made a symbolic yet decisive bid for the latter.
The comments made by Cheney following her unseating do not breed optimism regarding her party’s future; she issues the stark warning that “[w]e cannot let the former president drag us backward and make us complicit in his efforts to unravel our democracy. Down that path lies our destruction, and potentially the destruction of our country”. This counsel has, however, gone unheeded, with the ardently pro-Trump Elise Stefanik appointed in Cheney’s place.
An article in the Independent takes a more optimistic outlook, noting that Cheney’s removal situates her “as a national figure with a huge platform from which to voice her opinion with the authority of someone who chose country over party”. Leader of the House Democrats, Nancy Pelosi has also praised Cheney’s “great courage, patriotism and integrity”. Cheney’s supporters within the Republican party, however, appear few. Representatives, including Adam Kinzinger and Ken Buck, have spoken out in solidarity, but she has earned the disapproval of many more, including Trump himself, who has branded Cheney “a bitter, horrible human being”. Cheney’s opposition to Trump has put her in a small minority within the Republican Party, and although she has vowed to “do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office”, it is unlikely — given the US’ dominant two-party system — that she will be able to effect change without her party’s support.
In voting to unseat Cheney and censure her opposition to Trump’s claims of electoral fraud, the Republican Party has also made a decisive statement about its own future: it has turned its back on pre-Trump politics and instead embraced Trump-age populism, ‘alternative facts’, and encouragement — even endorsement — of the radical far right. The 2020 US Presidential election was the most toxic, divisive, and undignified to date. With the current trajectory of the Republican Party, that of 2024 promises to be little better.
Image: Gage Skidmore accessed via Flickr