As expected, House Republicans voted yesterday to strip Rep. Liz Cheney (R–Wyo.) of her leadership position because she continues to criticize former President Donald Trump's "big lie" about the 2020 election. By contrast, Cheney's likely replacement as chair of the House Republican Conference, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R–N.Y.), has been happy to indulge Trump's self-flattering fantasy that massive, orchestrated fraud delivered a phony victory to President Joe Biden.
On her way out, Cheney delivered a defiant speech, greeted by boos from her colleagues, in which she reiterated her warning that the GOP has been corrupted by unquestioning fealty to a man who insists that Republicans live in an alternate universe where he won reelection. Trump responded predictably to Cheney's ouster, describing her as "a poor leader, a major Democrat talking point, a warmonger, and a person with absolutely no personality or heart." He also called her "a bitter, horrible human being."
Although Trump is right about the warmonger part, Cheney's record as an enthusiastic interventionist is irrelevant in this context. Stefanik, who is supported both by Trump and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.), favors increased "defense" spending, opposed withdrawing American troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and supported U.S. intervention in the Syrian civil war.
Foreign policy plainly has nothing to do with Trump's preference for Stefanik. Neither does support for his priorities as president, since Cheney voted with him more often than Stefanik did. And while it would be a mistake to imagine that Trump actually cares about ideology, Cheney's colleagues in the House ostensibly do, so it is also worth noting that her record is substantially more conservative than Stefanik's.
For Trump, and therefore for House Republicans as well, all that matters is that Stefanik has repeatedly reinforced his baseless charge that Biden stole the presidential election, while Cheney has persistently criticized that fake grievance, which inspired the Capitol riot that led to Trump's second impeachment, as a threat to democracy and the rule of law. She also has warned that her party's transformation into a personality cult undermines its ability to oppose the Democratic agenda, win control of Congress, and promote the policies that its members claim to care about.
Given Cheney's refusal to back down and "move on," it is completely unsurprising that Trump perceives her as unlikable and that he believes she lacks "heart"—meaning the courage to do whatever he wants, which requires no courage at all in a party still dominated by a former president who not only lost the White House but cost Republicans control of the House and Senate. And if Cheney has become "a major Democrat talking point," it is only because Republicans have dedicated themselves to a cause no larger than Trump's mercurial demands.
Trump's charge that Cheney is "a poor leader" likewise has to be understood in that context. As long as the vast majority of House Republicans think kowtowing to Trump's whims is in their political interest, a conspicuous opponent of that view is ill-suited for a role that requires collegiality, collaboration, and a willingness to elevate unity above principle. Cheney's divisiveness seems to be the main concern motivating McCarthy, who thwarted an attempt to depose her after she voted to impeach Trump but turned against her because she felt a need to rebut Trump's continuing portrayal of Biden as an illegitimate president.
Trump has "resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him," Cheney told her hostile colleagues in a floor speech on Tuesday night. "Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar. I will not participate in that. I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president's crusade to undermine our democracy."
But participating in Trump's lies clearly is a requirement for any Republican who aspires to a leadership position or higher office (and maybe even reelection). By ejecting Cheney, Republicans proved her point.
The New York Times excitedly reports that "over 100 Republicans, including former officials" are threatening to form a third party if the GOP does not separate itself from Trump. "When in our democratic republic, forces of conspiracy, division, and despotism arise, it is the patriotic duty of citizens to act collectively in defense of liberty and justice," they say in a letter that is supposed to be released today.
One of the letter's organizers is Miles Taylor, who served as chief of staff in the Department of Homeland Security during the Trump administration, when he wrote an anonymous New York Times op-ed condemning the president, a critique he later expanded into a book. "I'm still a Republican, but I'm hanging on by the skin of my teeth because [of] how quickly the party has divorced itself from truth and reason," Taylor told the Times. "I'm one of those in the group that feels very strongly that if we can't get the GOP back to a rational party that supports free minds, free markets, and free people, I'm out and a lot of people are coming with me."
While that slogan has a nice ring to it, the fact that the GOP was never a party that consistently supported "free minds, free markets, and free people" is not the only reason to be skeptical. Taylor himself did not publicly reveal his identity until a week before the 2020 election. And if the best Trump critics can muster now is has-beens like former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and former Pennsylvania Rep. Charlie Dent, it seems unlikely they will persuade many (or any) of their fellow Republicans.
"I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office," Cheney told reporters after her ouster. "The party is in a place that we've got to bring it back from. We cannot be dragged backward by the very dangerous lies of a former president." All the evidence suggests that her mission is no less quixotic than Trump's doomed efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election.