It was the bureaucratic shuffle “heard round the world.”
House Republicans booted Rep. Liz Cheney from their leadership trio this week, replacing the Wyoming conservative with Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, the shape-shifting former Paul Ryan acolyte-turned-Trump-booster who, as recently as five years ago, could barely bring herself to speak the 2016 GOP nominee’s name.
Cheney’s defenestration and Stefanik’s subsequent ascent were an anticlimax, and not just because the switch-a-roo had been choreographed for weeks. Unlike Cheney, Stefanik is a reliable messenger on the one issue, above all else, that unites Republican lawmakers in Congress and many powerful positions around the country: that former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election are gospel.
After the dust settled on Friday, House Republicans sounded eager to move on from this particular headline-grabbing melodrama. With Cheney sidelined, they argued, the party would be free to focus on opposing the Democratic agenda and winning congressional majorities in next year’s midterm elections. Those imperatives, as Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy views it, were being frustrated by Cheney’s refusal to parrot the party line.
If the Cheney episode is instructive in any meaningful, lasting way, it should be to make clear that the so-called “GOP civil war” is anything but. Rather, to the extent there is conflict within the party, it’s a painfully one-sided rout. The Trumpist forces are on the march, in Congress and state capitols where voting rights are being rolled back as part of a growing suppression regime. Cheney’s resistance, for all its sound and fury, attracted no new public support from Republican ranks. Instead, it provided yet another platform for Trump loyalists to assert their dominance over the party – and its future.
For her part, Stefanik marched out to put a bow on the episode, declaring that House Republicans “are unified in working with President Trump.” The remark, in the context of what had unfolded over the previous few days, prompted some understandable eye-rolling. But beneath its apparent absurdity, a bright, glowing truth was revealed. Republicans are not only in near-perfect lockstep with Trump – who celebrated Stefanik’s promotion – but also with the politics of Trumpism, a more potent threat to the basic functions of American democracy than the former President himself.
Trumpism without Trump
In a Friday evening interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “The Lead,” Cheney side-stepped the question of Republican unity and criticized the Biden administration and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, before explaining her concerns over the party’s credibility with voters.
“We’ve got to be able to tell people you can trust us,” she said, “and trust us to be based around conservative principles and reject the lie and to protect the Constitution.”
That her replacement, Stefanik, is by any measure a less conservative legislator than Cheney – a point of contention among some Republican lawmakers, but not enough to halt her rise – underscored the GOP’s clear shift from a more traditional right-wing ideological bearing to a full embrace of Trumpism’s particular demands.
Those willing to stand by Cheney mostly shared at least one thing – the “former” in their titles. With the exception of Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, the leaders of the anti-Trump chorus can be divided roughly into two camps: those long-retired from politics and others, like former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who said their piece before standing down to avoid serious tests of their political mettle.
A third bucket exists mostly in the states, where GOP officials – including those, like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who blocked Trump’s effort to overturn the 2020 election result – are using ginned-up concerns over “election integrity,” sowed last November, as a basis to back restrictive new voting laws.
Asked in March why he supported the legislation, given his own insistence that the last election had been fairly decided, Raffensperger drew a false equivalence between 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams’ protests over the administration of that election and Trump’s actions last year. After conflating the two, Raffensperger claimed that the sum effect was a “shot to the confidence of voters” that needed a remedy.
In her interview with Tapper on Friday, Cheney described Raffensperger as a “really good example of the tremendous strength of local Republican officials around the country refusing to give in when President Trump was trying to pressure them.”
“Our system held,” Cheney continued, “the institutions held and there’s an ongoing danger and we need to stand up against it.”
That Raffensperger didn’t bend to Trump’s will is to his credit. That he is now parlaying that credibility to give cover to a new, more subtle form of illiberalism in his home state underscores how deep the rot goes – and that whether Trump runs again in 2024 or not, the Republican Party is more than happy to walk through the door he busted open.
Rep. Claudia Tenney offered up a similar kind of misdirection this week as she tried to squirm out of a question about Trump’s post-campaign disinformation offensive.
“No one knows about what happened in the election,” the New York Republican told CNN on Wednesday. “We don’t know if it was stolen or not, (Cheney) doesn’t know, I don’t know, the President doesn’t know. But what I know is we need to fix it.”
As anti-democratic dissembling goes, Tenney’s existential journey might seem mild. But it is, in many ways, the most dangerous kind. The loudest voices might get the most attention, but it is the measured ones, when peddling an outright lie about a free and fair election, that do the most to internalize the deception.
Marjorie Taylor Greene and the new GOP normal
Some of Tenney’s colleagues have been more aggressive – and less shameless, as they attempt to write the January 6 Capitol insurrection out of the history books. And they are not, as some apologists are quick to suggest, simply acting out of a fear of backlash from Trump’s supporters. That would be impossible, in a way, because they are, in the most literal sense, representative of them.
None more, of course, than Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman Republican from Georgia.
Earlier on Friday, two days after Greene personally confronted Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York outside the House chamber, CNN’s KFile reported on deleted video of Greene, originally streamed on Facebook Live, that showed the future congresswoman and associates stalking Ocasio-Cortez’s office in 2019.
The New Yorker’s door was locked, but the group camped out, rattling the letter slots, scribbling nasty messages in a reception book and spewing hateful gibberish to their viewers.
“We’re going to go see, we’re going to visit, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Crazy eyes. Crazy eyes. Nutty. Cortez,” Greene says at one point, mispronouncing “Ocasio,” before continuing to taunt and yell at staffers inside the office.
By McCarthy’s logic – the one that guided his support for Cheney’s ouster – either of the two episodes involving Greene and her dangerous fixation on Ocasio-Cortez might be cause for concern or even the meting out of some intra-conference discipline.
“Each day spent re-litigating the past is one less day we have to seize the future,” the minority leader had written in a letter to his members before they voted on Cheney’s fate. “If we are to succeed in stopping the radical Democrat agenda from destroying our country, these internal conflicts need to be resolved so as not to detract from the efforts of our collective team.”
But for those waiting on a statement of similar concern over Greene’s latest transgressions, better to not waste much time standing by. Trolling and harassment – remember, this is not the first time Ocasio-Cortez has been verbally attacked by a Republican House member – are not, apparently, the kinds of behaviors that earn one a substantial reprimand from GOP congressional leaders.
Tempting though it might be to dismiss Greene as a back-bencher with little influence on much of anything that takes place at her day job, she is, for all the mess, a rather neat encapsulation of both Trump’s power and its limits. Though she is a political disciple of the former President, she is hardly taking orders from him.
Greene is the unfettered id of the Republican Party in 2021, a sideshow character who feeds on confrontation and a scorn for Democrats and the basic function of government. That kind of political nihilism, and the popular support that delivered it to Congress, cannot be reasoned away.
And it is there that Cheney’s high-minded rhetoric, ultimately, falls short, along with Democrats’ appeals to decency. Greene is not susceptible to it and Republicans – even the more performatively mainstream among them – have no interest in rooting out the Trumpists now filling their ranks.