Just a few weeks ago, Representative Liz Cheney survived her vote to impeach Donald Trump for his actions instigating the riotous events of January 6. A motion to remove her from leadership was defeated easily. But, just a few months later she is very likely to be ousted from her position in Republican House Leadership. Leader Kevin McCarthy was caught on a hot mic discussing her fate. “I think she’s got real problems. . . . I’ve had it with her. . . . I’ve lost confidence,” he said.
Former President Donald Trump is clearly enjoying the prospect of Cheney’s demotion, and there’s no doubt he’ll be taking phone calls from potential Cheney primary challengers in 2022. A Cheney spokesperson put out a statement in response: “This is about whether the Republican Party is going to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on January 6.”
People who dislike Cheney’s particular foreign policy, or who want to see the Trumpian revision of the Republican Party continue, are loudly insisting that Cheney’s views have no constituency beyond a few Never Trump pundits. This is not true.
Look no further than the results of the Senate elections in Georgia. You don’t have to squint in the results to find Republicans who were demoralized by Trump’s false claims and his rabble-rousing. And then there are those who, after Georgia, were demoralized by the riot. Cheney’s views do not represent a majority. Not even close. But room for the sentiment she represents may be crucial to actually rebuilding a majority in purple states, and to holding Republican institutions together. And, speaking as a longtime critic of Cheneyism in foreign policy, I nonetheless think Cheney’s view on Trump also happens to be true. Trump lost, and admitting this is the only way to recover sense enough to understand the political terrain.
And in that terrain, truth is not a perfect defense. The political costs of Cheney’s stand are certain to be catastrophic for her. The political position from which Liz Cheney is making her stand is an exceptionally weak one, for reasons largely beyond her control.
First, the structure of the congressional Republican Party is working against her. Unable to gather itself into separate but durable and stable fractions, the Republican Party’s individual members in the House often look for political shelter in an ersatz national unity. A few backbenchers can get away with letting their libertarian flags fly. But the Republican Party has very little internal coalition building. It is always in a crisis for its soul because all its internal debates are not negotiations, but attempts at national rebranding. The House leadership team has an overwhelming imperative to define and police the bounds of this faked unity. They also have an implied duty to represent it.
A House caucus that had a larger, visible, and organized faction of Republicans who relied on the kinds of suburban voters who held their nose and voted for Trump but were repulsed by January 6 could protect a figure like Cheney and even demand that leadership include someone like her. No such thing exists.
And that brings us to the plain fact that makes her political position truly untenable: the nature of her district. Liz Cheney represents Wyoming. Trump, who fared unusually well among rural voters, won nearly 70 percent of the state’s vote. He just slightly bettered Cheney’s own result in 2020. This is a rural state with a political structure that is shaped by voters who care deeply about energy policy. It favors Trump, who tossed the Paris Climate Accord out the window, and consistently sought to advantage America’s resource-extraction industries. The Cheney family has been historically identified with these industries as well. Congresswoman Cheney sits on the natural Resources Committee. But Liz Cheney, like her father, is politically defined by her passion for an assertive and active foreign policy. She does not support primary challengers against Republicans who have different views on energy, but does when they have different views on foreign policy. Cheney would be in much stronger position if she were a figure like Senator Susan Collins, who has the relative freedom of the Senate, and a credible claim to a distinctive political brand that is suited to winning elections that are otherwise difficult for Republicans.
Right now, Donald Trump’s political power makes for an unstable GOP. Even in defeat, he still has the unstinting loyalty of a large share of the Republican electorate. But his promotion of election conspiracy theories divides Republicans. He forced two viable Senate candidates to repeat these theories in Georgia and they lost. Rejecting the same theory very likely will make Cheney electorally unviable in Wyoming. It’s not even clear that majority of Republicans really believe Trump’s claims of electoral fraud, or if they just don’t want to look like they are giving aid to Democrats by admitting he lost.
And so, for now the only thing that can unite the Republican conference is to stop litigating Trump and square up against the Biden White House and the Democratic Congress that empowers him. As Peter Spiliakos points out, Mitch McConnell condemned President Trump’s actions on January 6. But now that Biden is president, McConnell has been focused on opposing Democrats. In this environment, any Republicans who seem genuinely more passionate about opposing other Republicans than Democrats — Mitt Romney also comes to mind — will find themselves in jeopardy.