Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, deserves great credit for demanding that his party fully repudiate Donald Trump’s big lie about the 2020 election and acknowledge its role in inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. But Kinzinger is getting one big thing wrong.

In a Sunday appearance on CBS, Kinzinger repeatedly said fellow Republicans are fundamentally driven by fear of Trump. They don’t want to “confront” Trump’s lies, Kinzinger lamented, adding that they’re “scared to death” of him.

As a broad description of our current moment, this is profoundly insufficient. It risks misleading people about the true nature of the threat posed by the GOP’s ongoing radicalization.

With House Republicans expected this week to oust Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming from leadership for vocally making the same case that Kinzinger is, the idea that Republicans are primarily driven by “cowardice” is everywhere.

“Liz is a living reproach to all these cowards,” one friend of Cheney told the New Yorker, a quote that drew tons of Twitter approval. Similarly, former GOP speechwriter Peggy Noonan ripped into Cheney’s fellow Republicans as a “House of Cowards” who are “jumpy and scared.”

Meanwhile, now that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has endorsed Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) to replace Cheney in the House GOP leadership, Democrats are pounding McCarthy for “cowardice.”

Obviously fear of attacks from Trump — or from right-wing media or primary challengers — is one motivator. But by itself, this simply won’t do: It implies that Republicans would prefer on principle to stand firm in defense of democracy but are not doing so simply out of fear of facing immediate political consequences.

It is impossible to square this reading with the concrete and affirmative steps that many Republicans are taking right now.

This isn’t ‘cowardice’

Take the shenanigans in Arizona, where GOP state legislators have commissioned a recount of ballots in Maricopa County. It is being conducted by a firm whose chief executive has promoted nonsense about fraud in the 2020 election.

What’s more, the GOP-controlled county board of election supervisors has blasted the recount while vouching for the election’s integrity. Even one Republican supporter of the recount has now denounced it as “ridiculous” and “embarrassing.”

Given all this, it’s impossible to chalk this effort up to “cowardice” or “fear of Trump.” It is a deliberate action plainly undertaken to manufacture fake evidence for the affirmative purpose of further undermining faith in our electoral system going forward.

Stefanik has endorsed this effort. Oozing with phony piety, she claims she merely wants “answers” for Americans concerned about “election security.” Of course, the opposite is true: Stefanik is trying to undermine, not reinforce, voter confidence in our electoral outcomes.

This is not the act of a “coward” who “fears Trump” and would vouch for the integrity of the election if only she could do so without consequences.

Rather, it’s the act of someone who calculates that a willingness to create fake pretexts for treating legitimate election outcomes (ones that Republicans hate) as invalid is a big selling point in today’s GOP. If she does win a leadership role, her calculation will be proven correct.

The goal is to undermine confidence in elections

Underscoring the point, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), the chair of the Republican Study Committee, made an extraordinarily disingenuous appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” Banks had endorsed the Texas lawsuit, which would have invalidated millions of votes in four states based on fictions, and voted to overturn President Biden’s electors in Congress.

Pressed by Fox’s Chris Wallace to admit Biden won “fair and square,” Banks kinda sorta acknowledged it, but immediately pivoted to claiming those actions were entirely justified, by insisting that his “serious concerns” about the election were still valid.

This is not the act of a “coward” who “fears Trump,” and would vouch for the integrity of the election if only he could do so without consequences.

Rather, it is the act of someone who is fully devoted to the project of continuing to undermine confidence in our elections going forward.

This is for purely instrumental purposes. Republicans are employing their own invented doubts about 2020 to justify intensified voter suppression everywhere. Banks neatly crystallized the point on Fox, saying those doubts required more voting restrictions — after reinforcing them himself.

Indeed, with all this, Republicans may be in the process of creating a kind of permanent justification for maximal efforts to invalidate future election outcomes by whatever means are within reach.

I’ve already detailed the possibility that a GOP-controlled House could refuse to certify a contested state’s election results in 2024. Brian Beutler suggests other ways Republicans could use official power to undermine legitimate outcomes, such as institutionalizing “sham audits” like the Arizona one or punishing state officials who certify Democratic victories.

Time to reckon with GOP radicalization

The lies about 2020 and the increasing dedication to destroying democratic institutions in the quest for power are inextricable from one another. As Jay Rosen says, the press is comfortable calling out the former — it can be packaged as a “fact check." But being forthright about the latter requires depicting one party as far and away the only primary threat to our democratic stability. That’s accurate, but it’s uncomfortably adversarial.

Relatedly, describing Republicans as “cowards” who “fear Trump” casts their machinations as mere reluctant efforts to cope with externally imposed circumstances they’d prefer not to be dealing with. This lets Republicans off the hook in a very fundamental way. It risks misleading the country about the true depths of GOP radicalization — and the real dangers it poses.

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