The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Liz Cheney’s sharp rebuke of the GOP highlights a big and terrible truth

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). (Sarah Silbiger/Bloomberg News)

It’s time to forget about trying to shame Republicans into pursuing accountability for the elite perpetrators involved in Donald Trump’s effort to overthrow U.S. democracy. The ugly truth of the matter is that the great majority of them have made their decision on this matter already.

And they aren’t going back.

The House will soon vote to hold Stephen K. Bannon, a onetime top adviser to the former president, in criminal contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the select committee examining the Jan. 6 insurrection. The matter will be referred to the Justice Department for possible prosecution.

How many Republicans will decide that placing Trump and his allies beyond accountability entirely takes priority over Bannon’s obligation to honor a lawful congressional subpoena in an investigation into a violent attack on the U.S. government? Virtually all of them.

In a sharp rebuke late Tuesday, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) urged her GOP colleagues to change course. This is making news, but what’s truly notable here is what this reveals, in relief, about the backdrop against which it’s occurring: Everyone who is closely following this knows perfectly well her appeal is utterly hopeless.

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“All of us as elected officials must do our duty to prevent the dismantling of the rule of law,” Cheney declared, “and to ensure that nothing like that dark day in January ever happens again.”

Cheney also noted that Trump and his allies are still lying relentlessly about the 2020 election being stolen from him.

“He has now urged Republicans not to vote in 2022 or 2024,” Cheney continued. “This is a prescription for national self-destruction. I ask my colleagues: Please consider the fundamental questions of right and wrong here. The American people must know what happened.”

So Cheney tried appealing to Republicans’ self-interest: Trump’s insistence on continuing to cast our elections as corrupt will inevitably lead to him getting GOP voters to stay home. But Republicans have already determined this doesn’t require a break from Trump’s lies: Instead, they have decided they must keep feeding them to keep his voters engaged.

Similarly, Cheney is urging Republicans to accept a full reckoning into Jan. 6 as a precondition for future democratic stability. But Republicans have rejected this very premise: They have already made it overwhelmingly obvious that they do not see the need for any serious national reckoning of any kind, let alone a national response.

Whether this reflects a genuine belief that we can maintain democratic stability without such an accounting — or whether it reflects deeper revanchism against the very ideals of multiracial, pluralistic democracy, as Thomas Zimmer argues — remains to be seen.

It’s probably a mix of both. But the new GOP craze for sham “audits,” for vowing to subvert future election losses, and for taking control of election machinery while remaining in thrall to Trump’s lies about our electoral outcomes doesn’t inspire confidence.

Or take the Bannon battle. Democrats believe he can shed light on Trumpworld’s potential understanding of their scheme as a concerted and deliberate plot to overturn an election they fully knew was legitimate, through intentionally corrupt procedural exploitation of holes in our system, or violence, or both.

As numerous legal experts argue — see Josh Chafetz and Rick Hasen — what’s at stake is whether our political system is capable of getting to the bottom of an effort to destroy it at its very foundations. This in turn would inform reforms designed to protect it from a future attack on it.

That’s fundamental to democratic self-preservation. Republicans don’t think it’s necessary at all.

Indeed, Republicans have worked against this, by scuttling a bipartisan investigation (which would have sent an important message to the country) and by wielding legislative threats to cow private companies into resisting subpoenas.

Forget about the idea that Republicans will ever be shamed into agreeing that a national accounting and response are needed at all. That’s not happening. All that’s left to learn is where these impulses will lead.

We need to foreground this obvious truism — and its deeper implications — in a new and forward-looking way.

Historian Sean Wilentz, for instance, proposes that we reconceive of these tendencies as “secessionist,” in that they aim to “withdraw any remaining loyalties they might have to the existing system of government.”

Similarly, political theorist Laura Field asks us to wrestle more deeply with this question: “How much radical thought — and radical or unlawful action — can or should be accommodated by civil society in a liberal democracy?” Bannon is plainly pressing this upon us.

A reorientation here might also include things like this: Rather than media figures asking Republicans if they “really believe” our elections render illegitimate outcomes, instead relentlessly hound GOP candidates to commit to accepting future popular vote results.

Or press GOP lawmakers on whether they will support reforms to the Electoral Count Act and safeguards against presidential manipulation of law enforcement. After all, Republicans who profess no interest in future election subversion should want such reforms, to insulate themselves from future pressure to carry out the worst. Let’s demand that they account for themselves on this.

And needless to say, all this should require Democrats to support reforming or ending the filibuster to pass such protections into law.

Instead of falling back on the usual shame theater, all our focus should now be on where this is going to lead — and on what we’re going to do about it.