The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump just revealed exactly why Liz Cheney’s loss is so unsettling

Rep. Liz Cheney, Republican of Wyoming. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

After losing the Republican primary for Wyoming’s House seat by more than 30 points to a candidate enthusiastically backed by Donald Trump, Rep. Liz Cheney delivered a speech that included this:

As we leave here, let us resolve that we will stand together — Republicans, Democrats and independents — against those who would destroy our Republic. They are angry, and they are determined. But they have not seen anything like the power of Americans united in defense of our Constitution and committed to the cause of freedom.

It remains to be seen whether Cheney is justified in her optimism that a unified popular majority will successfully defend democracy against Trumpian authoritarianism. But what’s crucial here is Cheney’s unflinching declaration that much of the movement behind Trump is committed to the wholesale destruction of our political order.

Trump himself just confirmed this to be the case. And in the process, he neatly demonstrated why her loss is so unsettling. The true reason he worked to oust her is to help secure absolute impunity for his crime spree against democracy — to clear the way to do it all again.

Much discussion of Trump’s response to Cheney’s loss has focused on his gloating. And he certainly did plenty of that. But Trump also posted this on Truth Social:

I assume that with the very big Liz Cheney loss, far bigger than had ever been anticipated, the Jan. 6 Committee of political Hacks and Thugs will quickly begin the beautiful process of DISSOLUTION? This was a referendum on the never ending Witch Hunt. The people have spoken!

This is epic nonsense, given that around 170,000 people voted in the Wyoming primary, or approximately 0.05 percent of the country. But it points to something worth dwelling on: For Trump, the targeting of Cheney is very much about debilitating the institutions that are struggling to preserve U.S. democracy against his movement’s assault on it.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

Cheney was ousted by Wyoming primary voters, and she properly conceded defeat in that democratic election. No doubt those voters had many different reasons for their opposition to her.

But we shouldn’t be under any illusions why Trump wanted her gone.

The House Jan. 6 select committee has revealed that the plot launched by Trump and his co-conspirators was premeditated, coordinated, involved getting numerous institutional and governmental actors to commit potential crimes, and aimed to destroy American democracy at its foundations.

Trump may face criminal prosecution in part as a result of the committee’s relentless burrowing. Even if he does not, the committee has graphically demonstrated with unexpected force Trump’s lawlessness and his full intention to subvert our institutions and political system.

The Post's View: The country needs more Liz Cheneys

Cheney, as the committee’s vice chair, is of course playing a major role in that achievement. So Trump’s targeting of her is not primarily because she “crossed” him. Nor is it about “revenge” or “score-settling” or “enforcing loyalty” or any other of a hundred formulations that depict this as a personal feud or intraparty battle.

Rather, it’s about disabling mechanisms of accountability that threaten to fully expose Trump’s wrongdoing. And it’s about stocking the GOP full of loyalists who will execute his scheme where others refused to last time. (Cheney’s primary opponent likely fits that bill.)

Those two goals are tightly linked. As Josh Marshall argues at Talking Points Memo, the most insidious threat Trump poses comes if he secures what amounts to a grant of “perpetual immunity” for past and future crimes against democracy (and possibly for criminal acts as well). That threatens our political system’s long-term stability.

In short, Trump’s effort to defeat Cheney should be seen as part of an ongoing project. Similarly, Trump has worked to replace other Republicans hostile to that project with dozens of eager participants in it. Many of them have now come within striking distance of control over election machinery across the country.

“The people have spoken!” declared Trump about Cheney’s “witch hunt.” That’s mathematically ludicrous, but it’s an actual claim of sorts: If he can mass his supporters in great enough numbers, they can overrule institutions of accountability.

Jennifer Rubin: A Cheney presidential run would be a herculean task in a party beyond redemption

That’s an assertion we should take seriously, and a new book, “The Paradox of Democracy,” helps illustrate why. The book demonstrates that democracy is perpetually, endemically in crisis: It contains the seeds of its own instability, via unscrupulous demagogues who can mobilize popular uprisings for the express goal of turning them against the system itself.

Checks on this include well-designed institutions (hopefully rendering their own subversion less likely), the rule of law (hopefully discouraging outright illegal manipulation) and the forbearance of individual actors at crucial moments (the very people Trump is rooting out).

But Sean Illing, one of the book’s co-authors, notes that these guardrails are constantly at risk of being overwhelmed. As Illing points out, there aren’t easy answers “if a huge subset of Republican voters are persuaded to vote for people who promise to subvert the rule of law.”

“The only response is to persuade more people to resist it,” Illing told me. “The history of democratic decline is a history of demagogues and autocrats exploiting the openness of democratic cultures to mobilize people against the very institutions that sustain democracy itself.”

Can anyone doubt that Trump’s drive to target Cheney and many other defenders of democracy constitutes an effort to mobilize precisely that threat?