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Opinion Liz Cheney may find breaking with the GOP painful but liberating. I did.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) vice chairwoman of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, at the Capitol on Sept. 30. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Last week, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) crossed the Rubicon. “For almost 40 years now, I’ve been voting Republican. I don’t know if I have ever voted for a Democrat,” she said. “But if I lived in Arizona now, I absolutely would for governor and secretary of state.”

To Democrats or independents, her declaration would seem to be a no-brainer: No one who believes in our democracy can possibly support election deniers such as Kari Lake and Mark Finchem. But anyone who has spent a lifetime as a party loyalist knows how hard it must have been for her to say those fateful words.

One of the most basic convictions uniting Republicans is that, however bad a Republican candidate might be, a Democrat is always worse. This has allowed seemingly sensible Republicans to excuse one outrage after another. Cheney has now broken with that pernicious orthodoxy. She has called out the biggest lie of all — that the worst Republican is superior to the best Democrat.

I have some small sense of what Cheney might be going through. After spending my entire adult life as a Republican — and working as a foreign policy adviser to three Republican presidential candidates — I finally had enough after Donald Trump’s election. I re-registered as an independent the day after the vote. Before 2016, I had never voted for a Democrat in my life. Since then, I have never voted for a Republican.

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It was a traumatic experience. I lost old friends and colleagues, and I was not exactly welcomed by some on the left who insisted I was a “war criminal” for having supported the Iraq War. Humans are tribal animals, and it’s disorienting to leave your tribe behind.

Cheney remains a Republican, but she has experienced far greater discomfort and danger in breaking so publicly with her party. She is, after all, Republican royalty: the daughter of a former vice president who was herself the No. 3 Republican in the House. Party loyalists feel betrayed by Cheney, and she has the death threats to prove it.

Even to go as far as Cheney has — endorsing a couple of actual, gasp, Democrats — is an impressive feat of courage and principle that few other high-profile Republicans are willing to undertake. But, based on my own experience, I suspect her rebellion from party orthodoxy, now that it has started, might not stop.

I found breaking with my party to be a painful but liberating experience, and she might, too. Leaving the GOP made me realize how much I missed by looking at the world through a partisan lens. In particular, I was willfully blind to what the Republican Party had become long before Trump came along. The racism, the nativism, the hostility to science, the conspiracy-mongering, the cruelty, the willingness to win at all costs: None of it is new. Trump did not invent these malign trends. He merely accelerated them.

If Cheney hasn’t done so already, I imagine that before long she will be forced to reexamine her lifetime in the GOP and ask where it all went wrong. Some argue that the roots of the current craziness lie in Newt Gingrich’s rise in the 1990s. Others point to Barry Goldwater’s rise in the 1960s. But the insanity definitely didn’t start with Trump — and, sadly, it won’t end when he passes from the scene.

I suspect that, like me, Cheney used to roll her eyes at the wilder and woollier manifestations of the Republican coalition while telling herself that the fanatics and fascists didn’t really represent the party. Now, it’s obvious that the extremists are the mainstream. It’s principled conservatives such as Cheney who are the outcasts and misfits in this freak show.

But leaving the party didn’t just free me to reckon with the influence of far-right zealots. It also forced me to come to grips with what passes for conservative orthodoxy. Many mainstream Republicans believe that gun control doesn’t work, that climate change isn’t a major threat, that every social welfare program is about to usher in a socialist dystopia (remember the Affordable Care Act “death panels”?), and that tax cuts are always good — the bigger the better. These beliefs aren’t as nutty as the claim that Trump won the 2020 election, but, in my post-Republican view, they are also at odds with reality. They are manifestations of an ideology that begins to unravel under the slightest critical examination.

Cheney is welcome to stay in the GOP and fight for what’s left of its soul. But, if she is to do so, she needs to understand how bad the party has been for so long — and how hard it will be to change course.

I can’t predict where her ideological journey might take her, but I can say that it is just beginning. Having taken off the blinders of party loyalty, she can gaze at the world anew. By losing her House seat, she has liberated herself to think freely and see clearly. She might be both horrified and gratified by what she perceives. Someday, she might even find herself rethinking bedrock beliefs such as climate denialism and opposition to gun control that are the “respectable” face of contemporary Republicanism.

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