That one particular position, though, is one that increasingly serves as a litmus test for the rest of the GOP: fealty to former president Donald Trump. Cheney’s vote to impeach Trump and her insistence that he be held to account for his role in the violence on Jan. 6 led to her ouster from the party’s House leadership. A few weeks after that, she was censured by the Wyoming Republican Party. This week, the party went further, voting to assert that Cheney is no longer recognized as a Republican.
What’s interesting about this is that there doesn’t seem to be any indication that this third layer of sanctions was a function of Trump’s own activism. He did attack Cheney (yet again) last week in a statement on his website, but it’s not clear he did much beyond that. This particular party-loyalty police action seems mostly to have been a function of the party going above and beyond to enforce loyalty to the former president.
To some extent, that’s probably a function of Trump’s reduced voice in the national discussion. After the violence on Jan. 6, Trump lost access to his major social media platforms. Two weeks later, he lost the presidency. Between those two muting factors, Trump has been far less of a presence in the national consciousness. Americans are searching for information about Trump at about the rate they did in mid-2015; he’s mentioned on television cable-news networks even less often.
Yet even without Trump’s voice crowding out the conversation, the party is still pushing forward in its efforts to enforce a standard of loyalty centered if not around Trump than around Trumpism and Trump-style politics.
Consider the response to that infrastructure vote — a bill, it’s worth remembering, crafted as a consensus among both Democrats and Republicans. Cheney opposed the measure along with the vast majority of the rest of her party. But 13 Republicans supported it and quickly faced condemnation. That includes the threat that they might lose committee assignments, stripping them of political power for the sin of not standing in the way of President Biden’s efforts to increase infrastructure spending. Trump did attack the group during a closed-door National Republican Congressional Committee dinner earlier this month, just as rumblings about punishment emerged. But that the effort pushed forward even without the fuel of Trump’s public exhortations is telling.
Or consider the indictment of Stephen K. Bannon on contempt of Congress charges. The case is robust: Bannon declined to offer any assistance to the bipartisan House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, setting himself up for criminal charges. Asked to decide between defending the power of Congress to issue and enforce subpoenas or to rise to the defense of an on-again, off-again Trump ally who speaks to the Trump base, House Republicans chose the latter.
Bannon’s indictment isn’t framed a slow, methodical consideration of the investigatory powers of Congress, powers muted for years by the indifference of the Trump-led Department of Justice; it is, instead, framed as a political attack on a Trump supporter. Republicans have circled the wagons not around themselves and their own power but around a guy who on Jan. 6 was a right-wing podcast host.
Part of this is obviously concern that Trump will push to oust independent-minded legislators in next year’s primaries. Trump has announced a wide range of efforts to that end; several members of Congress targeted by Trump have announced that they won’t run in 2022. (One, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) specifically cited the physical threats he’d faced as a rationale for not running again.)
But often the concern appears to be rooted not in what Trump has said he will do but in what legislators perceive as the will of Trump’s base. We’ve moved from an era in which Republicans learn to respect the power Trump has to move his voters to an era in which they act in anticipated response to those voters even independently of how Trump is directing them.
It’s fair to wonder how sustainable this effort might be. A legislator can be a Republican in good standing one day and, because they supported a bill negotiated by Republicans that would increase funding in their districts, they suddenly emerge as an enemy of the right and an ally of socialism. Efforts to enforce loyalty often collapse when they overspill their obvious boundaries. It’s easy to see how another few responses like the one to the infrastructure vote might pose that risk.
Meanwhile, the right-wing House Freedom Caucus announced that it had elected a new leader on Monday. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) will now chair the group, earning the trust of the caucus’s other members. You may remember Perry’s name from news reporting earlier this year in which he was revealed to have been involved in the effort to upend the leadership of the Justice Department after the 2020 election so that Trump had an acting attorney general who would raise false claims about the validity of the results. Perry had been a central figure in elevating false claims about the election in the weeks after it was conducted and eventually connected a fraud-sympathetic Justice official to the White House.
Perry is ascendant, even without Trump’s overt blessing. Others are embattled, even without the former president chastising them to millions of people on Twitter. Trump may be out of power, but Trumpism is robust.