The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The effort to dump Liz Cheney is the consequence of a party that lost its way

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) awaits the arrival of President Biden for his addresses to a joint session of Congress on April 28. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post/POOL)

The growing effort to remove Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) from the third-ranking Republican leadership position in the House further accelerates her party’s full capitulation to Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” about the 2020 election. The move against Cheney is a sign of political cowardice. While shocking, it is not surprising for a party that has lost its way.

The majority of Republican lawmakers appear to have stopped believing in truth — or lack the courage to speak the truth. Cheney is not among them. She has been fearless in calling out Trump’s lies about a stolen election, and she has been forceful in rebutting the former president whenever he repeats the falsehoods that led to the attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Her words have been as stinging as they are succinct. In the aftermath of the attack, when she announced that she would vote to impeach the president, she said: “The president of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack. Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the president.”

Could she have been any clearer? Cheney knew then and knows now how wrong Trump was and, just as important, the terrible consequence of the continued spreading of lies to a Republican base dominated by his loyalists.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) on May 3 said former president Donald Trump was "poisoning our democratic system" with his false claims that the election was "stolen." (Video: Reuters)

Cheney struck again this week after Trump tried to claim that Biden’s victory was the “big lie.” In a tweet, Cheney responded by saying, “The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system.”

She said in January that Trump should play no role in the future of the Republican Party. She has never retreated from that position. For that, she is being condemned by the former president, in danger of being drummed out of her party’s congressional leadership, symbolically shunned by many of her colleagues and hectored at home in Wyoming.

Cheney is a conservative Republican. She shares virtually no policy positions with President Biden and the Democrats. She has been outspoken, repeatedly, when she has disagreed with the new president or with Democrats in Congress. Her credentials and familial ties as the daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney put her in the front ranks of the conservative movement.

That is no longer good enough for Republicans. She must, seemingly, agree with Trump’s false characterizations of the election or remain silent in the face of those lies, however damaging they might be. Those are the choices.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has begun to cut her loose. He said on “Fox & Friends” that others in the party are “concerned” about her, that she’s not able to “carry out the message” for the party heading into the 2022 midterms. On a hot mic, he said, “I’ve had it” with her.

McCarthy, who has been a weather vane about Trump’s election lies and the president’s role in the Jan. 6 attack, has said the expressed concerns about Cheney have nothing to do with her vote to impeach Trump. Ask the followers of Trump whether that is the case.

McCarthy and other Republicans say they want all Republicans focused on winning back the majority in 2022, not looking backward. But the future Republican Party, if it is to have a moral center, cannot ignore the recent past. It has everything to do with what Trump has said and continues to say and what the silence of most Republican lawmakers says about the state of the party and the price of political opportunism.

Cheney isn’t the only one feeling the wrath of the Trumpian Republican Party. Last weekend, Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) was roundly booed at the Utah Republican state convention. His sin: acknowledging his differences with Trump.

“I’m a man who says what he means, and you know I was not a fan of our last president’s character issues,” Romney said as he was nearly drowned out by the chorus of boos. “You can boo all you like,” he said when the crowd began to settle down. “I’ve been a Republican all of my life. My dad was governor of Michigan and I was the Republican nominee for president in 2012.”

That is the point. Romney, like Cheney, is part of a Republican Party with a long history. But that party no longer exists. The GOP that elevated Romney and Cheney’s father and the Bushes was a party that was conservative in its values and policy positions, but also open to disagreement and debate. It was not a cult of personality. Now the litmus test is plain: Cross the former president and suffer consequences.

Romney, who voted to convict Trump in both impeachment trials, came to Cheney’s defense this week with a tweet. “Every person of conscience draws a line beyond which they will not go: Liz Cheney refuses to lie. As one of my Republican Senate colleagues said to me following my impeachment vote: ‘I wouldn’t want to be a member of a group that punished someone for following their conscience.’ ”

That senator, Romney told me last October, was John Cornyn of Texas. Romney was then recalling the reaction among his colleagues when he stood alone among Republicans and cast his vote to impeach Trump in early 2020. “He [Cornyn] said, ‘I don’t agree with where you came out,’ but he said, ‘I would not want to be part of any group that was critical of someone who voted their conscience,’ ” Romney said in the interview. He said he was heartened by such reactions to his vote.

Yet principled conservatism no longer seems in vogue among the bulk of the Republican Party. Fealty to the former president, no matter what he says, is more important. That and winning power at whatever cost to truth.

For a decade, Republican leaders in Congress have been intimidated by the party’s grass-roots base, beginning with the tea party activists who helped elect a new class of House members in 2010 that came to Washington to block and obstruct, and eventually caused then-House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to give up the speakership.

From 2016 forward, Trump has been the pot stirrer, cheered on by millions and millions of supporters. McCarthy and other GOP leaders fear that the only path to power in 2022 depends on keeping those Trump supporters happy so that they show up to vote. That political calculation appears to come at the expense of defending the truth.

The story of the Republican Party in 2021 has been described as a battle for the party’s soul. In reality, the battle is over, at least for now. Cheney and Romney and a handful of others daring to speak the truth about Trump’s election lies are on the losing side. Trump has prevailed. Cheney may well be driven from the leadership in retribution, but most likely with her conscience intact.