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Nobody—much less Cheney herself—imagined that there would be a last-minute deal that would keep her in the Republican leadership.
And there wasn’t. Within 20 minutes of the Republican caucus gaveling in its regular 9:00 AM Wednesday meeting, Liz Cheney was removed from leadership by a quick voice vote. Virginia Foxx (NC-5) offered the motion, and Kevin McCarthy put it on the floor immediately. Five members of the conference asked for the vote to be recorded, but McCarthy—who repeatedly said there would be a secret ballot—refused.
This suggests that there was far more support for Cheney in the conference than the party leadership wants to admit and that a recorded ballot would have revealed the depth of McCarthy’s weakness as Leader.
And the vote, concluded as swiftly as the guillotine dropped during Thermidor, seems not to have punished Cheney but strengthened her. At least, that is how she is selling it. “I will do everything I can to make sure the former President never gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” she vowed, apparently unshaken, as she faced reporters outside the chamber. “We cannot be dragged backward by the dangerous lies of a former President.”
With these words, Cheney established two things. Avoiding the opportunity to denounce Trump’s populist loyalists or her colleagues—a move that would implicate a significant subset of Republican voters sucked in by the fantasy that Joe Biden is an illegitimate president—she has identified the danger to democracy as Donald Trump himself. Cheney is not only the first Republican but perhaps the first politician in either party to explicitly declare that it is the Former Guy, and only the Former Guy, who poses a clear and present danger to the nation.
Everyone else is a follower, including Kevin McCarthy.
Second, Cheney consistently frames her struggle against the Big Lie as a defense of the Constitution which, whatever other disagreements you may have with her, it is. Last night, Cheney gave a speech on an almost empty floor that some have compared to moderate Republican Margaret Chase Smith’s 1950 “Declaration of Conscience.” That both women were rebuking a man named McCarthy is no accident, nor was Cheney’s decision in that context to frame the Big Lie as a national security threat. “Attacks against our democratic process and the rule of law empower our adversaries and feed Communist propaganda that American democracy is a failure,” she said. “We must speak the truth, our election was not stolen, and America has not failed.”
“Ultimately,” Cheney concluded,
This is at the heart of what our oath requires, that we love our country more. That we love her so much that we will stand above politics to defend her. That we will do everything in our power to protect our Constitution and our freedom that has been paid for by the blood of so many. We must love America so much that we will never yield in her defense. That is our duty.
Cheney reiterated the necessity of defending the rule of law when she addressed reporters after being summarily stripped of her office. In rebuking “the former president” (she doesn’t use Trump’s name), Cheney specifically cited “his lack of commitment and dedication to the Constitution,” offering herself as an alternative party leader, and a moral center, for Republican dissenters to rally around.
In the face of Kevin McCarthy’s stated aim of unifying the party around the defense of Trump’s lies, Cheney has offered another possibility for winning back the government: principled division. Historians may look back on this moment as a turning point, not just for Trumpism, but for politics itself: when invited to proceed in lockstep towards a cynical strategy for seizing power, will the GOP embrace the Constitution, or will it embrace oligarchy?
And while Cheney may seem like a lone warrior, she isn’t. The merits of dividing the GOP are being debated far more broadly, and Cheney’s impending defenestration may have hastened the process of revealing those conversations. On Tuesday, 100 prominent Republicans, some former officials in the Trump administration, issued a statement that could lay the groundwork for a breakaway third party. “When in our democratic republic,” its preamble reads, “forces of conspiracy, division, and despotism arise, it is the patriotic duty of citizens to act collectively in defense of liberty and justice.”
What is at stake is also the future of conservatism within a constitutional democracy. As Miles Taylor, one of the organizers, explained, “I’m one of those in the group that feels very strongly that if we can’t get the G.O.P. back to a rational party that supports free minds, free markets, and free people, I’m out and a lot of people are coming with me.”
Although McCarthy has billed Cheney’s demotion as a necessary step from which party unity will naturally follow, Cheney’s willingness to stay and fight—rather than retire, as many dissenting Republicans have—may galvanize allies. “I’m all for unity,” said the consistently outspoken Rep. Adam Kinzinger (IL-16), speaking to reporters about his pride in Cheyney’s principled stand. “I’m all for unity and truth, you know? Truth cannot coexist with lies. Truth cannot coexist with falsehood. You cannot unify with that. And I think that’s what Liz has been saying.”
Kinzinger was careful not to stigmatize MAGA supporters who continue to believe wild conspiracy theories generated, first from the White House and then from MAG-A-Lago. “By the way? To our base voters who believe the election was stolen? Honestly, I don’t blame them because their leaders have told them the same thing. That’s why it’s important for people to tell the truth.”
Cheney’s strategy is starting to emerge forcefully. Policy differences are something we can argue about. But if a politician cannot tell the truth about something as basic as winning or losing an election, that politician is not doing their most basic job—defending the Constitution and being a leader, not a follower.
It’s really that simple, whether you are a Republican or a Democrat: as Margaret Chase Smith said in 1950, “I think that it is high time that we remembered that we have sworn to uphold and defend the Constitution.” And even though she is no longer in a leadership role in the party, Cheney has skillfully managed to seize that ground for herself.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay first appeared as a post on her Substack, Political Junkie.