Opinion: The big myth about Cheney, Trump and the GOP
Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) on Capitol Hill on April 28. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion byJames Downie
Digital opinions editor
May 9, 2021 at 3:49 p.m. PDT
With the likely ouster of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as House Republican Conference chair and the public booing of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) at the state GOP’s convention, it was no surprise that the Sunday shows focused on one of political media’s favorite topics. “This week: party purge,” intoned “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd to open the show. “This is going to be a battle for the soul of the Republican Party,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) told Todd. “We’re very divided as a party. And that’s no secret,” said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox (R) on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
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But as much as media outlets love intraparty conflict, there’s no battle here. This is not to pretend, as former New Jersey governor Chris Christie did on ABC’s “This Week,” that most Republicans side with Cheney against former president Donald Trump’s lies about the election. (When host George Stephanopoulos pointed out that 70 percent of Republicans do not believe Joe Biden won the presidency legitimately, Christie could only grouse that “the people that I talk to are not in that camp.”) The fact that Washington has expected Cheney’s removal for days fits with what Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.), chair of the conservative Republican Study Committee, told “Fox News Sunday”: “Republicans are almost completely unified in a single mission to oppose the radical, dangerous Biden agenda … except for Liz Cheney.”
The reason there’s no battle is that while Cheney, Hogan and others want to argue that their vision of the Republican Party competes with Trump’s, that’s simply not the case. I’ve written previously that the GOP is still Trump’s GOP. But the reverse is also true: Trump’s GOP is the GOP as it’s ever been.
Lawmakers on May 9 discussed the discord among Republicans in the House of Representatives centered on Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) and former president Donald Trump. (Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)
Others have noted that the distance between Cheney’s GOP and Trump’s GOP is far smaller than she’d admit. As the New York Times’s Maureen Dowd notes in a new column, Cheney’s father, Richard B. Cheney, as vice president, “spread fear, propaganda and warped intelligence” to push the United States into the disastrous Iraq War, while encouraging President George W. Bush to shred the Constitution in expanding presidential and surveillance powers. And long before Trump became president, Liz Cheney was reluctant to criticize birtherism, only describing it on CNN as “people [being] uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas.”
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But the broader pattern goes much further back than the Bush years. The Republican Party playbook is the same as it ever was: Disguise worshipfully pro-big business, pro-wealthy policies with appeals to the resentments of President Richard M. Nixon’s “silent majority” or Sarah Palin’s “real Americans” or whatever label the party prefers for a specific type of White American. Every liberal project — from Social Security in the 1930s to Medicare and integration in the 1960s to the Affordable Care Act and same-sex marriage in the 2010s — is cast as a mortal threat to freedom pushed by the eggheads, the ivory tower or the coastal elites. The threat of “outside agitators” becomes the peril of “political correctness” becomes the menace of “ridiculous wokeness” — the term Cheney used in her Post op-ed last week. They’re all the same look.
Yes, Trump has turned some of these traits up to 11. The dog whistles became bullhorns; the “executive time” administration plumbed new depths of incompetence. But for Republicans, as televangelist and later right-wing presidential candidate Pat Robertson said 40 years ago, “it’s better to have a stable government under a crook than turmoil under an honest man.” The threat of liberalism outweighs the risk of an inept, amoral or fascistic president. The Trump era — including its culmination in January’s attempted insurrection — was not out of step with that. There’s no “battle” for the party’s soul; there are only the party leaders who will keep swimming in this foul stream leaving behind those that don’t. For the rest of the country, including the media, reckoning with that fact means being honest about it — the sooner, the better.
Read more:
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Opinion by James Downie
James Downie is The Washington Post’s Digital Opinions Editor. He previously wrote for The New Republic and Foreign Policy magazine.
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