Whether it is Michael Dukakis in 1988 doing a photo-op up in a tank or John Kerry in 2004 dressed in goose-shooting camouflage, US democracy is rich with pandering moments. It is less generous with examples of politicians alienating voters on principle.
When Liz Cheney, who was ejected from her Wyoming district on Tuesday night, opposed her party leadership in early 2021 she quoted at them from St John’s gospel: “The truth shall set you free”. Her fixation on bringing about Donald Trump’s political demise – possibly in the form of a jail sentence – has turned Cheney into the US’s most celebrated electoral suicide.
Unlike the real thing, the political version can become a platform for rebirth. It is worth recalling that in spite of their attempts to ingratiate, Dukakis and Kerry each lost their presidential contests to a Bush. That was the end of their White House hopes; there is no return from panderings that fail. Cheney, on the other hand, has laid down a marker that could define the fate of US conservatism. If Republicanism is Trump and Trump is Republicanism, the party and the country are heading for a reckoning. “We stand at the edge of an abyss,” Cheney recently said.
What does her defeat tell us about the future of US democracy? The clearest message is that the Republican party has become an authoritarian cult. Cheney is among the most conservative lawmakers in the US. She voted 93 per cent of the time with Trump during his term in office. She is for every tax cut, against every abortion, and in favour of every new weapons system on offer. Much like her father, Dick Cheney, the former vice-president, Liz Cheney is as close as a politician gets to personifying the Stars and Stripes. She is as far from being moderate – “Republican in name only” as they are pejoratively called – as any of her colleagues.
Cheney’s defenestration thus raises the question: what defines today’s Republican party? Its grassroots is driven by two passions: who it loves and who it hates. The party’s base idolises Trump. Everyone in Washington knows the same is not true of many if not most elected Republicans. Figures such as Florida’s Marco Rubio and Texas’s Ted Cruz were speaking their minds in 2016 when they depicted Trump as a low life con artist. Harriet Hageman, the Trump-endorsed Republican who unseated Cheney, was probably sincere in 2016 when she called Trump a “racist and xenophobic”. Ambition, and fear of the mob, have turned all these figures into hollow mini-Trumps.
Conventional parties manage their extremes. In the case of today’s Republicans, however, the extreme sets the narrative. In another time, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the congresswoman from Georgia, would be dismissed as a political freak. Greene openly avows the QAnon theory that the US’s establishment is run by paedophiles. The more offensive her stances, the more money she raises. Last week she got rousing applause at a party event when she said she opposed solar panels because they only work when the sun is out. “I want to stay up later at night,” she said. “I don’t want to have to go to bed when the sun sets.”
Today’s Republican party belongs to Greene not Cheney. It is even more strongly motivated by what it hates than by admiration of Trump. I have no idea whether Greene is as stupid as she sounds. She could also be highly savvy. The key to success in today’s conservative movement is to provoke those who look down on it. It guarantees media notoriety that can be monetised. Trump devised the model. But he is not the last word on it. The key is to enrage the overeducated moralisers in bicoastal urban America. The more ignorant you sound, the more contemptuous the cultural elites, which is worth its weight in electoral gold.
It is unclear how a Cheney could break through this morbid dialectic. Cheney believes she stands for timeless Republican values like integrity, character and courage. She is amply endowed with all three. But none of these qualities seem to count for much among her fellow Republicans today.
It is possible that she is planning to play the spoiler against Trump in the 2024 Republican primaries. She could again sacrifice herself for a larger cause. A loftier bet is that in 2025 or beyond she will be ready to pick up the pieces of a party suffering from post-Trump stress disorder. But this may be to overstate the degree to which the pathology is solely about Trump. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonour will remain,” Cheney told fellow Republicans. This is an uplifting thought but also a truism. The pressing question is what happens between now and then. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022