Liz Cheney goes down

As expected, Republican members of the United States House of Representatives voted last night to remove Liz Cheney from her position as chair of the party conference, the third-ranking position (after minority leader and minority whip) in the party’s House leadership.

Cheney’s offence, in her colleagues’ eyes, is that she has consistently and firmly maintained that Donald Trump lost last November’s election fair and square, and that claims to the contrary by him and his supporters are a threat to American democracy. As she put it earlier this week, “Those who refuse to accept the rulings of our courts are at war with the Constitution.”

Not all of her opponents explicitly endorse the Trump thesis, or “Big Lie”, that the election was stolen, but at a minimum they demand silence on the point. But only, of course, from those who think like Cheney: they continue to express loyalty to Trump, who shows not the slightest sign of putting the issue behind him and takes every opportunity to assert demonstrable falsehoods in relation to the election.

Jon Chait at New York magazine has already said, better than I could, much of what I want to say about the Cheney issue. Here’s his report this morning, but his previous columns over the last week are essential background reading. In his words:

The demand that Cheney stop forcefully refuting Trump’s lies about the election is designed to force his enemies into unilateral disarmament. Republican leaders are free to flatter and placate him, but they are not free to call out his lies or return his attacks in kind. Trump’s critics can stay in the party, for now, but they must act like guests in somebody else’s home.

Chait understands the key point that I’ve emphasised many times, on which he cites Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky, the authors of How Democracies Die: that the biggest factor determining the success or failure of democracy is the attitude of the mainstream centre-right. Fascism triumphs not through its own strength, but when the centre-right is unwilling to join a broad front to resist it.

The defence of democracy requires ideological compromise: it requires people with very different philosophical backgrounds and policy preferences to work together. As Chait says, “Democracy is not an issue you can simply put aside, or even weigh alongside all the other issues. It’s a foundational issue — the one decision that has to be settled before any other political question can be considered.”

That makes it all the more significant that Cheney is ideologically a hardline conservative (considerably more so, in fact, than the member who is slated to replace her). To criticise her on that score is perfectly legitimate, but in relation to this particular issue it’s missing the point. It’s precisely those who might be thought to be close to fascism in philosophical terms who can do the most good by opposing it.

It’s somewhat reminiscent of the historical debate over Winston Churchill: the fact that his politics were so reactionary in many ways made it more, not less, significant that he was the one who chose to stand firm against fascism. Without that choice, history might have been very different.

The Cheney story is not (yet) at that level of historical importance. But as Tom Friedman points out, it is a step down that road:

If House Republicans follow through on their plan to replace Cheney, it will not constitute the end of American democracy as we’ve known it, but there is a real possibility we’ll look back on May 12, 2021, as the beginning of the end — unless enough principled Republicans can be persuaded to engineer an immediate, radical course correction in their party.

I’m not quite as pessimistic about the Republicans’ future as Chait is. I think its destiny is still very much in the hands of a large middle group; those who don’t like or trust Trump, but who for pragmatic reasons are not yet willing to break with him completely. Senate leader Mitch McConnell is reasonably representative of this group.

For now, they’ve chosen to buy time by throwing Cheney to the wolves. It’s likely that at some point they will feel the need to take a stand, but they will choose their ground carefully. They may still fail – Trumpism has a tight grip on the party’s grassroots – but I don’t think their chances should be written off. Either way, however, the Republican Party faces a prolonged period of more or less open civil war.

Could it happen here? Australia’s Trumpists certainly have no love for democracy, but they have never felt the need to attack it directly. Scott Morrison’s Coalition won the last election fairly, and could well do so again. And there is nothing in our political structure to provide the sort of opportunities that America’s does, with its electoral college, its troubled racial history and its highly decentralised and partisan control of elections.

Nonetheless, the same intellectual habits that have led the Republicans to this dark place are widespread in Australia as well. Parties do not develop a taste for lying overnight; it takes practice, and it takes time for a party’s supporters to become habituated to leaders who, like Trump, refuse to participate in the ordinary game of truth and falsity.

On that score, Australia doesn’t look too good. Climate denialism, our own “big lie”, has a grip on the Liberal Party’s branches that sometimes seems Trumpian in its tenacity. And its leadership class is, to say the least, not distinguished for moral courage. If some combination of circumstances were to tempt Morrison to try to nullify an election, it’s not at all clear who among them would stand up to him.

Then again, heroes can appear in the most unlikely places. Liz Cheney is one. Let’s hope we will find our own if we ever need them.

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