The End of the Republicans’ Big Tent

The party has no tolerance for dissent within its ranks.

A photo collage of two light-hued photos of Donald Trump behind dark-hued photos of Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney.
Kevin Dietsch / Chris Carlson-Pool / Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty; The Atlantic

The best way to understand a controversial new resolution from the Republican National Committee censuring Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger is not, as some people have suggested, to legitimize the January 6 attack on the Capitol, but as something more primal: Trump service. The resolution hardly changes a thing—the two lawmakers are already personae non gratae in the party—but it seems designed to pacify the angry ochre god-king and his acolytes.

Once upon a time, not so long ago, the Republican Party prided itself on being a big-tent party. This didn’t mean that anything went—generally, members were expected to adhere to a philosophy of free markets and small government—but the party tolerated the left-leaning Nelson Rockefeller as well as the rock-ribbed Barry Goldwater, the conservative Ronald Reagan and the moderate Arlen Specter. The GOP no longer has many coherent policy goals, mixing free traders and tariff fanatics, entitlement-cutters with populists. The single unifying requirement is paying fealty to Donald Trump. Pretty much anyone willing to do that is welcome. This resolution is a demonstration of that fealty.

Cheney and Kinzinger’s purported sin is that they are serving on the House select committee investigating the January 6 insurrection and Trump’s attempts to overturn the election. They are the only Republicans on the committee. When House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy tried to sabotage the committee by appointing participants in Trump’s scheme to serve on it, Democrats rejected them. McCarthy then banned Republicans from joining the committee, but the duo agreed to serve anyway.

This is a growing irritant to Trump allies, because the committee has been scoring repeated, though preliminary, successes. CNN reported just yesterday that Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, one of McCarthy’s would-be appointees, spoke with Trump for 10 minutes on January 6. The committee has additionally collected damning evidence about Trump’s machinations before that day, and about communications with his aides during the riot.

The RNC’s resolution says that Cheney and Kinzinger “are participating in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse, and they are both utilizing their past professed political affiliation to mask Democrat abuse of prosecutorial power for partisan purposes.” After initial coverage of the resolution portrayed it as referring to the January 6 violence as “legitimate political discourse,” RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel released a statement saying the January 6 committee was persecuting “ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol.”

The RNC is trying to be cute here, winking at the insurrectionists without actually endorsing the violent assault on the Capitol. Trump allies have been working on this quickstep for months, downplaying the violence without explicitly accepting it, while supporting other parts of the attempt to overturn the election. The censure appears to have been written so that everyone could read into it what they wanted; McDaniel’s amendment is evidence this worked all too well.

Even if it stops short of declaring the violence “legitimate political discourse,” the resolution is nevertheless an attack on basic democratic principles. It is part of a push to legitimize the “paperwork coup,” the weeks-long effort by Trump and his cronies to cling to power by stealing an election that Joe Biden had won. Whether such behavior was illegal or simply immoral, dishonest, and dangerous to American democracy is a topic crying out for debate and investigation—by, say, the January 6 committee.

The censure is wishy-washy not only in its wording but in its aim as well. It scolds Cheney and Kinzinger, but it doesn’t go any further. Kinzinger is retiring regardless; as for Cheney, the Wyoming Republican Party has already moved to support her leading primary opponent. The RNC could have called for Cheney and Kinzinger to be expelled from the House Republican Caucus, but it didn’t do that, because the point is to satisfy Trump—a man who’s always been more concerned with appearances than actions.

Once you start looking for Trump service in today’s Republican Party, you can see it everywhere. The phenomenon of smart, ambitious politicians clumsily attempting to appeal to Trump and earn his endorsement, which I noted recently, is one example. Even politicians who are toying with challenging Trump for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination are engaged in Trump service. Former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who has been bolder than most, criticized Trump for refusing to acknowledge defeat in 2020 but hastened to add that he agrees with Trump on policy.

The imperative of Trump service is why former Vice President Mike Pence’s presidential hopes are doomed. Yesterday, Pence once again said that he’d had no power to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He has typically tried to balance these defenses with statements of affection and support for Trump, but there is no way out: Pence simply cannot perform sufficient Trump service without saying that he could have overturned the election, which would, of course, be disqualifying in the eyes of Trump fans.

One might say that these contortions to pacify Trump are really just attempts to respond to the desires of Republican voters, but this defense is flawed. First, pandering to voters who wanted to overturn a legitimate election (and coddling their false claims that the election was stolen) is an abdication of citizenship and leadership.

Second, if Trump service is intended as voter service, it’s at least a second-order effect; the participants seem most concerned about what the former president will do. Trump is still the favorite for the GOP nomination in 2024, but there are signs that voters are a bit weary of Trump. Glenn Youngkin’s victory in last year’s Virginia gubernatorial race showed that a candidate can win while keeping Trump at arm’s reach. Some recent polls have even found that fewer than half of Republican voters—including many Trump fans—want to see him run again in 2024.

In 2016, Republican primary voters drove Trump’s success, even as party leaders were horrified by him. Six years later, the voters have cooled a bit on Trump, but the party apparatus has turned itself over to placate him.