Liz Cheney’s Unforgivable Sin
The modern Republican Party does not tolerate criticism of its once—and current—leader.
One of the many Republican principles that Donald Trump obliterated was what was known as Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” Like several of the stone-tablet dictates (the prohibitions on committing adultery and bearing false witness come to mind), this directive was lightly followed and rarely enforced—politics is a rough sport. But Reagan’s edict served the purpose of keeping internal GOP disputes from getting out of hand. Candidates and party leaders (including a former vice president named Dick Cheney) regularly used the line as a way to de-escalate intraparty fights.
Trump, of course, spares no one his vituperation. Insults are his shtick and his identity, and Republican voters love him for it. Just as he has remade the party in his image—on trade, on spending, on immigration, and on interventionism, among other policy areas—so too has he revised Reagan’s unwritten rule to apply not to fellow Republicans but to him alone. That commandment—“Thou shalt not speak ill of Donald Trump”—is the one that House Republicans enforced this morning when they ousted Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming as their conference chair in one of the more anticlimactic votes in recent memory. GOP lawmakers claim they removed Cheney because her refusal to let go of Trump’s role in the January 6 insurrection amounted to “a distraction” in their attempt to regain the House majority. But anyone can see that her sin was far simpler: Cheney continues to call out Trump as a threat to democracy, and the party no longer abides such criticism—not from a party leader, and not publicly.
Republican lawmakers do tolerate criticism of the former president; in fact, many of them are eager to express their dissent, but only if their names are not attached to their words. Reporters don’t have to search hard within the House or Senate GOP conferences to find members willing to trash Trump “privately” or “on the condition of anonymity.” The same goes for party officials and members of his administration. Most infamously, “a senior Republican official” mused to The Washington Post when Trump had just begun to assail the legitimacy of the November election, “What’s the downside of humoring him for this little bit of time? No one seriously thinks the results will change.”
Two months later, a mob egged on by Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol and interrupted the certification of the presidential election he lost. Cheney decided the time for humoring Trump was over, and along with nine other House Republicans, she voted to impeach him. (Seven Republicans in the Senate voted to convict him after he left office.) That vote—and more important, her public explanation of it—was almost enough to cost Cheney her leadership post, but with the support of Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, she decisively beat back an attempt to oust her in February. At that point, what McCarthy and other Republicans apparently expected Cheney to do was to shut up and move on, even if Trump clearly had not. At minimum, they wanted her to bottle up her criticisms in the accepted Washington tradition of blind quotes and not levy them at a GOP retreat meant to showcase party unity. To borrow a phrase Mitch McConnell once derisively directed toward another politician named Elizabeth: Nevertheless, Cheney persisted.
The new GOP commandment, like Reagan’s original, is still selectively enforced. Representative Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, for example, has faced no formal rebuke for his crusade to rid the party of Trump’s influence. (Any punishment he receives is likely to come from Illinois Democrats, who could eliminate his House district next year.) But Kinzinger is not a member of the leadership. Considering Cheney’s specific responsibilities as chair of the conference, Republicans do have a legitimate case for removing her. Below the party leader, the whip’s job is to line up votes on the floor, and the chair’s job is to lead the conference’s messaging—to serve essentially as a spokesperson. Just as a caucus would not tolerate a whip who regularly votes with the opposition, neither would it sanction a spokesperson who couldn’t toe the party line. If Cheney’s dissent had come on an isolated policy matter—say, on a trade bill—her fellow Republicans would not go to the trouble of firing her. But Trump and the election lie that he has made his cause are not trivialities in today’s GOP; whether Republicans care to admit it or not, those lies are core to the party’s identity, and it doesn’t make sense to have a representative who so fervently challenges them.
Cheney seems to recognize this reality. Although she fought hard to defeat the first attempted defenestration—and succeeded in an impressive show of political strength—she barely contested the outcome this morning. “It is an indication of where the Republican Party is,” she told reporters afterward, “and I think that the party is in a place that we’ve got to bring it back from.” Cheney is plotting for a post-Trump GOP, and she is undoubtedly aware that the last House Republican chair dumped unceremoniously was John Boehner, who 12 years after his ouster reached a much higher perch: speaker. Cheney also has been in and around politics long enough to know the rules, and when they change. Reagan’s 11th commandment has become Trump’s, and Cheney is far freer than she was yesterday to ignore it.