Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) doesn’t matter that much. The House Republican Conference Chair barely matters at all. It’s the third ranking Republican in the House, but has no institutional power, and usually few know who holds the post (before Cheney it was Cathy McMorris Rodgers). But the GOP removing Cheney as Conference Chair matters a great deal because of why they’re doing it.
The official reason is Cheney has lost the confidence of the caucus because she won’t “move on” from the January 6 attack on the Capitol building. “There’s no concern about how she voted on impeachment,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy explained. “It’s more concern about the job ability… and what’s our best step forward that we can all work together instead of attacking one another.” Much of conservative media is on the same page. “Cheney’s problem is not that she voted to impeach Trump,” writes Washington Examiner’s Byron York. “It is that she can’t move on from voting to impeach Trump.”
Removing her is logical —as Varad Mehta argues in Arc, it doesn’t make sense for a Congressional caucus to have a leader at odds with most members — and also a devastating indictment of the Republican Party.
Cheney’s offense is she won’t go along with the Big Lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent, won’t whitewash the January 6 insurrection — the only time in modern U.S. history a losing presidential candidate’s supporters tried violence against the government to stop the peaceful transfer of power — and accurately blames Trump’s lies for inciting it.
That’s it. They want her to lie, or to at least shut up and go along with the lies, and she won’t. For Cheney, American Constitutional democracy and national security are first principles, transcending partisanship. For most Republicans, it’s the opposite. And a pro-democracy leader is a bad fit for an increasingly anti-democracy party.
Partisan Power First
The GOP’s priorities are evident in the choice of Cheney’s likely replacement, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.). Heritage Action rates Cheney’s record at 80 percent conservative and Stefanik’s at 48 percent. Similarly, the American Conservative Union gives Cheney a lifetime rating of 78 percent compared to 44 percent for Stefanik. So it’s clearly not about conservativism.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s Congressional vote tracker, Cheney backed Trump’s position 92.9 percent of the time, compared to Stefanik’s 77.7 percent. So it’s clearly not about carrying on the “Trump agenda.”
Both Cheney and Stefanik defended Trump during his first impeachment and endorsed his reelection, so that’s not it either. The only reason Stefanik is a better fit to lead today’s GOP is she pushes the Big Lie and Cheney rejects it.
In a statement that came out the morning of January 6, Stefanik spread lies about the vote in Georgia, falsely claiming that “more than 140,000 votes came from underage, deceased, and otherwise unauthorized voters — in Fulton County alone.” (About 525,000 votes were cast in Atlanta-area Fulton, Georgia’s largest county and a focus of Trumpist conspiracy theories. Audits found zero underage votes and two votes cast in the name of dead people in the entire state.)
But that’s in the past and Stefanik is eager to move on, right?
Hardly. On May 5, the Congresswoman tweeted that she’s “Proudly helping defeat the impeachment sham” (present tense). This month, Stefanik’s gone on a Trumpist media tour, pushing the Big Lie on shows hosted by short-lived Trump White House staffer Sebastian Gorka, Trump’s former chief political strategist and pardon recipient Steve Bannon , and former Republican Congressman Jason Lewis sitting in for the late Rush Limbaugh. In a typical comment, Stefanik told Bannon on May 6 “I fully support the audit in Arizona.”
That audit, of Phoenix-area Maricopa County, is an unsubtle attempt to validate, or at least perpetuate, conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. Insisting there was a lot of fraud despite months of searches finding no evidence — Maricopa already had a forensic audit conducted by three separate companies— the state senate brought in a firm called Cyber Ninjas over the county’s objections. It’s unclear if Cyber Ninjas has any experience with election audits, but it’s founder has loudly supported “Stop the Steal” conspiracy theories. OANN, a news outlet Trumpists turn to when Fox is insufficiently supportive, has raised money for the effort and got special access to broadcast parts of the process.
Cyber Ninjas’ auditors are using UV lights to hunt for watermarked fake ballots — a QAnon conspiracy theory that is very silly if you think about it — and searching for traces of bamboo because that will supposedly show that ballots came from Asia. (This is really happening). And they’re likely violating rules about ballot custody and bipartisan observation.
That sure doesn’t sound like moving on.
What do Republicans Mean by “Moving On”?
While some establishment figures, most notably Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, are trying to focus on opposing President Biden’s agenda, conservative media, state parties, many members of Congress, Trump himself, and most of his voters are fixated on the former president’s loss.
Polls, such as this one from Reuters/Ipsos in April, show a majority of Republicans believe Trump’s lies about a stolen election.
I don’t know how much they literally believe Biden’s win was “the result of illegal voting or election rigging,” and how much they’re just saying it because it shows support for their team. But whether true believer or conscious liar, Republicans are publicly professing to believe the lie, taking action based on the lie, and making adherence to the lie a litmus test.
State parties have formally censured the few Congressional Republicans who voted with Cheney to impeach Trump for incitement of insurrection. The Utah GOP booed Mitt Romney, shouting “traitor!” and “communist!” In a closely-watched special election for an empty Congressional seat from Texas, the only Republican candidate who criticized Trump’s lies finished 9th, with 3.2 percent of the vote.
The Republican-controlled government of Georgia responded to Biden winning the state with an election bill that disproportionately inconveniences voting in urban areas, sidelines state officials who thwarted Trump’s effort to overturn results, and gives the state legislature — safely Republican thanks to population concentration and gerrymandering — more power over elections; powers that could’ve been abused to help Trump steal the state. Florida passed a similar bill, and Texas is working on one.
Downplaying, excusing, or defending the Capitol attack is part of the GOP litmus test. As Will Saletan shows in Slate, sympathy for the insurrectionists is widespread within the party, from national officials down to the grassroots. Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy both spoke out against the violence in the immediate aftermath, but now downplay it or change the subject.
Tucker Carlson has made revisionist history of January 6 a staple of his top-rated program. This is how he described it on the insurrection’s three-month anniversary:
A mob of older people from unfashionable zip codes somehow made it all the way to Washington, D.C., probably by bus. They wandered freely through the Capitol, like it was their building or something. They didn’t have guns, but a lot of them had extremely dangerous ideas. They talked about the Constitution, and something called their rights. … They insisted, for example, that the last election wasn’t entirely fair.
That leaves out the people who assaulted police with poles, stun guns, and bear spray, among other things; who smashed windows, planted pipe bombs, and chanted “hang Mike Pence”; and extremist groups such as the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys, who preplanned violence.
It’s an egregious lie of omission, misleading the audience by willfully ignoring that 378 people have been charged in federal court, and more will be, in what U.S. attorneys describe as the “most complex” federal case in history.
“Move on” evidently means accept the Big Lie, rework election laws to make it more likely that Republicans win, and purge the party of anyone who won’t support trying to overrule voters if they don’t.
What Would Moving On Actually Look Like?
January 6th is the most impactful attack on America since September 11th — not the deadliest violence, but the most politically significant—so in some sense, we’ll never move on. Like 9/11, 1/6 will be discussed for years, and we’ll be impacted by its legacy indefinitely.
But the way we move forward is to reckon with what happened, not pretend it didn’t, so we can learn lessons on how to prevent similar threats in the future. As with 9/11 and the Kennedy assassination, January 6 warrants a full investigation.
Liz Cheney supports that, calling for a bipartisan fact-finding review similar to the 9/11 Commission. The GOP is opposed, concerned that the facts will make prominent Republicans look bad.
For that reason, we won’t get a bipartisan investigation. But when Republicans ask if we could let this attack on America slide, if we could just keep quiet and stand aside as they downplay January 6, perpetuate the Big Lie, and take actions that make a Trump-like steal attempt easier next time, the only patriotic answer is no.