Liz Cheney’s ousting proves the ‘big lie’ is the Republican party’s religion

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Lafayette Square, outside the White House, reopened this week to strolling couples, tourists and scampering children. After nearly a year sealed off by eight-foot metal fencing, it was one more sign of life in America getting back to normal.

Then there’s the danger. For more than three months it’s been tempting for many to assume that, with Joe Biden in the White House and Donald Trump off Twitter, democracy survived its near-death experience, recovered and checked out of hospital. But the ousting of Liz Cheney by the Republican party shows that the potential for a relapse is all too real.

Cheney, the number three Republican in the House of Representatives, was essentially terminated for refusing to embrace Trump’s “big lie”, the false claim of a stolen presidential election. “I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy,” she said on the House floor on Tuesday night.

Cheney is an unlikely Joan of Arc. Her father, Dick, was George W Bush’s vice president and mastermind of his “war on terror”, torture included. Maureen Dowd, a columnist for the New York Times, notes that Dick Cheney’s big lie about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, defended to the hilt by Liz, “created the template for Trump’s big lie”.

But while the messenger is flawed, the message is unassailable: the constitution, the rule of law, an adherence to fact-based reality itself are all imperiled for as long as one of America’s two great parties has gone rogue. Republicans could have seen the light, exorcised Trump and returned to these principles. The deadly insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January even offered an obvious exit ramp.

On that day, Senator Lindsey Graham declared: “Trump and I, we’ve had a hell of a journey. I hate it to end this way... All I can say, is count me out, enough is enough.” Later Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, declared that Trump “bears responsibility” for the attack. Finally, it seemed, the fever was breaking.

Yet now McCarthy is the architect of Cheney’s downfall, claiming it essential to party unity, while Graham offered donors the prize of playing a round of golf with himself and Trump.

Reports of a civil war within the Republican party were always greatly exaggerated, the result of wishful thinking and restless journalists looking for a new angle. On Tuesday it emerged that more than a hundred Republicans, including former elected officials, are threatening to break away and form a third party – a sign that the struggle for the mother ship itself has been lost.

The ousting of Cheney snuffs out all doubt. Republicans don’t think they can win next year’s midterm elections without Trump. McCarthy believes that the “Make America great again movement” is his ticket to the speaker’s chair.

He might be right. With redistricting likely to cut into Democrats’ narrow majority, and with historical trends favouring the party that does not hold the White House, Republicans do indeed stand a strong chance of taking back the House, even if the economy is surging under Biden.

Tara Setmayer, a political analyst and former Republican communications director on Capitol Hill, says: “All of the political winds are at the backs of Republicans to take the House again so they’re catering to the most rabid supporters. These are the folks who pay attention in midterms. It’s a numbers game and they are so close to taking power back in the House.”

Which is where things get very dangerous. If Trump is the new church where all must worship, the big lie is the new religion that all must incant, whether with evangelical fervour or at least by showing their face in the pews every Sunday. Cheney’s likely replacement, Elise Stefanik, is actually more moderate (a lifetime rating of just 43.64 by the American Conservative Union, compared to Cheney’s 78.03), but her refusal to denounce the big lie is apparently all that matters.

So Republican state legislatures will continue to use the false claims of fraud to justify new voting restrictions that disproportionately affect people of colour. And come the next presidential election, there is reason to doubt whether a Republican-controlled House would certify the win of a Democratic president. The near miss of 2020 could become a full-blown crisis in 2024.

Eugene Robinson, a Washington Post columnist, warns: “The greatest threat to our nation’s future is not Covid-19 or the rise of China or even the existential challenge of climate change. It is the Republican party’s attempt to seize and hold power by offering voters the seductive choice of rejecting inconvenient facts and basic logic.”

It is easy to assume that Trump was a one-off anomaly and that Biden represents the democratic norm running on autopilot. But what if Biden is the one-off, merely delaying a slide into autocracy? Cheney’s demise is a reminder that though Biden won his “battle for the soul of America”, the war never ends. Complacency is the enemy; vigilance is all.

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