“HISTORY IS WATCHING,” Liz Cheney warned last week, as her fellow Republicans in the House of Representatives prepared to vote her out of her leadership position in their caucus. On the morning of May 12th, one day after she delivered a fiery speech on the House floor in defence of truth and democracy, they made good on their threat, ousting her as conference chair. Her admonition might seem grandiose relative to the position at issue—the third-ranking role among the minority in the lower house. And yet, to members of both parties, the stakes are momentous: the direction of the Republican Party, the health of the two-party system, truth itself.
Ms Cheney is Republican nobility, the daughter of former Vice-President Dick Cheney, possessed of both his fierce neoconservatism and his granite self-confidence. She is a staunch conservative with the voting record to prove it. But she has committed what is becoming Republican heresy: not only did she say that Donald Trump lost the presidential election last November—as, in fact, he did—but she has refused since to shut up about it, unlike most Republican legislators who agree with her. Her colleagues find this obnoxious. “I’ve had it with her,” Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House, accidentally blurted into a live Fox News microphone last week.
The leading candidate to replace Ms Cheney is Elise Stefanik, who represents a rural New York district. While Mr Trump was president, Ms Stefanik, a moderate by Republican standards, voted for legislation he supported only 77.7% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight, a website. She opposed his tax bill, his only major legislative achievement. On policy Ms Cheney was the better ally, backing Mr Trump’s position 92.9% of the time.
Republicans are rallying to Ms Stefanik for one reason: she has been zealous in spreading misinformation about the election and trying to overturn it. Most recently she backed a Republican-ordered audit of the vote in Arizona’s largest county despite several previous audits confirming Joe Biden’s victory. That effort is taking on a whiff of desperation, if not lunacy: auditors are examining paper ballots for any trace of bamboo because of a specious claim that thousands were flown in from south-east Asia and stuffed into ballot boxes.
The intra-party feud has transfixed the American political class, dominated political coverage and opinion pages and deflected Republicans from attacking President Biden’s initiatives. The intolerance for Ms Cheney’s dissent also undercuts the party’s claims to disdain cancel culture and “snowflakes” who cannot abide speech with which they disagree. Some attacks have been downright sexist. “You look up into the stand and see your girlfriend on the opposition’s side,” Mike Kelly, a congressman from Pennsylvania, is reported to have said in a closed-door caucus meeting.
On Sunday Congressman Jim Banks of Indiana, the chairman of the largest conservative caucus, the Republican Study Committee, said on Fox News that Ms Cheney had made herself a distraction. “It’s clear that she doesn’t represent the views of the majority of our caucus,” he said. Pressed by the programme’s host, Chris Wallace, about whether he believed the last election was “fair and square”, Mr Banks said, “I have serious concerns about how the election in November was carried out.”
Ms Cheney, who like her father never wavered in support of the Iraq war or America’s torture programme, suddenly has a fan base in the Democratic Party. Delighted congressional Democrats are praising her principles, courage and patriotism while they seize every chance to lament the Republican Party as descending into a cult of personality. For his part, Mr Biden has been sombre. “It’s not healthy to have a one-party system,” he said.
Only a few months ago Ms Cheney, who is Wyoming’s sole representative in the House, was drawing comparisons to Margaret Thatcher and being touted as possibly the first female Republican speaker. Now not just her leadership position but her seat is in jeopardy. Her state party has censured her, and Republican candidates are lining up to challenge her. She may eventually emerge as a rallying figure for other Republicans ready to resist Mr Trump, if any should appear some day.
To Mr Trump, Ms Cheney represents a fading party establishment—led by Bushes, McCains, Romneys and Cheneys—that never accepted him. He singled her out, calling for her to be defeated in 2022, when he encouraged a mob to march on the Capitol on January 6th. “We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world,” he said. “We got to get rid of them.”
After the assault on the Capitol, Ms Cheney voted to certify the election, unlike the majority of House Republicans. She went on a week later to vote to impeach Mr Trump for provoking the attack. “There has never been a greater betrayal by a president of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution,” she said.
Despite calls to strip her of her leadership post, Ms Cheney easily weathered a caucus vote in February. Mr McCarthy backed her then, saying, “This Republican Party’s a very big tent.” At the time, Mr McCarthy said Mr Trump “bears responsibility” for the “attack on Congress by mob rioters”, and although he opposed impeaching Mr Trump he proposed censuring him instead. But now Mr McCarthy is far less worried about that attack than about ensuring Mr Trump helps Republicans retake the House in 2022. Having fanned voters’ doubts about the last election, Republican legislators would risk alienating constituents by contradicting Mr Trump now.
This is what makes Ms Cheney’s open defiance not merely embarrassing but politically dangerous. Just last week, Mr Trump issued a proclamation of sorts: “The Fraudulent Presidential Election of 2020 will be, from this day forth, known as THE BIG LIE”. As her colleagues applauded or held their tongues—the appeasing response that first enabled and now perpetuates Mr Trump’s grip on the party—Ms Cheney fired back on Twitter: “The 2020 election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system”.
The loneliness of Ms Cheney’s dissent is a gauge of America’s democratic condition. In a previous tweet, she defended herself against Republican attacks for having reciprocated a fist bump offered by Mr Biden as he made his way through the House chamber last month for his first speech to Congress. When the president reaches out, she wrote, “I will always respond in a civil, respectful, & dignified way. We’re different political parties. We’re not sworn enemies. We’re Americans.”
Her message recalled a different era in American politics, the one in which her father and Mr Biden himself came to Congress. History may indeed have its eyes on Ms Cheney now. The bigger question is whether it is also passing her by.
Editor’s note: On the morning of May 12th, two days after this article was first published, House Republicans voted to remove Liz Cheney from her leadership role.