World·Analysis

Why we just witnessed a pro-Trump purge in the Republican Party

Donald Trump cemented his hold on the U.S. Republican Party Wednesday, which voted to remove a rare critic of the former president within the party leadership ranks. Liz Cheney and her defenders have called the effort to oust her from the position of chair of the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives a defining moment for democracy.

Vote to oust Trump critic Liz Cheney from leadership role shows how far Republicans will go for ex-president

Republicans oust Liz Cheney from leadership role

The National

3 months ago
2:02
Liz Cheney was ousted from her role as the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives over her vocal criticism of Donald Trump. 2:02

It's over. A remaining ember of resistance to Donald Trump in the upper echelons of the Republican Party has been extinguished.

Republicans voted to remove Liz Cheney from her party leadership position in the House of Representatives in a closed-door meeting on Capitol Hill, turfing her Wednesday from her role as conference chair, the No. 3 Republican in the House.

What led to this point is clear enough: Cheney's colleagues grew increasingly uncomfortable with her oft-voiced disdain for Trump. 

Even after Wednesday's vote, she restated her view that the former president is a dangerous figure who threatens to destroy the country's democracy and belongs nowhere near mainstream politics.

"We cannot both embrace 'the Big Lie' and embrace the constitution," she said after the voice vote, referring to Trump's discredited claims that the November 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats.

"I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office."

What's less clear is where this internal party fight takes the country's democracy.

This would have been a mind-boggling turn of events not long ago. Cheney is very conservative. She's been a fierce partisan and is the daughter of a former vice-president. Yet party leaders are angling to replace her with the less-conservative Elise Stefanik.

Republican Party at 'turning point,' Cheney says

While this leadership squabble, as with any, includes a dollop of clashing personalities, Cheney casts the stakes in a far starker light.

In a fiery speech and public letter published before her ouster, she described it as a moment to decide whether the party will stand up to a leader who threatened free and fair elections.

She's deeply conservative and a Republican stalwart, but Rep. Liz Cheney, pictured Wednesday at the Capitol, keeps criticizing former U.S. President Donald Trump — and now party members have stripped the Wyoming lawmaker of her leadership role as chair of the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/The Associated Press)

"History is watching. Our children are watching," she wrote in the Washington Post.

"The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution."

The New York-based Stefanik may not be as much of an ideological right-winger as Cheney, but she has exhibited one quality prized by today's Republican base: a willingness to follow Trump — and to follow him anywhere it may lead.

Her vote to overturn an election on Trump's behalf may have gotten her kicked out of a politics institute at her alma mater, Harvard University. But it cemented her status as a Republican star.

She's deeply conservative and a Republican stalwart, but Rep. Liz Cheney keeps criticizing former U.S. President Donald Trump — and now party members have stripped the Wyoming lawmaker of her leadership role as chair of the Republican Conference in the House of Representatives. (Erin Schaff/Reuters)

Stefanik is being feted in right-wing media and just appeared on Steve Bannon's podcast while Cheney published her self-defence in the Post, a newspaper Republicans love to hate.

So Stefanik, whose district touches the Canadian border, could soon get a promotion.

Cheney, McCarthy clashed over Trump

It's a head-spinning reversal after Cheney managed to survive a challenge to her position earlier this year.

But then she went down a separate path from colleagues who raced to Mar-a-Lago to get themselves photographed with the former president. at his Florida estate.

She kept insisting that Trump's political career was done, that he'd disgraced himself forever by trying to steal an election and whipping up the Jan. 6 mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol.

That kind of talk led to awkward moments. Like the press conference where she and her party's leader, Kevin McCarthy, voiced clashing opinions on Trump.

Trump, shown in 2016, left office in January but still towers over the Republican Party. Simply criticizing the former U.S. president in the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol could now become a firing offence. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

McCarthy had made it clear last week he was fed up. He defended Cheney in her first leadership test but then announced a formal move to dump her.

"It's clear that we need to make a change," McCarthy said in a letter to colleagues. He said the party can't keep re-litigating the past and must focus on winning back power in the 2022 midterms.

There's an element of coincidence in the timing, given another event Wednesday in Congress: a hearing on January's attack on the Capitol, with Trump's former defence secretary expected to blame the ex-president.

Cheney's few vocal defenders call it ludicrous to turf her for the ostensible sin of re-litigating the election fallout, given that the undisputed champion of dredging up the recent past is Trump himself.

The former president issues statements every day doubling, tripling, octupling down in his refusal to concede the vote of Nov. 3, 2020.

Jan. 6 attack a warning sign for democracy

"It's ludicrous that [Cheney's] having to defend herself. Like, that's insane. But that's where we are," one of her remaining allies, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, told a National Press Club event in Wahsington, D.C., this week.

"What she is being removed for is making it uncomfortable [for her colleagues] and being consistent. And God bless her."

Kinzinger, a former air force pilot, compared the effect of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot on American democracy to the warning a plane gives off before a crash. When the engine fails, the aircraft shakes before it plunges out of the sky.

WATCH | Rep. Adam Kinzinger discusses the future of the Republican Party at the National Press Club in Washington:

He said he tried warning the party leadership before Jan. 6 that violence might erupt based on the threats and comments lawmakers were hearing from Trump supporters, and he pleaded with his colleagues to make clear the election was over.

Kinzinger said he told McCarthy in a party conference call: "'I really, really am concerned about violence.' ... The response I got [from the leader] was basically that cricket sound. And then, 'OK, Adam. Operator, next caller.'"

He said he's now disappointed that his party has decided it's more important to keep focused on winning than in recognizing the threat to American democracy.

The calculation Republicans are making

Kinzinger estimates that only a few Republican elected politicians truly believe the election was stolen from Trump — a small group he described as having low IQs. "Maybe 10 [of them]."

The rest, he said, have made a strategic calculus, and Cheney messed with it. That calculus was perhaps most clearly articulated by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.

He opined several days ago that if Republicans fought against Trump, he'd take half the party with him. Graham said the party must stick together in that regard.

And while he's previously been allied with the party's more pro-military, hawkish wing, like Cheney and her father, Graham says it's time to accept the new reality.

"I've always liked Liz Cheney," Graham said on Sean Hannity's Fox News show.

"But she's made a determination that the Republican Party can't grow with President Trump. I've determined we can't grow without him."

The state of democratic guardrails

So what's next?

Trump is musing about maybe running for president again. And in the meantime, the institutional guardrails against him are being uprooted from the political soil.

Just this week in the primary for the Virginia governorship election, the only candidate who said Joe Biden was elected fairly finished a distant fourth.

An organizer of a Jan. 6 rally is now reportedly working for the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives.

Republicans who voted to impeach Trump have been censured by the party in their states, as have governors and state officials simply for refusing to overturn the results of the 2020 election.

They have met hostile, booing crowds. Election administrators in different states are quitting their jobs after a year filled with threats.

New voting laws, such as the one passed in Georgia or one proposed in Michigan, would sideline or dilute the power of state election officials who certified last year's vote.

Rep. Elise Stefanik, centre, may have been shunned by her alma mater for voting to overturn the 2020 election. But the New York lawmaker, shown last year, is a rising Republican star. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

And now the Republicans have purged a member of their leadership who clearly recognized Biden's election win, then called out Trump.

sobering piece in the New York Times Magazine ends with party supporters angrily demanding that their leaders do more to overturn Biden's win, with one threatening bloodshed.

On the other hand, there's no mathematical reason to conclude that American lawmakers ever came close to blocking the certification of the 2020 election.

In the Jan. 6 vote, even if a majority of Republicans challenged at least one state's results, Biden's win was still certified by the vast majority of the chamber in margins exceeding 33 per cent for every state.

One election law expert said the party's treatment of Cheney adds to his increasing worries about American democracy.

"We are in danger of losing the guardrail," said Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine.

"Much depends upon whether moderate Republicans can rein in Trumpian authoritarian tendencies and how institutions like the courts protect the rule of law."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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