House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is mobilizing the Republican caucus to remove Cheney from her party leadership position. The decision has nothing to do with policy. Cheney is as conservative as they get.
Indeed, as commentators have rightly pointed out, she has defended waterboarding, refused to strongly condemn birtherism and could even sound Trumpian during the Obama presidency, when Keep America Safe, a group she co-founded, ran an ad about the Department of Justice that included a headline saying “DOJ: Department of Jihad?”
But Cheney found the one thing that you can’t do in the Republican Party — attack the former President, Donald Trump. In case anyone had missed it, McCarthy’s move to oust her for voting to impeach Trump is reiterating the fact that the party of Trump and the Republican Party are one and the same. And in that party, there is no room for any dissent.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. The entire Trump presidency was a four-year exercise to disabuse pundits who argued that there was a great debate going on within the GOP about President Trump. His approval ratings remained strong within the party, Republicans didn’t defect from the party in substantial numbers on Election Day, and right through today he still enjoys party loyalty in spite of some softening of support in the GOP electorate.
In other words, Trump remains a powerful and influential figure within the party. His influence as a one-term president is notable. Most of our one-term presidents have been influential in a negative capacity. Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter, for instance, remained powerful figures within their respective parties as leadership models to avoid. For young conservatives, George H.W. Bush’s decision to raise taxes in 1990 served as a model of unacceptable compromise.
It’s true that Grover Cleveland was able to win another term in the White House after losing reelection four years earlier, while Theodore Roosevelt remained a huge force in defining a vision of progressivism that would remain significant in both parties. John Quincy Adams, of course, wielded influence in the House. But we haven’t seen anything like Trump among these or other figures. From all indications, nobody wants to defy this former President and there is every reason to think that, if he wants to — and that remains a big if — he will likely be able to win the nomination for the 2024 election.
The main reason for his standing is that Trump is in perfect sync with the modern Republican Party. Since the 1980s, the party has shifted to the extremes — both in terms of policy and in its partisan tactics. Though considered anti-establishment in 2016, Trump, it turns out, fit the GOP like a glove. Most Republicans didn’t see the 2020 election as a repudiation of Trumpian Republicanism, just more reason to double down. They’re unlikely to be swayed by Cheney’s remarks to Congress that the election is over and “our freedom lasts only if we protect it.”
Trump helped ensure this by framing the outcome as a stolen election rather than the defeat it was. The biggest challenge that one-term presidents have faced with their party is that after losing, they are seen as losers. Party leaders don’t want to invest in their future and often conclude that their record explained the outcome. Not with Trump. A majority of Republicans bought the lie that the election was fraudulent.
Trump is in harmony with the party. The party shifted and he met it perfectly. He set up a narrative that helped define him to supporters as a victim rather than a loser. The purpose of the “Big Lie,” the fraudulent claim that the election was stolen from him, was to explain why he is no longer in the White House. Using the conservative media as a platform, Trump’s bogus claim that he really won the election undercuts those in the party who think there was something politically problematic about his tenure.
In a party that won’t cross him, Trump’s power should not be underestimated. He has the potential to remain an extraordinarily influential one-term president and put himself in a strong position to run again.
But just as important, the entire Cheney episode is more evidence of the state of the GOP in 2021 and the tremendous unity that remains despite a phenomenon like the #nevertrumpers. Trump is the Republican establishment and its senior statesman. When he speaks, he speaks for his party.