After losing the Republican primary for Wyoming’s House seat by more than 30 points to a candidate enthusiastically backed by Donald Trump, Liz Cheney delivered a speech that included this:
As we leave here, let us resolve that we will stand together – Republicans, Democrats and independents – against those who would destroy our Republic.
“They are angry, and they are determined. But they have not seen anything like the power of Americans united in defence of our constitution and committed to the cause of freedom.”
It remains to be seen whether Cheney is justified in her optimism that a unified popular majority will successfully defend democracy against Trumpian authoritarianism.
Democracy contains the seeds of its own instability, via unscrupulous demagogues
But what’s crucial here is Cheney’s unflinching declaration that much of the movement behind Trump is committed to the wholesale destruction of existing political order.
Trump himself just confirmed this to be the case. And in the process, he neatly demonstrated why her loss is so unsettling.
The true reason he worked to oust her is to help secure absolute impunity for his crime spree against democracy – to clear the way for him to do it all again.
Discussion of Trump’s response to Cheney’s loss has focused on his gloating. And he did plenty of that. But he also posted this on Truth Social:
“I assume that with the very big Liz Cheney loss, far bigger than had been anticipated, the Jan 6 committee of political hacks and thugs will quickly begin the beautiful process of DISSOLUTION? This was a referendum on the never-ending witch hunt. The people have spoken!”
This is epic nonsense, given that around 170,000 people voted in the Wyoming primary – or about 0.05pc of the country.
But it points to something worth dwelling on: for Trump, the ouster of Cheney from the GOP is very much about debilitating the institutions that are struggling to preserve US democracy against his movement’s assault on it.
The January 6 committee has revealed that the plot by Trump and his co-conspirators was premeditated, coordinated, involved getting institutional and governmental actors to commit potential crimes, and aimed to destroy US democracy at its foundations.
Trump may face criminal prosecution in part as a result of the committee’s relentless burrowing. Even if he does not, the committee has demonstrated with unexpected force Trump’s lawlessness and his full intention to subvert the US political system.
Cheney, as the committee’s vice chair, played a major role in that achievement. So Trump’s ouster of her is not primarily because she “crossed” him. Nor is it about “revenge” or “score-settling” or “enforcing loyalty” – or any other of a hundred formulations that depict this as a personal feud or intra-party battle.
There aren’t easy answers if voters elect people who promise to subvert the rule of law
Instead it’s about disabling mechanisms of accountability that threaten to expose Trump’s wrongdoing. And it’s about stocking the GOP full of loyalists who will execute his scheme where others refused to last time.
Those two goals are linked. The most insidious threat Trump poses will come if he secures what amounts to a grant of “perpetual immunity” for crimes against democracy – and possibly for criminal acts as well. That threatens the US’s long-term stability.
In short, Trump’s effort to defeat Cheney should be seen as part of an ongoing project.
Similarly, Trump worked to replace other Republicans hostile to that project. He has found dozens of eager participants. Many of them have now come within striking distance of control over US election machinery across the country.
“The people have spoken!” declared Trump about Cheney’s “witch hunt”. That’s mathematically ludicrous – but it’s an actual claim of sorts. If he can mass his supporters in great enough numbers, his supporters can overrule institutions of accountability.
That’s an assertion to take seriously – and a new book, The Paradox of Democracy, helps show why. It argues that democracy is perpetually in crisis and contains the seeds of its own instability, via unscrupulous demagogues who can mobilise popular uprisings and turn them against the system itself.
Checks on this include well-designed institutions (hopefully rendering their own subversion less likely), the rule of law (hopefully discouraging outright illegal manipulation) and the forbearance of individual actors at crucial moments (the very people Trump is rooting out).
But hese guardrails are constantly at risk of being overwhelmed. There aren’t easy answers if a huge subset of voters are persuaded to vote for people who promise to subvert the rule of law.
The only response is to persuade more people to resist it.
“The history of democratic decline is a history of demagogues and autocrats exploiting the openness of democratic cultures to mobilise people against the very institutions that sustain democracy itself,” the book says.
Can anyone doubt that Trump’s drive to oust Cheney is an effort to mobilise that threat?