Republican voters, the pollster and analyst Kristen Soltis Anderson observed, respond to strength. Critics of GOP voters confuse this instinct with a hunger for authoritarianism. And while this disposition can manifest in unhealthy ways, that is a shallow and mistaken impression. What Republican voters spoil for, Anderson writes, is “a fight.”
Say what you will about Donald Trump; he brought that fight. The former president surely lost more than he won, but he picked many battles and stood on the strength of his convictions when his Republican opponents, by and large, did not. Trump and the movement around him became so synonymous with political pugilism that adherents of MAGA theology continue to operate as though they are an ascendant coalition even as they sift through the wreckage of two consecutively disappointing election cycles.
At the state and national level, the Republican Party’s committees have not taken stock of their losses. Indeed, those losses reinforce a persecution complex that has become an animating feature of the MAGA movement. That’s understandable. At a certain decibel level, churlishness and a crippling sense of inferiority can seem like strength. But that is an illusion that should be challenged. And some Republicans seem inclined to test the proposition.
Rep. Liz Cheney was the first. Though she was one of ten House Republican conference members to vote in favor of Donald Trump’s impeachment, she was singled out by her fellow members because she occupies a leadership role. Cheney, her more Trumpy critics alleged, could not continue to serve as the chair of her conference because her impeachment vote shows that she does not represent most of her fellow members’ views. Cheney wanted that theory put to the test, welcoming a referendum on her leadership. But in so doing, she did not throw herself upon the mercy of her colleagues. Quite the opposite; she practically dared them to strike her down.
“Several members have asked me to apologize for the vote,” Cheney said in a pre-vote address to her colleagues. “I owe you honesty, I owe you the truth, I cannot do that.”
“We cannot look away or ignore what happened on January 6,” the GOP conference chair continued. “We cannot sit by and let the Republican Party be taken over by Q-anon conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, Holocaust deniers or a cult of personality .… We are the party of truth. We are the party of law and order, justice, limited government and, most importantly, the primacy of our Constitution.”
In the end, Cheney’s role in leadership was reaffirmed by the vote of nearly two-thirds of the House Republican conference. This is no small thing. It is a rebuke—albeit an anonymous one, as the balloting was secret—of the party’s pro-Trump wing that includes Donald Trump himself. The former president actively whipped members to vote against Cheney and avenge him, and the party’s personality cultists postured as though they had the wind at their backs. But they did not.
Cheney is not alone. Sen. Ben Sasse joined her last night in defying the pressure placed on the GOP by Mar-a-Lago in a blistering address to the Nebraska GOP. Sasse’s party back home had already censured the senator once for failing to pay proper obeisance to Trump, and it seems set to do it again. In a recorded message to his fellow Republicans, Sasse dared his party to do it again.
Here, too, the senator was operating from a position of strength. He beat back a primary challenge in 2020, won reelection in November. And he, like so many down-ballot Republicans, outperformed Donald Trump in his state. Armed with evidence that he better represents the state’s voters than the party does, Sasse unloaded on the Nebraska central committee.
“[T]he anger’s always been simply about me not bending the knee to one guy,” he told committee members. “It’s because I still believe–as you used to–that politics isn’t about the weird worship of one dude.” Their problem, Sasse alleged, is that a “personality cult” had seduced them. The committee has been stirred to inchoate anger by the same environmental forces that animated the mob that ransacked the Capitol: a “lie” propagated by the president. “Nebraskans aren’t rage addicts,” Sasse insisted. “We’re going to have to choose—between conservatism and madness, between just trolling versus actually persuading the rising generation of Americans again.”
It isn’t just the substance of Cheney and Sasse’s message which threatens the core premise of Trumpism; it is their defiant posture. These are not martyrs delivering a final sermon before the gallows. They have not held a moistened finger into the breeze in the desperate effort to save their political hides. These are combatants spoiling for a fight, brimming with the confidence that comes with the knowledge that their ranks are fuller than their opponents think.
That’s precisely the same “fight” that Donald Trump brought in 2016. It is the heroic myth that still clings to him, even in defeat. Indeed, the Republican Party has avoided reckoning with its losses only by embracing the delusional fantasy that Donald Trump did not, in fact, lose. He cannot lose because, in loss, Trump’s Achillean mythos would be shattered.
Sasse and Cheney will get what they’re asking for. The proposition they are betting on will be tested, and they may yet lose that bet. Make no mistake: They are outnumbered. But these politicians act as though they, not their opponents, control the commanding heights. That is both intimidating and inspiring.