Republican scion Liz Cheney’s primary defeat to a hardline Trumpist rival underlines the dramatic shift the party has undergone under the former president as he pulls it away from mainstream conservatism towards the politics of personality.
The congresswoman’s loss to Harriet Hageman on Tuesday — ending her hopes of seeking a fourth term in her safe Wyoming seat — was a definitive rebuke for her opposition to Donald Trump.
Cheney’s voting record aligned with Trump’s positions 93 percent of the time during his presidency, but the sin that saw her excommunicated was her criticism of the 76-year-old head of a movement that brooks almost no dissent.
“I think the Republican Party today is in very bad shape, and I think that we have a tremendous amount of work to do,” Cheney told NBC the morning after her defeat.
“I think it could take several election cycles, but the country has got to have a Republican Party that is actually based on substance, based on principles, based on a belief.
“A party that has instead embraced Donald Trump, embraced his cult of personality, is looking the other way.”
Modern Republican presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush have dealt with critics from within the party, but personality disputes were largely secondary to fiscal prudence, lower taxes, free trade, limited federal power and a strong military.
– ‘Pretty scary’ –
Now, a sizable portion of the “Grand Old Party” — in Congress as much as in the grassroots — has coalesced around a leader who has little use for the strictures of traditional conservatism.
“The Republican Party isn’t the ‘Party of Reagan’ and it’s not even the ‘Party of Nixon,'” Aron Solomon, chief legal analyst for lawyers’ marketing agency Esquire Digital, told AFP.
“It’s a party that was lost and has now found its way. But, for many, it’s a pretty scary way.”
While “Reaganomics” became a clear reference to neoliberal, supply-side economics, the term “Trumpism” — beyond its vaguely nativist-populist connotations — is harder to pin down.
As much a disruptive, norm-shattering style of governance as a political project, it alludes to the “cult of personality” Cheney described around the former reality TV star.
Regularly dismissing critics within his own party as RINOS — “Republicans in name only” — Trump himself has a long record of political donations to Democrats and of switching parties.
The tycoon was a Republican in the late 1980s, but has since switched his registration between the Independence Party, the Democrats and the Republicans at least twice more.
A comparison of two Republican conventions 40 years apart demonstrates the shift in the party’s priorities away from policy and towards the whims of its leader.
In 1980, the party of Reagan released a policy statement that ran to 35,000 words, making specific prescriptions on taxation, welfare, transport, immigration, women’s rights, health, education and more.
– Blind endorsement –
At its 2020 convention, the party abandoned its policy platform altogether, instead opting for a blind endorsement of its rambunctious chieftain and his priorities, whatever those might turn out to be.
“Tragically, it appears… Republican principles have been lost,” Sean O’Keefe, secretary of the Navy under George H.W. Bush, wrote in a scathing editorial at the time.
“Nothing makes that clearer than the lack of a 2020 Republican platform to frame the ideas Republicans stand behind.”
Trump’s cast-iron hold over the party has been clear since more than two-thirds of House Republicans — a staggering 147 members — refused to certify Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory, hours after the tycoon’s supporters had ransacked the US Capitol in a bid to keep him in power.
With only two of the 10 who voted for Trump’s second impeachment keeping their seats — the others retired or were defeated by challengers from the right flank — it is likely to be a less moderate, more pro-Trump party than ever in 2023, when it is expected to take control of Congress.
Cheney, meanwhile, has announced that she will do “whatever it takes” to keep Trump out of the Oval Office and says she is “thinking about” a tilt at the presidency.
Solomon, of Esquire Digital, believes however that Cheney doesn’t have broad enough appeal and would be better taking her Trump critiques to the airwaves.
“More than likely, we’ll see Liz Cheney as a TV and radio commentator,” he said, “which would suit her well and allow her to influence voters who are truly listening.”