By now, most Republican politicians must understand in their hearts the terms of the Trump bargain. But currently, only two are very clear about what it entails: Donald Trump and Liz Cheney, whom the House Republican caucus will (almost definitely) expel from leadership later this week.
Some coverage of this situation treats Cheney passively, a noble victim of circumstance or receiving a wicked, ironic comeuppance for the Bush and Trump years. But this is like a partner's waltz between Cheney and Trump, where they're each working to force her from the Republican leadership over him.
Clearly, there are two majority stances among Republican politicians: a) Donald Trump was and remains great, or b) If you do not speak of him, or speak only in vague, positive terms, he might just stay in Palm Beach forever and fade away Twitter-free, allowing the party to move on without a break. Cheney, then, represents an obscure, minority position of wanting to expel Trump over the events between November and January, and scrutinize them like 9/11.
Unlike many of the “I'm saddened and disappointed” Trump critics who've passed through over the years, though, the Cheney approach has been colder and inelastic, a sort of "my offer is this: nothing" vibe.
She helped engineer the Washington Post op-ed from all the living former defense secretaries on Jan. 3 promoting a peaceful transition and the veracity of the election results, and was extremely clear about why she was voting for Trump’s impeachment. When, after the impeachment vote, the conference took the first vote over her leadership role, she sat stoic and silent in the hourslong meeting — and forced that vote to prove her stable margin, according to the Times’ Robert Draper, who noted, “that Cheney was willing to face Trump’s wrath called attention to the fact that most of them were not — a factor in the aggrievement directed at Cheney in the meeting.” And there must be that personal element, which is less about Trump almost and more about the one-to-one way that someone else’s choices become an attack on your own — and, in a way, Cheney and Mitt Romney (who recently asked booing Utah Republicans, “Aren’t you embarrassed?”) are a deep criticism of others’ choices. But come on: You're going to tell the Cheneys it's hard to endure public hatred? People are still upset Dick Cheney got a heart transplant instead of dying.
Conservatives who'd taken a transactional approach with Trump “did not appreciate the full cost,” Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a couple of years ago, when we were all much younger. “It turns out to be psychologically difficult to maintain the transactional stance. The temptation to minimize the flaws of one’s champion is too great.”
Cheney was able to sustain a fairly transactional approach with Trump for most of his presidency as one of the top Republicans on Capitol Hill, but has chosen to break on this one thing (i.e., that there was no widespread voting fraud, something other Republican lawmakers must know since they did pretty well down-ballot from Trump, and that the nonviolent transition of power is actually central to a functioning country). She’s going to give up power, and possibly her seat in Congress, to prove the point now that Trump is no longer president.
Cheney's own recent Washington Post op-ed contained the line, “I am a conservative Republican, and the most conservative of conservative values is reverence for the rule of law. Each of us swears an oath before God to uphold our Constitution.” They could have headlined the piece, "JUST DO IT ALREADY."
And it is untenable for someone who the former president is attacking daily, and at odds with points A and B above, to serve as the third-ranking member of the House conference — even if she’s “inconveniently right,” as Liam Donovan recently put it. And Kevin McCarthy may well be validated in the medium term, material future in keeping Trump and Trump’s supporters in the fold instead of in a third party, ahead of a midterm election in which, historically, the opposition party is likely to see gains.
But only Trump sets the terms of what a Trumpian identity looks like; institutions tend to crumble beneath him. And this deal works differently for supporters, who are a mass, and politicians, who are individuals. Trump is still publicly attacking Mike Pence, the most loyal Republican he could have created, because he wouldn’t overturn the election. Would-be Cheney replacement Elise Stefanik — who has transformed herself on the singular issue that animated Republican politics for five years — is already having to tell people she'll only hold the position for 18 months, and getting cut up for the moderate record that her district requires, because if one thing works for Trump, it doesn’t always for everyone else. The Washington Post published two stories in two days where advisers reportedly concede, yes, Trump is unhappy that McCarthy hasn't criticized Cheney more in public and was intrigued when someone pitched withholding his support for McCarthy if Republicans retake the House in 2022.
That doesn't sound like Trump? That sounds exactly like Trump. On this front, Cheney and Trump seem to agree: There's only one Trump, and he will not stop. It is what it is, and always has been.