The future of the Republican Party is often framed as either continuing as a traditionally conservative party based on policy issues or becoming a personality cult around Donald Trump.
At the beginning of the year, Liz Cheney told Robert Costa of CBS that she believes there is a “cult of personality” around Trump, representing a moral test that the Republican Party is “failing.”
While the growth of a Trump cult is evident, there is another more significant movement that Trump reignited. And one that Cheney must take into consideration. That would be the underlying feeling of grief among the majority white population. They see their prominence slipping away as new immigrants and minorities obtain more government control.
Elie Mystal of the Nation points out that Republicans rejected Cheney because “white conservative voters trash everything to keep themselves in power.” In other words, the core Republican base will not support any candidate who fails to address their fears of being replaced by others.
The Republican Party landscape sees an ebbing Trumper and a waning conservative tide.
Trump, or some Trump-like presidential candidate, makes a show of appeasing the fears of the white majority through harsh anti-immigration measures and guaranteeing a pro-Christian religion constitution. But their most explosive belief is that a government conspiracy, be it federal or local, is run by radical liberals’ intent on taking away the constitutional freedoms of average Americans.
Most traditional conservatives are comfortable with restricting immigration and emphasizing Christian values, but they do not endorse a conspiracy that undermines America’s democratic institutions. Leaders like Mitch McConnel were once the leaders of this traditional conservative Republican faction. Still, to retain their power, he and others believe they must tolerate Trump and even defend him.
By speaking without moderation, Trump successfully triggered resentment among Republicans and many non-Republicans against the disdainful “elites.” These are the people - all of them labeled liberals – to blame for government policies that are more concerned about gay rights, minority rights, labor rights, migrant rights, and human rights than about the rights of Americans who are white and have lived here for a long time.
Although pre-Trump Republicans were traditional conservatives, most have been swept into the Trump tide. Participants are in an existential war between good and evil, i.e., Trump followers versus liberal Democrats and RINOs.
Cheney refused to float along in the Trump tide
Cheney abandoned the Trump movement despite voting for Trump’s legislation 93 percent of the time while in Congress. Perhaps she thought she could reach Trump’s voter base by explaining how corrupting Trump was to the party and the nation. Nevertheless, she voted to impeach Trump for encouraging a mob to invade the Capital to overturn a fair election. As the co-chair of the House Committee to investigate January 6, she has been the sharpest Republican critic of Trump and his allies.
Cheney won her previous primary with 73 percent of the vote. This year she garnered only 29 percent, running against a Trump-endorsed candidate who considered the 2020 election “rigged.” On election night, with her defeat inevitable, she told the audience that she could not “go along with President Trump’s lie about the 2020 election. It would’ve required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic.” Instead, she said, “I will do whatever it takes to ensure Donald Trump is never again near the Oval Office.”
So where can Liz Cheney go in her quest to stop Trump, or a Trump mini-me like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, from becoming our next President? There are only two paths to challenge Trump from becoming President. Either beat him in the Republican primary or run as an independent.
Cheney has only one realistic option
Cheney understands that running in the Republican Primary is a guaranteed loss if Trump enters the race. Trump’s favorability dropped among Republicans in the wake of the January 6 riot, But it’s still above 80 percent in YouGov’s polling this summer.
However, even if he doesn’t run, his messaging has so resonated with Republicans that a Trump acolyte will be their presidential candidate. Republicans hinting at running in their presidential primary have moved further to the right by supporting Trump’s cultural war on the liberals and preparing to challenge the legality of any Democratic victory in 2024.
In an analysis by Washington Post, Philip Bump noticed that many Republicans who are not Trump supporters took his side in criticizing the FBI on the search of Mar-a-Lago. He saw this attack on the FBI more as possible allegiance to a belief in an evil deep state rather than to Trump personally. However, this trend among Republican candidates is more insidious than just opposing policies open to diversity.
Unlike in the McCarthy era of exposing communists in government, the deep state is now seen as liberals leaving our gates wide open for people who do not deserve to be new Americans. Instead, they are invaders, many with criminal ties or tendencies and unwilling to assimilate into our culture.
For most Republicans, as repeatedly measured by polls, the Democrats cannot win the next presidential election. But that belief is not based on verifiable fraud; it’s based on the necessity that they cannot win – period. If they do, this country will be lost. Our liberties will be narrowed, our conservative values will be outlawed, and our right to defend ourselves will be stripped away. So, they repeatedly deny that Biden won the election. Cheney says, “No American should support election deniers for any position of genuine responsibility.”
By confronting the election deniers and not being silent, even die-hard conservative Liz Cheney could not win the Republican primary. Yet, she and a significant minority of Republicans are willing to campaign within our republic’s democratic framework. They believe even if the liberals win an election, a democratic republic will survive.
The message that elections should not be discounted or overthrown could propel Cheney into a formidable independent candidate. In effect, she would be turning the Trumper view on its head. Instead of our country being lost if the Democrats win, Cheney’s message would be that if a Trumper wins, our country will be lost. In effect, she says that Republicans should have a strong and viable conservative party to protect our electoral process; otherwise, the liberals will win against Trump reactionaries. Even worse, if the Trumpers win, our country will drift toward minority rule and violent conflicts.
She should argue that Trump has hijacked the term” conservative.” He has redefined it within a Christian Nationalist framework. Although that trend goes back to Ronald Reagan’s Presidential 1980 campaign, forty years later, Trump converted that belief into the dominant Republican zeitgeist and required adhesion to it for a Republican to win a primary.
Liz Cheney is no Abraham Lincoln, but …
There are some historical parallels between Cheney and Lincoln. The idea of there being any similarity between the two may strike liberals and conservatives as a crazy notion. But they have the same path from losing a prominent Congressional race to being a national icon for a principled position in a divisive political environment.
Cheney lost her Congressional seat to a fellow Republican because she was an outcast in her party. However, she gained national prominence for being the highest-ranking Republican member in Congress to publicly recognize the 2020 election as being fairly won by Joe Biden.
Unlike Cheney, Lincoln was not an outcast in his party. In 1858 he was a former one-term Whig Congressman who ran for the US Senate as a Republican. He was expected to lose his Senate race and did to Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas because that state was solidly Democratic. Nevertheless, that campaign attracted national attention because he spoke bluntly about his opposition to the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision declaring the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional.
In effect, the Dred Scott decision said that Congress had no power to regulate slavery in the territories or the nation. It opened the door for slavery to be introduced into all states and at the expense of the free poor white male farmer class. Lincoln appealed to this constituency through his campaign slogan, “vote yourself a farm.” The slogan’s strong implication was that the Dred Scott decision would promote Democratic state legislatures to allow slaves to replace white farmers. It is akin to the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision to enable every state to ban abortion. The specter of nationwide abortion bans is prompting voters to reject Republicans and, like Lincoln, question the validity of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Lincoln’s presidential race in 1860 was critically different from what Cheney will face as an independent in 2024. Then, he was in a four-way race, which greatly fragmented the total vote. However, Cheney is not expected to face three strong presidential candidates in 2024. Since 1860, there have been only two other elections (1912 and 1948) with four nationally visible contenders. In each case, one of the major party candidates won the election.
The newly created Republican Party in the 1850s was not even a national party. It was mainly a party of the North and the West comprised of members left from the disintegrated Whig party and the much smaller Free Soil and Liberty Parties. While the Democrat party was the only national party in 1860, it had split in two.
Cheney’s Republican Party is not disintegrating, although deep fissures exist among its middle-class and college-educated voters. As an independent candidate, she would most likely be in a three-way race, which no independent candidate has ever won. To make a good showing, she must have a solid message to attract non-Trump Republicans and conservative independents. And she needs to articulate it as clearly as she has done on the House Committee investigating January 6.
Cheney could initiate a New Conservative Party
Lincoln had a clear position on slavery: no more expansion of it. This was anathema to the Democrats and the South. His prior debates with Douglass allowed him to explain it to the nation. Just as Cheney’s comments from the Congressional hearings have given her a national platform to present why we must save our democratic institutions from authoritarian leaders. She continues to force Republican leaders to justify why they do not condemn the January 6 attack on the Capital Building to halt the electoral vote count.
Cheney’s conservative politics will not appeal to liberals or even moderate independents. Still, she could find support among non-Trump Republicans and conservative-leaning independents who believe our democratic process is under attack when election results are dismissed as fraudulent. These voters would most likely be conservative middle-class professionals and influencers who think Trump has ruined the Republican party by emphasizing ethnic divisions and aligning religious orthodoxy with the Constitution. They are a minority within the Republican party but have a significant presence in the media market.
Cheney would not win the popular vote as an independent. History suggests that she may not win any electoral votes as well. In the 100 years preceding the 2024 election, only three third-party candidates have received more than one electoral vote: Robert La Follette, Strom Thurmond, and George Wallace. All of them received less than 50 votes. Popular candidates like Eugene V. Debs, Norman Thomas, Henry Wallace, John B. Anderson, Ross Perot, and Ralph Nader received none. Nevertheless, as an independent, she could attract enough votes to deny Trump or a Trump-like Republican a win in a swing state.
Running as a die-hard conservative, not a reactionary or a liberal republican, she could be the “real” conservative presidential candidate in 2024. Will Cheney exceed the highwater mark established by the presidential elections in the last hundred years for the popular vote (Ross Perot at 19%) and the electoral vote (George Wallace at 46 votes)? If she did, she could spark a counter-Trump movement of traditional conservatives to retake the Republican party or create a new Conservative Party.
Cheney could reach out to a national audience if she took a page from Lincoln’s playbook before he became the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. In February 1860, Lincoln bolstered his growing national recognition coming off the Lincoln – Douglas debates when he gave his Cooper Union address in New York.
Lincoln argued that he and his liberal Republicans had the true “conservative” policies and not the self-proclaimed “conservative” Democrats. For example, he said his views on slavery were the same as most American founding fathers. In contrast, the Democrats rejected the founding fathers and substituted something new. Substitute slavery for the electoral process and Trumpers for Democrats, and you have Cheney making the same argument.
Journalist Robert J. McNamara (with the Libertarian Justice Institute) wrote that Lincoln’s Cooper Union speechpresented careful research and a forceful argument, and “it was stunningly effective.” Lincoln ended his speech by saying, “Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves.”
Cheney might tap into Lincoln’s spirit of patriotic defiance in the face of a Trumper Republican attempting to dismantle our democratic electoral process.
Nick Licata is the author of Student Power, Democracy and Revolution in the Sixties. Now available on Amazon as a Kindle edition
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