The Republican Party is now not merely a party that indulges conspiracy theorists, it’s a party that punishes any assertion of truth against conspiracy theories.
Liz Cheney, who has insisted on repeatedly pointing out the truth that there was no stolen election, that Donald Trump simply lost, rather than being the victim of Democrat fraud, that American democratic institutions functioned properly in delivering a Democrat-controlled House, Senate and White House, was yesterday ousted, and ousted easily, by Trump loyalists from her position as GOP House Leader.
Far from resiling from her comments as a leadership showdown approached, Cheney, who labelled the claims of Trump and his loyalists “the big lie”, renewed her attacks. After her ouster, she declared: “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office.”
While anti-Trump conservatives in outlets like National Review savaged the targeting of Cheney, Cheney’s record has prompted other non-fans of the former president to cheer her removal, even if they disagree with the reasons for it. The American Conservative’s senior editor — who once labelled Trump “that small man, that Narcissus kneeling before a pool of gasoline” — pointed to her extraordinary record of support for the policies of the Dubya-Cheney (père) administration:
She’s defended waterboarding and the war on terror’s ‘enhanced interrogation’ program. She’s opposed any serious attempt to reform FISA and rein in the government’s broad surveillance powers. Her PAC ran a comically fearmongering ad denouncing the Obama DOJ as the ‘Department of Jihad’ because it employed lawyers who had dared to represent Guantanamo detainees. She’s railed against any attempt to withdraw American troops from anywhere, from Afghanistan to Syria to Germany. She’s continued to defend the Iraq war and even maintained that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.
All that’s been pushed into the background by her carrying of the standard of the old Republican establishment against Trump.
The Republican Party is no stranger to conspiracy theorists — it tolerated Joe McCarthy (a good friend of the Kennedys, by the way) and his conspiracy theories about communist infiltration for years. In a fascinating article in response to the Cheney ouster, National Review’s Dan McLaughlin explored the campaign by magazine founder and conservative luminary William F. Buckley to purge the far-right conspiracy theorist John Birch Society from US conservatism in the 1960s: “The core question that separates [Cheney] from her critics is a straightforward matter of truth versus falsehood, and wouldn’t be an issue at all if Trump didn’t remain deeply invested in demanding that Republicans perpetuate his lies about the election.”
There’s the transformation between the Republicans of sixty years ago and now: the far-right activists who claimed Eisenhower was a communist were on the fringe and could be purged.
Now the conspiracy theorists include a former president himself, and much of the party, and are purging those who state the truth. The fringe and the mainstream have traded places.
The “mainstream” justification for ousting Cheney is that the GOP needs to move on from Trump and concentrate on attacking the Biden administration, not feuding internally. But as McLaughlin correctly notes, perpetuating conspiracy theories and peddling lies damages conservatism, redirects energy away from external enemies and, when extremists are too closely linked to the movement, enable a progressive government to target it.
That’s exactly where the Republicans have ended up. The nightmare of William F. Buckley has come to pass.
As for the idea of moving on from Trump, even if he’s confined to a blog, Trump still have Fox News and a large chunk of what’s left of the Republican base with which to influence the party.
His next goal will be the purging of critics like Cheney from the party altogether — Cheney is expected to have to defeat a Trump loyalist in the GOP Wyoming primary for the 2022 congressional election, and no one rates her chances especially highly.
Welcome to a world where disputing baseless conspiracy theories is career suicide.