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Liz Cheney and other anti-Trump Republican dissenters need a new argument

Why efforts to break the GOP's addiction to the former president by focusing on his political appeal could backfire.

UPDATE (May 12, 2021, 10:00 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect that Republicans voted to oust Rep. Liz Cheney from her House leadership position.

House Republicans have many disagreements with Republican Conference Chair Liz Cheney of Wyoming. Foremost among them is that she won't stop expressing her contempt for the obsessive way Republicans — especially the Republican former president — insist on relitigating the 2020 election. Cheney has made such a pain of herself, in fact, that the conference is set to drum her out of leadership. Given her penchant for candor, it should come as no surprise that Cheney didn't go quietly, even as House Republicans voted on Wednesday to remove her from her caucus leadership position.

Given her penchant for candor, it should come as no surprise that Cheney isn’t going quietly.

Over the weekend, a Washington Post report suggested that the National Republican Congressional Committee, or NRCC, deliberately misled its members to prevent them from taking a dim view of Donald Trump's political utility. It alleged that the NRCC withheld polling data indicating that Trump's unfavorability ratings were a staggering 15 points underwater in core districts the party needs to retake the House.

For an institution with the singular mission of helping Republicans win elections, that is malpractice. If the allegations are true, they suggest that the committee's instinct is to protect Trump even at the expense of its members' positions. That's a bad sign for the party's candidates ahead of the 2022 cycle. And yet, the GOP's bizarre decision to shackle itself to a political corpse isn't destined to prove the party's downfall. Trump's Republican opponents are going to need a better argument than short-term political expediency if they hope to persuade their fellow conservatives to finally exile him.

"While embracing or ignoring Trump's statements might seem attractive to some for fundraising and political purposes, that approach will do profound long-term damage to our party and our country," Cheney wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. This argument should theoretically resonate with GOP officials who care about winning but are unmoved by moral suasion. But what if Republicans continue to win?

What if Democrats fail to brand the GOP as anything other than the generic opposition? What if conventional midterm dynamics overcome any residual distaste persuadable voters have for the memory of Trump's term in office? What if the working-class voters and minorities who gravitated toward the GOP when Trump was on the ballot continue their migration in his absence?

That outcome may be more likely than not. If Republicans are as desperate to focus on the coming midterm election cycle as they claim, the issues Democrats have presented them with are an absolute godsend.

Among them, the persistence of school closures, remote learning protocols, half-days and "Zoom in a room" proctoring despite everything we know about the negligible risks associated with in-person education. Republicans could rail against the unjustifiably massive spending programs and naked giveaways to Democratic constituencies under the guise of Covid-19 relief that are making it harder for employers to fill America's 15 million vacancies with workers. Republicans would be foolish not to highlight the rising cost of consumer goods, just as they would be negligent to avoid noting the increasing risk of inflation and the administration's own admission that borrowing costs are likely to go up as a result. And this is just the view from May 2021. The view closer to Election Day could be markedly worse from the perspective of incumbent Democrats.

Even if the GOP can't stop distracting itself with purges of its more honest members, Trump skeptics on the left and the right alike should at least be able to imagine a situation in which these issues energize more Republican voters than Democrats. The Trumpified GOP has already beaten the experts' expectations.

In the end, Trump lost his bid for re-election, but not by the 8.4-point margin the FiveThirtyEight average of polls suggested on Election Day. Trump lost by just over 4 points, and he outperformed forecasts in nearly every toss-up state save Arizona and Georgia.

Nor could Democrats have been happy with their performance farther down the ballot. In the Senate, two vulnerable Republican incumbents lost to Democratic challengers, but the GOP beat the odds to hold all its remaining toss-up seats. In the House, Republicans were expected to lose 10 and 20 seats because, as elections expert David Wasserman noted, "toss-ups tend to break disproportionately towards the party on offense." Instead, the GOP gained 14 seats in the House, in part because of unanticipated strength among Hispanic voters.

The Democratic Party's most humiliating defeats arguably occurred at the legislative level. "Ominously for Republicans," the Cook Political Report warned in late October, "the GOP holds 14 of the 19 vulnerable chambers on our list. This suggests that the Democrats are well-positioned to net up to a half-dozen new chambers this fall." Not only did Republicans fail to lose a single chamber; they gained control of both legislative houses in New Hampshire. Nowhere did Democrats win a single new majority.

It wasn't until January's special elections in Georgia that we got a taste of how Trumpism's self-defeating persecution complex could weigh down the party's electoral prospects. Convincing post-election analyses of those races indicate that Republican voters were foolish enough to believe what their representatives were telling them. The insistence by Trump and company that America's electoral institutions were too corrupt to deliver fair outcomes discouraged enough Republican voters to hand Democrats victories in a traditionally red state. And yet, even this has failed to persuade Republicans to break with Trump.

We are left to conclude that neither winning nor losing has any bearing on the Republican Party's undying fealty to Trump. His appeal is not political. Therefore, efforts to break the GOP's addiction to the former president by focusing on his political appeal miss the mark. Worse, at least for dissenters like Liz Cheney, those arguments have the potential to backfire. If the Trump faction ousts Cheney and continues to lie about electoral malfeasance in 2020 and its members still win back control of one or both chambers anyway, anti-Trump forces will be all but discredited. Trump's most vocal opponents within the party will have marginalized themselves, cementing the nationalists' hold over the GOP and maybe even paving the way for the 45th president's second run at the White House.

But then, maybe this isn't an avoidable scenario. Republicans like Cheney aren't deluded when they insist that Trump is a drag on their party. No competent politician needs to be told that a president who maintained the worst average job approval ratings of any modern president and who presided over the sacrifice of more political power in a shorter time than most of his predecessors isn't much of an asset. Maybe they just can't be argued out of the short-term calculation that lending credence to Trump's revisionist histories is a small price to pay to preserve the facade of party unity and meet their fundraising goals.

If that is the case, no amount of instrumental logic will persuade Republicans to change course. As the allegedly scandalous conduct of the NRCC would appear to suggest, it is possible that the party's prime directive isn't the conduct of politics as we know it any longer. Polls indicate that Republican voters are far more energized by cultural conflict than boring, incremental and, ultimately, unrewarding legislative affairs. Even the once-galvanizing opposition to Democratic initiatives doesn't seem to stimulate the same emotional response as (often important) pushback against "woke corporations" or "cancel culture."

If political victories aren't what draw Republican voters to the coalition anymore, we need to reconceptualize why the party exists. As a bulwark against alterations to the social compact engineered by private interests, few of which can be addressed through constitutional legislation, ideological homogeneity is more valuable than diversity. A tiny minority faction wouldn't be capable of governing, but it wouldn't brook much internal dissent, either. We must leave open the possibility that Republicans just prefer the latter.

Building a case against Trumpism that isn't dependent on the GOP's electoral performance is closer to what Trump-skeptical Republicans believe.

Republicans who oppose the permanent Trumpification of their party need to settle on an argument against Trumpism that exists independent of the party's electoral successes or failures. This means focusing on the moral, logistical and even ideological cases against the former president's influence. The resonance of these arguments doesn't fade with time, and it can't be undermined by events.

And in the end, building a case against Trumpism that isn't dependent on the GOP's electoral performance is closer to what Trump-skeptical Republicans believe. The country doesn't need two parties dedicated to protectionism, cultural warfare and leveraging the power of the state to punish their respective enemies. America's civic health depends upon those Republicans willing to argue against that impulse with all the moral authority they can muster.

Conservatives awaiting their return from exile should husband their remaining political capital. They're going to need it, and we're going to need them.