Let’s put Liz Cheney’s ouster from the House Republican leadership in some context, because it is simply the latest predictable move by a party swimming against some pretty strong historical tides.
Back in the 1960s, when a conservative reaction to four decades of active government was gaining steam, Republicans found a way to add southern white working class voters to their fledgling coalition through what has become known as the southern strategy. Using racial dog whistles and with a huge assist from a Democratic Party committed to a civil rights agenda, Richard Nixon was able to convince a block of lifelong Democrats to vote their racial anxieties over their economic interests with the promise that he would protect white social status and privilege.
This strategy proved quite effective through the Reagan years and beyond, when the country was 90% white. But demographic and generational change gradually eroded its effectiveness. When the country elected a Black president in 2008, it fell apart. Republicans reacted by withholding their support from everything Obama tried to do in an effort to make him a failure, believing in part that the multiracial coalition that elected him would never turn out again. When that proved to be incorrect, the party underwent a form of soul searching. They issued a post-2012 self-assessment acknowledging they had to moderate their views on immigration, race and some social issues or risk being left behind by a growing electorate that had no interest in what they were selling.
But the voters who were animated by the original Nixon promise did not play along. After giving Republicans control of Congress in the Tea Party revolution of 2010, party leaders continued to appeal to their anger about seeing a Black man in the White House by promising to block him at every turn. But despite their efforts, Obama survived politically and completed eight years in office as a politically popular and culturally significant figure. The Republican promise to neutralize Obama had failed, and that created an opening for Donald Trump to run for president by calling the leadership of his own party fraudulent.
The claim resonated. Trump was promising to do what Republicans had failed to do for eight years – stem the tide of racial and cultural change and preserve a power structure that privileged white voices. No matter how much he fell short of his policy promises, no matter how badly he mangled the pandemic, his supporters stayed with him for his specific brand of jingoism, served aggressively in nonstop 280-character grievances. He was the embodiment of the border wall that he promised and failed to build, the last remaining barrier to a multicultural future.
But as was so often the case in Trump’s past, the promise was a lie. There was no way he could deliver for his supporters, considering he was up against a historically seismic shift in national demography. And as he had in the past when faced with a promise he couldn’t keep, Trump expanded the scope of the lie in order to keep his core supporters behind him. To those outside his orbit, Trump is a failed one-term president who twice lost the popular vote to the coalition he promised to disempower. To those inside, Trump is a victim much like them, the leader of the true American majority who was wrongfully cheated out of his second term in a rigged election.
If you feel in your heart that Trump genuinely is the last barrier to the loss of privilege, then the lie of the rigged election is compelling. It provides license to fight back with everything you’ve got – to disenfranchise the other side, to stage a violent insurrection at the Capitol – in the name of preserving your liberty. So the base believes the lie. They want to believe it. At some level, they have to believe it to avoid the painful dissonance of recognizing that they cannot hold back the changes that threaten them.
This has forced Republican leaders to choose between fantasy and reality, between their base and the rest of the country, between holding on to the fading possibility of reclaiming power and conceding that a decades-old strategy to win elections has metastasized into an anti-democratic movement threatening the entire American project. Which brings us to Liz Cheney. On Wednesday, leadership made their choice clear, siding with the base and the desire for power against objective reality and small-r republicanism.
The decision to purge from leadership a legacy conservative is both historic and unsurprising. It was untenable for Cheney to use her leadership platform to tell the truth about Trump, the insurrection and the election. She had to go. Her ouster is a sign of how deeply committed the Republican Party is to the alternative world Trump constructed and his supporters desperately inhabit. You can draw a straight line from the Cheney purge back to the origins of the southern strategy and the refusal of the modern party to let go once it stopped working in the face of massive demographic change. Republicans have instead decided to build a barricade around reality and live in an alternative universe where it is possible to turn back the clock and where anyone planted in the external world is a threat. That is why Cheney was booted from power, and it is a burden we all must bear.