The Long Authoritarian Slide

On Monday Liz Cheney had her Mr. Smith Goes to Washington moment on the House floor as her Republican colleagues streamed out of the chamber in preparation to remove her as GOP Conference Chair. “I will not sit back and watch in silence while others lead our party down a path that abandons the rule of law” she said, “and joins the former president’s crusade to undermine our democracy.”

Republican House leaders Kevin McCarthy, Steve Scalise, and Jim Banks have all explained that Cheney must be stripped of her post for her obsessive “focus on the past.” Yet their problem with Cheney appears less that she wants them to go back and face the events of January 6 than that she is a stumbling block to their future, a future that requires fully antidemocratic strategies untroubled by past attachments to the norms and practices of party competition.

Some political commentators argue that Cheney’s ouster will force an honest conversation about the direction of the party – an MRI, as Amanda Carpenter called it. But versions of this argument have been made continuously since Trump became the party nominee in 2016. With each dramatic flare-up of Trumpian symptoms comes the belief that the cancer will be exposed and the tumor removed once and for all, saving the Republican party and therefore preserving the body politic. But the cancer has long spread throughout the system. And until recently of course Cheney herself urged along the metasticization.

Republican state legislatures, now hard at work passing laws to sabotage the franchise and criminalize protest across the country, have it in their power – as Mona Charen points out – to refuse ratification of electoral votes in 2024. And should House Republicans benefit from the midterm returns that almost always boost the fortunes of the party out of power, this could be accomplished by decertification of electoral results in that body.

Cheney has been meeting with Republican warhorses from her father’s generation, hoping that they can mount a heroic campaign recapture of the party for conservative ideals and democratic principles. It is unlikely that any of these veterans from the George W. Bush administration hold any persuasive power. And even if they did, on what ground could members of an administration initially installed by the Supreme Court make appeals for the normal Constitutional – let alone democratic – transfer of executive power? The authoritarian slide of the party long precedes Trump.

That the GOP has been fully been taken over by its far-right is lamented repeatedly by regime-loyal conservatives like Mitt Romney, who says of the Cheney cancelation that it will only result in the loss of voters for the party. Yet the very issue at hand for Republicans is not how to expand its share of the electorate, but how to obviate the need to do so. Rep. McCarthy keeps asserting that Cheney had to be removed because the party is “a big tent,” to which we might paraphrase George Carlin and add “and you ain’t in it.”

The potential for the GOP to demolish the US political system (such as it is) remains real, and indeed with Cheney’s ouster its likelihood grows. Next time the insurgents may not need bear spray, flag-wrapped axe handles, Kevlar, and zip ties. They may just need enough votes in a shrunken electorate enabled by an already undemocratic Constitutional design.

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