When neoconservatism was still the favored faith of elites in the Republican Party, Liz Cheney was a high priestess. She worshiped at the altar of defense budgets and surveillance schemes. She preached a gospel of tax cuts for the rich, giveaways for corporations, and austerity for the masses. Intensely ambitious and always on message, she rose rapidly in the ranks of the party that extended from her father’s reign as the initiator of forever wars.
Then the Grand Old Party adopted a new religion—Trumpism—and the representative from Wyoming proved to be insufficiently delusional. Faced with a choice between the oath she swore to protect the Constitution and the authoritarian mandates of Donald Trump and his minions, Cheney remade herself as a small-“d” democrat.
The congresswoman’s vote to impeach Trump for inciting an insurrection on January 6, and to join the bipartisan select committee that is slowly investigating the machinations of the former president and his associates on that fateful day, made her suspect in the eyes of the partisans who once ennobled her. Cheney was bumped from her position as the third-ranking Republican in the House. Various and sundry Trumpkins announced that they would support an intraparty challenge to her reelection bid, and the assumption was that Republican voters would determine the fate of the offender in Wyoming’s primary next summer.
But, as is often the case in cults, the desire to render judgment upon sinners against sectarian orthodoxy becomes so overwhelming that it cannot be diminished or delayed. So it was that, on November 13, the Central Committee of the Wyoming Republican Party voted 31-29 to excommunicate Cheney. The vote to no longer recognize the representative as a Republican came after county parties across the state signaled that the central committee’s previous vote to censure the representative was insufficiently hateful. After all, there is nothing the Republican Party of Donald Trump values more than hating on those who fail to recognize the infallibility of the one true Trump.
The Republican Party that Trump is forging disdains Democrats as “socialist” miscreants. But the GOP reserves its greatest energy for punishing its own. Republicans who dissent are despised with a fury that can extend into the realm of stalking and death threats—as the 13 House Republicans who voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill have learned in recent days.
The Trump-aligned conservatives who imagine that America is threatened by left-wing “cancel culture” have, in fact, developed a genuine cancel culture in their own party. This is the next stage in the narrowing of the GOP circle to include only true believers. Nonbelievers may still be allowed to run in party primaries in most states—including Cheney’s Wyoming—but they will know that they are officially unwelcome. Republicans primary voters will know this as well.
Where does it end? There are plenty of Democrats, and more than a few pundits, who imagine that this process of elimination could leave the GOP as a shadow of its former self. But it’s not so simple as that. Democrats cannot assume that the Republican Party’s determination to punish its own will necessarily weaken it as a political entity.
The thing about cults is they inspire devotion among their members. That devotion is powerful. Cultists show up early, stay late, and stay on task, where more rational human beings get distracted by having lives. Cultists turn over substantial portions of their personal fortunes to maintain the infrastructure and the power of the clan they have joined. Cultists are so convinced of the purity of their vision that they adopt a win-at-any-cost approach so vicious that it turns churchgoers into Capitol Hill rioters, and members of Congress into unaccountable misogynists. This makes the cult of Trump politically potent within the Republican Party, and beyond its boundaries.
In a logical circumstance, a cultish Republican Party might be marginalized. But American political processes are not logical. Congressional and legislative district lines are gerrymandered, so that, instead of voters choosing their representatives on Election Day, politicians choose their voters long before the ballots are printed. Dominant factions in state legislatures seek to maintain their majorities by making it harder for likely supporters of their challengers to cast votes or have them counted.
During a radio interview last week, the host asked me whether it made political sense for Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott to veer further and further to the right in a state that is becoming more diverse and casting more votes for Democrats than at any time in a quarter-century. In a fair and functional system, the answer would be “no.” But I had to warn the host that, in a system where voter suppression and disenfranchisement have become basic tenets of the GOP’s strategy, Republicans like Abbott are betting that they can hold on to power in November elections. They are more concerned about getting on the wrong side of the Trump cultists who dominate primaries in their states. That’s certainly the case with Abbott, a conservative who has adopted steadily more extreme positions—on issues ranging from abortion rights to public education—in hopes that he can fend off challenges from his own right.
Most prominent Republicans have adopted the Abbott approach. They may not be cultists themselves, but they are frightened enough by the devotees of the Trump cult that they choose not to cross them—or their false prophet. They don’t want to face the censure votes, the primary challenges, and the banishments that await conservatives who show a smidgen of conscience. They know that, even if Liz Cheney survives her 2022 primary in Wyoming, she has no future as a major player in the Republican Party of Donald Trump. Indeed, she may not have any political future at all.
While Cheney says there are times when it is necessary to put country ahead of cultism, her Republican Party has adopted the opposite calculation.