Sixteen minutes and out. The purging of Liz Cheney from Republican leadership in the House of Representatives did not even go to a secret ballot. Instead a voice vote was all it took to confirm the party’s capitulation to Donald Trump and his “big lie” about a stolen election.
But Cheney went down swinging, vowing to reporters on Capitol Hill: “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never again gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” then using a high-profile TV interview to say of would-be challengers for her seat in Wyoming: “Bring it on.”
The public defiance instantly turned Cheney into one of the leaders of the “Never Trump” movement of disaffected Republicans. But it also raised strategic questions over the future direction of that movement and whether it can still regain control of the party – or should now abandon it as a lost cause.
Some insist that the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan was their home long before Trump’s populist-fantasist invasion and they will fight to drive him out. Others believe that it is time to abandon ship and their future lies as independents or Democrats or even, perhaps, in a breakaway party.
“We’re torn,” said Joe Walsh, a former congressman from Illinois. “I left the Republican party a year ago. Liz Cheney isn’t there yet. [Congressman] Adam Kinzinger, who I know well, isn’t there yet. They want to still try to reform and save the Republican party; I don’t think it can be saved.
“So there’s a split in the Never Trump world and most Never Trumpers still agree with Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger: let’s try to reform the party from within. I just don’t think it’s reformable. They still harbour ideas that the Republican party can be wrestled away from Trump; it can’t be.”
Walsh, who mounted a long-shot challenge to Trump for the Republican nomination last year, believes that a third party is now the only solution. “We’re at a weird moment in American history where, because the Republican party has become a cult, there’s an opportunity to start something new. I think eventually that’s where everybody’s going to get to.”
On Thursday a coalition of more than 150 anti-Trump Republicans started a “political movement” urging the party to turn its back on extremism and lies. Members of A Call for American Renewal include lawyer George Conway, husband of former White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, and Anthony Scaramucci, ex-White House communications director, as well as 27 former members of the House.
The group stopped short of proposing a new party – for now. Co-organiser Evan McMullin, who ran for president as an independent in Utah in 2016, said: “We definitely don’t rule it out but our preference is to reform the Republican party, not necessarily from within. I think most of us believe that the only way to reform the Republican party at this point is to act independently of it.
“It means that we will support good Republicans who are upholding the rule of law and defending and promoting truth and the constitution, but we’ll also support viable independents where they exist. If we have to support a unifying Democrat in order to defeat an extremist Republican, we’re going to do that. If it’s Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona running for re-election against extremist Kelli Ward, then we’re going to be for Captain Mark Kelly.”
McMullin, a former CIA operations officer, added: “I think in this next cycle we’ll have people who will run under our banner, people who are in office now, people who are capable of mounting credible campaigns for public office. We will invite all to associate with our principles regardless of their party registration and to run as a part of this effort.”
Other initiatives in the Never Trump universe include the Lincoln Project, Principles First, the Republican Accountability Project and the Bulwark website. Kinzinger, who with Cheney was among 10 House Republicans to vote for Trump’s impeachment after the 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol, launched a group called Country First to recruit and back anti-Trump Republican candidates.
Cheney herself now has a platform guaranteed by her family name (her father was George W Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney) and looks set to be a more prominent voice than retired senators such as Bob Corker and Jeff Flake. She is reportedly planning more travel and media interviews and a political operation to support candidates who share her contempt for Trump’s false claims of election fraud.
Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said: “Liz Cheney has positioned herself to be a prominent spokesperson for the old style Republican but also a very conservative party that does not kneel before an authoritarian, which is what the others are doing.
“She deserves the position that she has has just earned. Now, that’s not to say she’s going to be elected president: she’s pretty far to the right. But how can you not admire her for sacrificing the power she has now and maybe her seat?”
I think most of us believe that the only way to reform the Republican party at this point is to act independently of it
There are some signs that Trump’s sway over the party is not what it was. His favourability rating among Republicans in December was 91%, with 74% holding a very favourable view, an Economist/YouGov poll found. This month the same survey showed him at 78% favourability, with 58% very favourable. But congressional Republicans appear to have concluded they cannot fight next year’s midterm elections without him.
Kevin Madden, a former adviser to Mitt Romney, now a senator for Utah and outspoken Trump critic, is in no doubt that a long haul lies ahead for Never Trumpers. “What is the plan to mobilise and grow that movement and is that best done inside the party or outside the party?” he asked. “What is the calendar of action on that?
“Anybody who thinks that this is going to be waged between now and the midterms or now and 2024 is probably being very unrealistic. The more realistic scenario is that, if Liz Cheney is to be believed about her dedication in this respect, today is the first day of what is probably a decades-long battle for the direction of the party.”
A breakaway remains unlikely with the odds stacked against anyone trying to shake up America’s two-party system. Competing with Democrats and Republicans’ vast fundraising machines would be daunting. In the first-past-the-post electoral system, a third party would struggle to convince people that their vote would be not be wasted in hundreds of districts.
Madden, who became an independent last year and wrote in the name of Lynne Cheney, mother of Liz, on his presidential election ballot, added: “The work of building the infrastructure to compete across 50 different states or 435 different congressional districts? That is a monumental undertaking.”
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