Rep. Liz Cheney’s uphill battle to keep her seat in Wyoming’s GOP primary on Tuesday underscores how Donald Trump’s hold on the Republican Party is tightening even as the former President’s legal challenges are mounting. That dynamic poses stark choices for the thin band of Republican elected officials and voters resistant to his dominance within the party.
If Cheney loses Tuesday, as expected, the result will place an exclamation point on a summer that has seen Trump-backed candidates, almost all of whom echo his falsehoods about the 2020 election, win most hotly contested party primaries. Virtually no GOP elected officials have dared to criticize him over damaging revelations either from the House select committee investigating January 6, 2021, or the Justice Department investigation of his handling of classified information.
Trump’s muscle-flexing has dashed the expectations, or maybe the hopes, of many conservative commentators who took his losses in several late May Georgia primaries as evidence that his influence was waning. Instead, by rejecting multiple opportunities to move away from the former President, both Republican officials and voters in the three months since have sent an unmistakable message to Trump skeptics that they remain the subordinate minority in the party.
“There is no lane in the Republican Party that is viable for [a] Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, or Mike Madrid,” Madrid, a long-time strategist who has become one of Trump’s sharpest Republican critics, told me. “The party is never going to go back to what it was.”
And that means, in the near term at least, there’s a hard choice facing the leaders and voters in the GOP coalition who view Trump as a threat to American democracy. Do they continue to support a party that remains in thrall to him or launch a more direct attack against his influence, even if that helps Democrats in the 2022 and 2024 elections?
Many Trump critics are expecting Cheney’s remarks on Tuesday night, if she loses, to signal her intention to rally such an anti-Trump effort as a contender in the 2024 GOP presidential primary, and perhaps even into the general election as an independent candidate if the party nominates Trump again.
Georgia was an aberration
Breathless reports of Trump’s allegedly eroding position in the GOP have appeared all year, particularly after his nemeses in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp and Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, easily defeated the primary challengers he recruited to run against them. Axios, in a reaction typical of the response at the time, declared those results “cast doubt on the 2020 election’s continued salience for GOP voters — and may presage his weakened lock on the party.”
Those claiming the GOP was moving beyond Trump pointed to both objective and subjective shifts: growing interest among some party activists and donors in a possible 2024 candidacy from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, less obsessive coverage of Trump’s every word at Fox News, polls showing some decline in the share of Republican voters who wanted him to seek the presidency in 2024, and occasional defeats through the primary season for some of his preferred candidates, such as his scandal-tarred choice in the Nebraska governor’s race.
Yet over the summer, both Republican leaders and voters have sent a very different message. On both fronts, recent events have underlined Trump’s continuing preeminence –to the point where experts who study democracy see growing parallels between the contemporary GOP and the compliant parties that have been subjugated by authoritarian-minded strongmen in other countries, such as media mogul and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey.
“The GOP is a party now dominated by authoritarian dynamics,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor of history at New York University and author of the 2020 book “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present,” told me. “It is so domesticated and subjected by Trump to this authoritarian style discipline that there is no space within the party for dissenters.”
That shift has been evident both in election results and the behavior of elected GOP officials.
Like any political leader, Trump has not delivered victory for every candidate he has endorsed. Candidates who have kept their distance from his false fraud claims about the 2020 election have won some GOP nominations this summer, including contests for attorney general in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and secretary of state in Kansas.
But candidates endorsing Trump’s discredited claims about 2020 have experienced a remarkable run of success, often defeating candidates backed by more mainstream Republican leaders. Election deniers rode his endorsements to a clean sweep of all the top GOP nominations in Arizona (including governor, attorney general, secretary of state and US senator), surging past contenders supported by outgoing Republican Gov. Doug Ducey and former Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump-backed election deniers likewise swept the top nominations in Michigan (for governor, attorney general and secretary of state). Earlier this month, Trump’s choice for Wisconsin governor, construction executive Tim Michels, muscled past former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (who herself had called the 2020 election “rigged” and had the support of Pence and former Gov. Scott Walker) for the GOP nomination. Trump-backed election deniers this summer also won gubernatorial nods in Kansas and Maryland as well as the secretary of state nod in Nevada.
A recent CNN tally found that at least 20 GOP nominees out of this year’s 36 gubernatorial races have questioned or outright dismissed the 2020 election results, with the final tally expected to rise as the last nominations are completed. Election deniers have won 10 GOP nominations for secretary of state, another CNN compilation found.
In a parallel push, Trump has eviscerated the ranks of the House Republicans who voted for his impeachment after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. Of the 10 Republicans who voted for Trump’s impeachment, four have retired, three have already lost GOP primaries (including two in contests on August 2) and Cheney, who has trailed in poling behind Trump-backed election denier Harriet Hageman, is likely to join the ranks of the ousted on Tuesday. Only two of the 10 have won primaries to advance to the November midterms (Dan Newhouse in Washington and David Valadao in California both finished in the top two in their states’ primary systems in which candidates of all parties run together.)
At the same time, GOP elected officials, almost without exception, have locked arms to defend Trump amid ethical and legal questions. Hardly any GOP elected leaders have expressed concern about the many damaging revelations about his behavior unearthed by the House January 6 committee and his broader efforts to overturn the 2020 result. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – who, like fellow Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz, has morphed from a Trump antagonist in the 2016 presidential primary election into an unstinting defender – set the tone early on when he dismissed the committee as a “circus” and “garbage” before it had held a single hearing.
In a recent interview with Chicago television, Kinzinger, the other Republican beside Cheney on the January 6 committee, acknowledged that the silence of GOP leaders showed that Trump, at least for now, had “won” the battle for control of the Republican Party. “Maybe there wasn’t going to be a tidal wave of people to come over, but I certainly didn’t think I’d be alone,” said the Illinois Republican, who is not running for reelection this fall.
The rush of GOP leaders to defend Trump after the FBI executed the search warrant on his Florida mansion – even before any information was available about what the FBI was seeking – has offered another measure of his dominance. Once again, Rubio set the pace for abject devotion: “Using government power to persecute political opponents is something we have seen many times from 3rd world Marxist dictatorships. But never before in America,” Rubio tweeted the day of the search.
Only after an apparent Trump supporter attacked an FBI office in Ohio last week – and violent threats against federal law enforcement proliferated on the right — did some Republicans (including Rubio) qualify their criticism with denunciations of violence or praise for federal law enforcement.
International parallels suggest GOP loyalty to Trump isn’t fading anytime soon
Cheney’s likely defeat on Tuesday will cap these demonstrations of strength from Trump. To experts who study authoritarian movements, it follows a pattern evident in other countries.
Ben-Ghiat notes that in Italy, Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, remained firmly in his grip for years despite an unending succession of financial, political and sexual scandals reminiscent of Trump’s travails. As she wrote in her book “Strongmen,” Berlusconi’s “personality cult left Forza Italia no space to develop a political identity independent of him and no respite from his endless judicial woes, scandals and loyalty tests.”
She sees the same dynamic hardening into place among Republicans. “Since January 6 , the party has become way more radicalized,” she told me. “When parties make these bargains with these charismatic demagogues they stick with them to the bitter end.”
Susan Stokes, director of the Chicago Center on Democracy at the University of Chicago, sees another international parallel to the GOP’s continuing deference to Trump. “The case that jumps to mind,” she told me, “is Erdogan and his party, the AKP in Turkey, where you have a very charismatic, persuasive leader who always has a narrative to explain things that, to our eyes, is super crazy but he gets people to believe it.”
Like Ben-Ghiat, Stokes says the international precedents leave her skeptical that the GOP will reject Trump’s direction – or even move away from Trump personally – any time soon. Madrid likewise agrees that Republicans critical of Trump must recognize that his forces unequivocally remain the party’s ruling faction. “What we are witnessing right now is just the calcification of the establishment as he has taken over the party,” Madrid says. “You cannot buck this party” and win primaries inside the GOP except in rare cases, he adds.
But that doesn’t mean that Republicans resistant to Trump’s direction have no leverage over the GOP’s direction, Madrid argues. Depending on how it’s asked in polling, somewhere around one-fifth to one-fourth of self-identified Republican voters (and sometimes more) reject Trump’s lies about the election, believe he acted improperly on January 6 or in how he contested the 2020 result or that his statements encouraged violence before the insurrection.
Madrid says that if even about half of those voters withheld their support from Republican office-holders enabling Trump, or from Trump himself if the GOP nominates him again in 2024, the party could not survive those defections in a general election. “There is really no leverage within the party for these 20% of Republicans,” he says. “There is leverage in the general election because they essentially will have veto power” over whether a Republican can win the White House in 2024.
Like many Republicans opposed to Trump, Madrid wants and expects Cheney to run in the 2024 GOP presidential primary to try to coalesce the minority of party voters resistant to the former President into a more unified faction. If the GOP nominates him again, Madrid and like-minded Trump-skeptics argue, Cheney should try to siphon away right-leaning voters who would find it difficult to vote for a Democrat by running as a conservative independent in the general election. If Cheney provides “a banner to rally around,” Madrid predicts, the critical sliver of traditionally Republican-leaning voters – many of them college-educated suburbanites who defected from Trump in 2020 in key states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona – would grow larger in 2024.
Other Trump critics aren’t as certain that a Cheney independent general election bid, if it came to that, wouldn’t do more to help than hurt the former President by dividing the voters hostile to him.
The larger issue may be that the GOP’s choice to double down on its commitment to Trump, even as multiple probes into his actions uncover new evidence, underscores how much of the party’s leadership and base alike have fully enlisted into his efforts to destabilize American democracy.
“Where do you go with that?” asks Stokes. “I don’t see where you go except in the direction of complete constitutional crisis, stalemate and violence. That’s a really scary thought.”