Donald Trump is effectively forcing every Republican who wants a political future to show how far they're willing to compromise on principle, truth and conscience for power.
Most GOP leaders with aspirations of higher office don't think twice before genuflecting before the former President. But the party's No. 3 House leader, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, is making a lonely stand by refusing to appease Trump over his incitement of the Capitol insurrection and claims of a stolen election. And her attitude seems almost certain to sacrifice a promising career in the defense of democratic values.
The lawmaker's power base splintered in plain sight on Tuesday, once again demonstrating Trump's formidable control over his party, which, if anything, has solidified since he left power after his humiliating election loss.
Cheney appears certain to face another attempt to oust her from her post as soon as next week, three months after easily repelling a previous attempt to remove her in a secret ballot. This time, her survival is in grave doubt.
In the Hunger Games that is the House Republican Conference, Cheney was effectively pushed by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who made the opposite choice regarding fealty to Trump. The California Republican, in his zeal to capture power in the form of the speaker's gavel next year, has committed the House GOP to Trump despite his violent exit from the White House. And he made clear Tuesday that Cheney's position is irreconcilable with his own.
McCarthy's trip to visit Trump at Mar-a-Lago weeks after the mob attack sent a clear signal that he sees the route to recapturing the House next year going through millions of Trump's voters who have fully bought into lies about election fraud and who deny the truth of his loss last November. McCarthy is far from alone in his party.
Another Republican who has made a similar choice on a fast-rising climb to power is Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, who worked in the Bush-Cheney White House as a domestic policy adviser and is now a favorite to assume Liz Cheney's leadership post.
Stefanik completed her conversion to loyal Trump supporter with her outspoken defenses of the then-President during his two impeachments in the House. She also voted to overturn Pennsylvania's electoral vote for President Joe Biden, based on false claims of electoral fraud rejected by multiple courts.
Stefanik's aspirations to join the leadership have been bolstered by McCarthy's support, CNN's Lauren Fox reported Tuesday evening. Stefanik is also a strong fundraiser and has advanced the cause of female candidates in the party -- an important consideration given that the GOP needs to do more to appeal to women in suburban districts.
A lonely exile
The few Republicans who chose the same path as Cheney, or who honor the principles that once anchored the party that won the Cold War, are doomed to defeat or exile, like former leaders of a political movement overtaken by its radicalizing dogma.
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican, is hassled by Trump fans at airports and booed at party conventions for his votes to impeach an aberrant President who abused his power. Others, like Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, face primary challenges for daring to expose Trump's lies about a stolen election.
In the service of his ego and his wounded pride after losing handily to Biden last year in a free and fair election, Trump is completing the work he began in 2015 of purging anyone from the Republican Party who does not share his populist, nationalist creed and rejects his personality cult.
Try as they might to avoid it, each Republican leader eventually faces the same choice over whether to side with Trump or to stick firm to more traditional Republican principles like the rule of law and support for democracy.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky resolved the dilemma by forcibly condemning Trump over the Capitol attack -- but by voting not to convict the former President in an impeachment trial after he left office. McConnell may abhor Trump's actions, but his hopes of winning back the Senate may hinge on finding a way to accommodate the ex-President's supporters and acolytes in close races in the midterm elections next year.
Cheney -- one of the few remaining representatives of the archconservative but orthodox wing of Republicanism, which was also represented by her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney -- has been showcasing her choice publicly for days.
Rather than hide from Trump's attacks, Cheney has repeatedly countered his false claims about election fraud. The cost for her political apostasy has become ever more clear in recent days.
But in a tweet on Monday that might end up being the last straw for her colleagues, the Wyoming lawmaker directly rebuked Trump's efforts to rebrand the phrase the "Big Lie" as the name for his own false claims of voter fraud.
"The 2020 presidential election was not stolen. Anyone who claims it was is spreading THE BIG LIE, turning their back on the rule of law, and poisoning our democratic system," Cheney wrote.
There has been plenty of buzz in Washington over whether Cheney is playing some clever double game in her defiance of Trump -- perhaps laying the groundwork for some symbolic long-shot presidential bid in 2024. It seems more likely, however, that any White House ambitions would have to await the 2028 election should Trumpism be rejected by the electorate, whether in a campaign by the former President or a proxy in three years.
But comments by Cheney at a conference in Georgia this week, reported by CNN's Jamie Gangel and Michael Warren, make a convincing case that she is acting not out of political calculation but conviction.
"We can't embrace the notion the election is stolen," Cheney said. "It's a poison in the bloodstream of our democracy." She added that a "peaceful transfer of power must be defended" and described the Constitution as a "shield."
There is little politically for her to gain, at least in the short term, in a party that has fully accepted Trump's false reality about election fraud.
McCarthy may have sealed Cheney's fate
McCarthy argued on Tuesday on Fox News that Cheney was a liability not because of her vote to impeach Trump but because she could no longer "carry out the message. We all need to be working as one, if we're able to win the majority."
Yet Cheney has in fact adopted a strong, detailed critique of Biden's ambitious agenda that if enacted would amount to a multi-trillion-dollar effort to remake the US social safety net not seen since the 1960s.
Two weeks ago, she argued that Biden was pursuing "even farther left policies than we could have anticipated and certainly than he campaigned on." Cheney has also forcibly contested Biden's plans to withdraw from Afghanistan, though the President's instincts may hew closer to the Trump base on this one issue than her own hawkish national security principles.
But McCarthy's implication that Cheney is unable to unite the party behind her is probably correct, given her refusal to quiet her criticisms of Trump as he weaves constant deception over last year's election.
There is no doubt that Cheney is an outlier in her party nationally as well as in Washington. Part of Trump's appeal was that he rejected the neoconservatism of former GOP titans like Vice President Cheney, shared by his daughter, that led the United States into more than a decade of painful modern wars.
Since President George W. Bush and Cheney left the White House in 2009, the principles of traditional conservatism they espouse have been obliterated. The former President has also recently broken his post-presidential silence about politics and expressed disbelief over the state of his party.
But in many ways, Bush and Cheney are yesterday's men, and Trump made sure to include a swipe at the old guard in one of his recent statements, which are now posted on his new website platform that is an attempt to get around social media bans imposed over his inflammatory rhetoric.
"Heartwarming to read new polls on big-shot warmonger Liz Cheney of the great State of Wyoming," Trump wrote in one statement, which now features buttons so his fans can repost it to Twitter and Facebook. "I say she'll never run in a Wyoming election again!"
If Cheney does conclude she has no constituency even in one of the most conservative states in the union, one that has been linked to her family for decades, her decision will only underscore Trump's dominance over the party that he still effectively leads.