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They Did This to Themselves
By supporting the Liz Cheney purge and downplaying January 6th, Ron DeSantis and his conservative supporters dug their own hole.
THE DREAD IS PALPABLE.
Donald Trump’s dominance over the Republican party and his overwhelming lead in primary polling has some conservatives shaking their fists at the sky.
“What, in Heaven’s name, is the case for keeping him around?” asks an exasperated Charles Cooke in National Review. “He’s broken his oath of office. He’s repeatedly revealed himself to be completely unfit for the presidency. He’s shown he can’t win. Politicians are servants. Trump isn’t serving anything or anyone. Why is he still in the conversation?”
“What is the point of this primary?” wonders Noah Rothman, also in National Review.
This is all too eerily familiar to the strategy Trump’s opponents deployed against him in 2016—a contest marked by solipsism and excess cleverness, the most visible outcome of which was to enrich a variety of well-placed campaign consultants. DeSantis’s campaign seems wholly committed to executing that failed strategy. . . . If no one but Chris Christie and his one-state campaign are going to take the fight to the front-runner, there is no point to this primary.
We can stipulate that the team behind Ron DeSantis has done their candidate no favors. But reserve the lion’s share of blame for the conservative movement as a whole, which acceded to the purge of anti-Trump leaders like Liz Cheney and stifled criticism of the January 6th riot.
As a result, Trump is virtually untouchable within the party. His personal corruption, his criminal behavior, and his offenses against the American people and the Constitution are all taboo subjects for his leading primary opponent.
So DeSantis is left to thwack the former president with wet noodles like he might not be able to win or maybe he isn’t MAGA enough—although DeSantis never fully and forcefully articulates even those arguments.
TO SEE HOW CONSERVATIVES built this prison for themselves, go back to the spring of 2021, when Rep. Liz Cheney faced the second attempt by MAGA loyalists to remove her from party leadership.
At the time, conservative activist Erick Erickson speculated (correctly) that “a great deal of the sudden antagonism towards Cheney has to do with placating President Trump in the run up to the 2022 election cycle.” Though Erickson allowed that this was happening because Cheney “wouldn’t bend a knee to a lie,” he justified removing her anyway. “Sometimes the greater good of beating the left requires stepping back to avoid distractions.”
(One wonders, is there some good greater than beating the left that Erickson might acknowledge was at stake—like the good of protecting the sanity and independence of the Republican party, or of defending our constitutional order itself?)
“House Republicans should have the leaders they deserve,” wrote National Review’s Dan McLaughlin at the time.
It is in no way in the interests of the Republican Party or its voters for [Trump’s behavior related to the 2020 election] to be the question currently before the House or the party. . . . Politics is the art of the possible. Liz Cheney is no longer the leadership House Republicans need, or deserve. So long as their case for adhering to Trump is the practical argument that they are mere passive representatives of their voters, their leaders should be the same.
(Again, one wonders: What do Republicans deserve today? Is now at last the moment for their leaders to stand on principle, or should they remain “passive representatives of their voters”?)
Purging Cheney, however, wasn’t just about acting out the old Burkean debate about the proper role of the legislator. It was a critical episode—a defining moment—for the Republican party. For there was, in that post-January 6th moment, an emerging narrative among some GOP leaders that ran counter to the MAGA line.
This narrative admitted that the Capitol riot had been a threat to democracy. That Trump had activated a dangerous form of white supremacy. That militant groups like the Oath Keepers should be driven back into the margins of society.
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And the act of purging Cheney was decisive in extinguishing that narrative within the party mainstream. Instead of a much-needed reckoning after January 6th, the movement capitulated, sidelining anyone who failed to truckle to Trump.
Think back to that post-January 6th period: Reliably MAGA Texas Senator Ted Cruz called the “attack at the Capitol a despicable act of terrorism and a shocking assault on our democratic system” in the early hours of January 7, 2021. A year later, Cruz continued to describe the riot as “a violent terrorist attack on the Capitol.”
Yet Cruz would ultimately renounce his long-stated view, pretending he’d misspoken, in a humiliating struggle session with Tucker Carlson.
And recall also that in the post-January 6th window conservatives and party elites had been open about their intention to purge white nationalists and seditionists from the movement. Longtime GOP operative Ari Fleischer told a Fox News audience four days after the riot that although “the fringes on both sides are violent and dangerous, the greatest fringe risk in America is white supremacy and white supremacists, no one should play footsie with them.”
Weeks after the insurrection, prominent members of the conservative Heritage Foundation publicly denounced the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers and called for them to be expelled from public life. “Americans should categorically and consistently reject those who use violence to assault the constitutional foundation of this exceptional nation,” they said, “whether it’s the Oath Keepers, Antifa, or other organizations. . . . Groups that embrace political violence divorce themselves from the American polity.”
But after a change in leadership, Heritage later forced a staffer to delete a Twitter post denouncing the Capitol riot. The organization also promoted the conspiracy theory that undercover federal agents stoked violence at the Capitol as part of a plot against Trump.
As Trump tightened his grip on the party, conservatives who hoped everyone might move on from him decided to make a virtue of necessity, dressing up their fecklessness as prudence. There could be no role for “vocally anti-Trump leaders” in leading the party to a better place, they claimed. Instead, argued Dan McLaughlin, everyone should, as much as possible, simply “ignore Trump.”
Nor could the former president’s opponents speak frankly about his violent and illegal plot to steal the 2020 election. As Noah Rothman admitted this past May, they would have to pull their punches.
I would love it if the Republican Party was not hostage to shadows on the cave wall that have led them to avoid stating the case against Donald Trump . . . But doing so has cost Republicans of good conscience the power to influence the GOP and shape its evolution. . . . When it comes to January 6, anti-Trump forces in the media have the luxury of moral clarity. Anti-Trump Republicans with their hat in the ring do not.
Without vocally anti-Trump leaders or even the “luxury” of denouncing January 6th, how might Trump be deposed? Here’s McLaughlin’s counsel:
[DeSantis] needs to [wrest the Republican nomination from Trump] in a way that keeps Trump’s most passionate supporters behind him come that November. It would be a Pyrrhic victory to defeat Trump in the way that Napoleon captured Moscow in 1812, presiding over the burned-out shell of a city surrounded by hundreds of miles of scorched earth in the onset of winter. . . . DeSantis does not have the luxury of a Democratic candidate, who can simply treat Trump as hostile and despised.
DeSantis appeared to more or less take McLaughlin’s advice, attacking Cheney—“totally off the rails with her nonsense. And I think she’s not really a Republican in terms of what she’s doing. We want people that are going to fight the left”—and suggesting that the FBI was covering up the role of alleged Capitol riot provocateurs.
By tolerating a false January 6th narrative that exonerates Trump, and by adopting his enemies as their own, conservatives—wittingly or otherwise—have chosen a strategy not for dethroning Trump, but for keeping the party united behind him as he coasts to a third straight GOP nomination.
This, my friends, is how they got more Trump.
IT’S TIME FOR SOME CONSERVATIVES to accept that their strategy of helping the party “move on” from Trump has, like many other examples of appeasement, failed. The idea that a candidate could triangulate their way around Trump—that a conservative could outflank him with performative “own the libs” antics—was always a fantasy.
As Vivek Ramaswamy’s rise in the polls demonstrates, there’s always room to be outflanked yourself. DeSantis calls Russia’s war on Ukraine a “territorial dispute”; Ramaswamy proposes a grand bargain to concede Europe to Russian influence. DeSantis tries to avoid talk about January 6th; Vivek says he’d have held the whole country hostage that day.
The conservative movement lacks both the will and the capacity to stop Trump. Their plan to nudge him aside only made him stronger.
McLaughlin wrote last summer that the effort to depose Donald Trump would prove to be “a test of character” for Ron DeSantis. In fact, it has proved to be a test of character for the entire party—a test that most Republicans seem happy to have flunked.