Liz Cheney is both the most coldly calculating and the most principled politician in the land. At least, that’s what Liz Cheney and a whole host of political pundits would have you believe.
How else can you explain her suicidal mission to confront the all-powerful, almost-indicted former president who trashes the Espionage Act as easily as the constitution.
Of course she stands for democracy, free and fair elections, and all the rest of that ballyhoo. But her resounding defeat in Tuesday’s primary in the near-empty state of Wyoming must mean Something More.
So Liz Cheney is obviously, naturally, running for president. Or at least running to stop Trump becoming president. Or at the very, very least, running to become Abraham Lincoln.
“The great and original champion of our party, Abraham Lincoln, was defeated in elections for the Senate and the house before he won the most important election of all,” Cheney said in a concession speech that sounded more like the kickoff of a presidential campaign.
“Lincoln ultimately prevailed. He saved our union and he defined our obligation as Americans for all of history.”
Stirring stuff. But as campaign strategies go, Cheney’s path to the presidency is even less likely than Lincoln’s. Two years ago she won her Republican primary with 73% of her party, and the general election with 69% of the state. This week she failed to crack the 30% mark.
Losing more than 40 points of support among your own voters in your home state does not represent a strong foundation for a national campaign.
Yes, it’s true – to echo Ronald Reagan’s quip about the Democrats – that Liz Cheney did not leave the Republican party; the party left her.
But the Fateful Tale of Liz Cheney is not about whether the Trumpist fever will ever break on the right wingnut fringe of American politics. It’s not a measure of whether Trump is stronger or weaker, closer to prison or the presidency.
This story is about the animating nature of Trumpism: the lifeblood of the cult itself. It may have no principle or purpose, but it sure knows how to keep itself busy.
In a traditional cult, public adoration of the iconic leader might be enough to keep the mob together. And yes there are plenty of grotesquely Trumpy memes polluting the internet.
But this curiously pigmented icon represents a perpetual test for his loving fans and the elected officials who pander to them. Beyond the hush money to porn stars, there is the cozying up to foreign dictators and the nuclear secrets in his basement. Ideology and consistency are almost entirely absent.
If you stand for nothing, what are your followers to stand behind?
Trump is the least lawful lover of law and order. He is both pro-choice and anti-abortion, pro-outsourcing to China and anti-trade with China, a hawk against Iran and a dove towards Russia, an American nationalist who somehow marries foreigners and buries them on his golf course.
This presents something of a challenge to the lickspittles who follow him. You can wait for the latest pronouncement and endorsement, but it’s hard to show your undying enthusiasm for such an unprincipled, unpredictable and untruthful man.
That’s why every good cult of personality needs more than a test of loyalty. It desperately needs a good purge. It lives and breathes with the energy of the eternal hunt for the enemy within.
Mussolini purged tens of thousands of Italians from his fascist party in the middle of the war for transgressions that ranged from refusing to join his militias to being only luke-warm in enthusiasm for the little man. Peron embarked on a purge of his own party around the same time in Argentina, before his Peronist successors extended the purge in their dirty war against leftists a few decades later.
It’s not enough just to love the great leader. You need to demonstrate that love by finding your secret enemies and expunging them from the cult.
That’s how a charlatan like Harriet Hageman can seek redemption in Wyoming. Just six years ago, Hageman was – like Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and the rest of those principled, family values conservatives – disgusted by Donald Trump.
She fought hard to stop his nomination, well after he had won the primary contests of 2016. The party would be weakened, she argued, by “somebody who is racist and xenophobic”. Now she says he is “the greatest president of my lifetime”.
At this rate, there won’t be enough superlatives to shower on the DeSantis administration.
It’s no coincidence that the power of the purge was a feature of Trump’s time in office. According to Jared Kushner’s execrable new memoir, Breaking History, he was forced to purge several figures in Trump’s inner-circle of hell, including a couple of chiefs of staff, a few political strategists, and a secretary of state.
This is something of a travesty for the true Trumpists, such as Peter Navarro, a trade adviser whose grasp of rational thought is as shaky as his grasp of international economics. Navarro describes Kushner as the true rat in the kitchen, or as he puts it, a “run-of-the-mill liberal New York Democrat with a worldview totally orthogonal to the president he was supposed to serve”.
The great orthogonal irony of the purging of Liz Cheney is that this kind of sack-based ferret fight was perfected by one Dick Cheney during the previous Republican presidency. It was old man Cheney whose cabal of loyalists did so much to undermine the technocratic Republican establishment so that he could happily invade Iraq in a cakewalk. That was before they turned on one another for their sheer incompetence.
Party purges are hard to sustain without a Stalinist grip on power. Instead they tend to consume themselves in the shape of a circular firing squad.
Say what you like about Trump’s threat to democracy, but right now the purger-in-chief is consumed with uncovering the rat who told the world about his secret stash of nuclear secrets.
It could have been the Secret Service. It could have been the domestic help. Or it could be someone even closer to Trump.
One thing is clear: the purge that ended Liz Cheney must not stop in Wyoming. For the sake of our democracy, it needs to go all the way to Mar-a-Lago.
People say there’s an old New York Democrat down there who doesn’t believe half the things that come out of his own mouth.
Richard Wolffe is a Guardian US columnist