Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger are trying to have it both ways
Their stand against Trump is commendable, but they're still enabling the GOP's authoritarian tendencies.
Thanks for checking out this edition of Public Notice. Following Noah’s piece on the J6 committee, scroll down a couple notes on Trump from me. Cheers — Aaron
When the January 6 committee started hearings, many commenters were skeptical it would provide new information about the attack on the Capitol. They were even more dubious about how much it would impact Donald Trump’s stranglehold on the Republican Party.
The naysayers, though, have mostly been proven wrong. The hearings have been powerfully organized and have brought forward a series of stunning details and revelations. These have slowly but noticeably eroded Trump’s position in the GOP — and made a powerful case for indicting him, which could undermine him even more.
The damage to Trump, though, hasn’t necessarily translated into damage to the forces of authoritarianism. That’s because Trump is not the sole, or even arguably the most dangerous, manifestation of authoritarian tendencies in the GOP. Even if Trump is put in jail and Republicans turn on him wholesale, the collapse of our democracy seems likely to proceed apace. And despite their stand against Trump, the two Republicans on the J6 committee are enabling our democratic erosion in important ways themselves.
The J6 hearings are damaging Trump’s standing within the GOP
The J6 committee has presented hours and hours of first-hand testimony that Trump deliberately and knowingly attempted to overthrow the Constitution of the United States. Cassidy Hutchinson, the assistant to Trump’s Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, and other former White House staffers have testified that Trump knew his plan to overthrow his election loss using alternate slates of electors was illegal. He pushed ahead with it anyway.
Witnesses have also testified that Trump knew the crowd on January 6 had weapons when he sent them to the Capitol. Evidence has even been presented that Trump wanted to march to the Capitol himself and effectively lead the insurrection. He was only stopped by his own staff who feared for his safety and their own criminal exposure.
Openly and publicly, Republican office-holders have continued to bluster that Trump is blameless and claim that the committee — which again has interviewed Republicans almost exclusively — is partisan. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio has been an especially vocal critic. That’s doubt in part because he’s been implicated as one of the congresspeople who helped Trump plot the coup and later sought pardons.
Despite the continued public support for Trump, though, there are signs the GOP is nervously looking for the exits, and doing so more than ever these days.
Trump’s poll numbers don’t look great. Only about a third of Americans are following the J6 committee hearings directly. But most Americans think they are fair, and about 60 percent of Americans think Trump should be indicted — mostly unchanged from before the hearings.
Beyond that, though, Trump’s position in the GOP appears to be weakening. He’s only got the support of about half of GOP voters, and appears to be losing rather than consolidating ground according to the New York Times’ analysis. In March, Trump had 54 percent support from Republicans for another run; that’s fallen to 49 percent. Significantly, a new poll of Republican voters in Michigan shows Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis basically in a dead heat. More, the rise of DeSantis means there’s a credible challenger to Trump in a way there was not in a year and a half ago.
Fox did air Cassidy Hutchinson’s testimony (though it downplayed it afterwards). But perhaps more tellingly, Fox personalities have started to play up DeSantis and criticize the former president. Piers Morgan appeared on Fox Business, for example, to argue “it’s time to dump the Donald and run with the Ronald.” Fox host Brian Kilmeade has also criticized Trump for clinging to the Big Lie that he won the last election.
Along similar lines, it’s noticeable that when Trump has rallies these days, they are treated as Super Bowl-level events by Newsmax, but largely ignored on Fox — even though a number of former Trump administration staffers now work as hosts for the network.
Fox could be distancing itself in part because it’s being sued by Dominion for defaming the company. Fox hosts, of course, spread the false conspiracy theory that Dominion’s voting machines were rigged against Trump. Fox may face financial and legal consequences if it continues to push the Big Lie, which gives it an incentive to try to find an alternative to Trump for 2024. Or perhaps network executives are just trying to figure out which way the wind is blowing, and have calculated it is blowing against an ex-president who remains obsessed with trying to overturn his election loss, even as the Republican rank and file moves on.
But the GOP — including Fox — also has to be concerned that Trump may face indictment, and may even be on trial during the 2024 election. The J6 committee has presented an extremely compelling case, and they just revealed that they may have Trump dead to rights for witness tampering. GOP partisans who want to win the next presidential election aren’t going to be enthusiastic about a candidate who may be in jail before the election cycle ends.
Public Notice is a reader-supported publication. The best way to make this work sustainable is with a paid subscription (but free ones are appreciated too).
None of this is to say that Trump is done. He’s still the odds on favorite to win the GOP’s 2024 nomination and, given Biden’s weak polling, could very well win the general election as well. But the J6 hearings have eroded his position in visible ways. They may not matter enough to stop Trump. But they have mattered.
There’s mattering and there’s mattering, though. The J6 committee has exposed Trump’s singular, brutal, terrifying effort to overthrow democracy. But it hasn’t tried to address the root of the broader authoritarian threat the Republican Party — including the anti-Trump faction of it — presents to America.
Cheney and Kinzinger are fine with less crude attempts to undermine democracy
Almost all Republicans who have testified to the committee agree that Trump’s authoritarian coup was wrong and evil. So do Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, the Republicans on the committee. To be clear, the stand the two have taken against Trump is commendable. Both have unequivocally denounced violent white supremacist death threats directed at a Republican vice-president. That seems like a low bar, but House Republicans like Jim Jordan and Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy haven’t cleared it.
But at the same time, both Cheney and Kinzinger are perfectly willing to countenance slightly less open attacks on democracy. They’ve each opposed voting rights legislation designed to protect the electoral system from future tampering. Cheney defended the draconian Georgia voter suppression law last year, according to the Washington Post, even though the law was passed specifically in response to Donald Trump’s election lies.
The Georgia law gives the Republican-controlled Georgia General Assembly authority over the State Board of Elections. That means in contested elections, Republicans could disqualify ballots from Democratic strongholds like Atlanta. It’s designed to give a future Republican candidate the ability to do legally what Trump tried to do illegally. And Cheney supports this — which means there’s functionally no Republican who opposes it.
Potentially even worse, the Supreme Court is planning to take up a North Carolina congressional gerrymandering case next term that could upend democratic elections. The case hinges on the independent state legislature theory, which holds that state legislatures can structure congressional elections however they want, without reference to state courts or constitutions.
The Supreme Court may uphold this theory and thereby let Republicans gerrymander to their heart’s content, effectively preventing Democrats from winning control of Congress, and locking in conservative control of government. As a byproduct, though, national election law would be thrown into complete chaos. The court would also be shoring up the very theory that Trump used to unsuccessfully argue that state legislatures could throw out election results and pick their own electors on a whim.
Again, Cheney, Kinzinger, Mitt Romney, and basically every Republican lawmaker in the country opposes voting rights reforms to limit this kind of extreme gerrymander. It’s virtually impossible to imagine any substantial, or even token, Republican pushback against a Supreme Court decision giving Republican legislatures vast powers to disenfranchise Democrats.
The conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court has been methodically gutting voting rights. Conservative gerrymanders in places like Wisconsin and North Carolina have created “democracy deserts” — places where Republicans always win, no matter how much they are outvoted by Democrats. In 2018, Democrats won 203,000 more votes statewide in Assembly elections in Wisconsin, but still only won one third of seats.
Supposed Republican proponents of democracy like Cheney don’t see this as a problem. They see this as a goal. Republicans are dedicated, enthusiastically, uniformly, virtually without exception, to a vision of America in which Democrats vote and vote and don’t win.
Cheney and Trump are both committed to an authoritarian, anti-democratic United States. Cheney just wants to achieve it without messy violence. That’s an important tactical difference. But the goal is the same.
To be clear, the J6 hearings are important. Exposing Trump’s crimes is worthwhile and necessary. Making a case for the prosecution of him and his clown car of cronies is vital. But the J6 hearings can’t save democracy because they’re not trying to save democracy.
Democrats on the committee do want to preserve free and fair elections. But Cheney and Kinzinger and the Republican witnesses just want to protect elections from one kind of tampering. Democrats and a small faction of Republicans have made common ground against Trump. But in the long run, if Trump loses and Cheney wins, we’ll still be living in an effectively authoritarian state, where voting only matters in red states if you cast ballots for the right party.