The Republican National Convention’s censure of Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger for their participation in the congressional committee investigating the January 6th attack on the United States Capitol is yet another example of the internal turmoil facing the Republican Party since the adoption of Donald Trump as their party leader and political compass.
Although this is just the latest in a string of conflicts illustrating the fault lines within the Republican Party, the RNC’s formal rebuke of dissenting members of their party draws a fresh line in the sand for any Republican who dares to contradict Donald Trump. The RNC’s censure is concerning for a number of reasons, all of which have troubling implications for the security and future of American democracy.
GOP leaders’ continued support of Donald Trump after his clearly antidemocratic refusal to accept election results and facilitate a peaceful transition of power has alarming indications about their willingness, or lack thereof, to protect liberal democracy at the expense of their own short-term political success. Mike Pence’s response to Trump’s claims that he could have overturned the results of the 2020 election as vice president are a clear example of this reticence.
Pence walks a careful line between defending his refusal to unconstitutionally overturn election results and maintaining an ambiguous stance on Trump’s baseless assertion that he won the 2020 election and Biden was elected because of rampant election fraud (Lerer). As a prospective 2024 Republican presidential candidate, it is evident that Pence is reluctant to reject Trump’s stolen election claims at the risk of losing votes by alienating the Republican base of loyal Trump supporters. He only disagreed with Trump insofar as doing so benefited his political viability, but failed to counter evidentially unsupported accusations of large scale election fraud.
Mike Pence, and indeed, most other Republican leaders, continue to legitimize Donald Trump’s election stealing conspiracy for the benefit of their own political prospects in a classic case of a “fateful alliance,” as Levitsky and Ziblatt describe it (pp. 15). Throughout history, political parties have repeatedly attempted to bring in charismatic, loose-cannon populist outsiders to strengthen their own political power by harnessing the energy and popularity the outsider generates in desirable voting blocs to win elections for all of the party’s candidates.
However, party leaders have a dangerous habit of underestimating the authoritarian tendencies of their championed outsider and continue to legitimize their antidemocratic views and policies with a blind—and typically false—confidence that they can contain the outsider while simultaneously using them to amass popular support (Levitsky and Ziblatt, pp. 13-19). It is the Republican Party’s fateful alliance with Donald Trump that has brought a host of threats against democracy to the forefront of American politics, including widespread constitutional ignorance among voters, public arena degradation through misinformation and disinformation, extreme polarization, public distrust of electoral integrity, and, ultimately, the violent January 6th attack on the US Capitol.
The RNC’s latest recommitment to preserving Trump’s credibility and legitimacy at all costs indicates that the majority of Republican leadership remains unwilling to end their fateful alliance with Donald Trump. Even more disturbingly, their censuring of Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger brings the RNC’s power to keep Republican officials in line with Trump doctrine to new heights. Censure is a rarely used and highly respected disciplinary action taken only in cases of serious violations of an elected body’s rules (Alfaro). For context, 24 members of the US House of Representatives have been censured in American history, and just 9 members have been censured in the Senate (Alfaro).
The RNC’s resolution also promises to “immediately cease any and all support of [Cheney and Kinzinger] as members of the Republican Party,” which effectively makes their ejection from the party official (Zhou). While the RNC has used its influence to blacklist Republican politicians who dare to oppose Trump or his policies by withholding endorsements and nominations, censure is both an authoritative disciplinary measure and a time honored tradition in American democracy. The RNC is attempting to shield their antidemocratic silencing of minority opposition within the Republican Party in defense of Donald Trump behind a legally sound and widely respected method of political repudiation. They have added a new deterrent to deviating from the party line, but unlike the subtler punishments of the past, censure has teeth and a far greater influence on public opinion.
Thus, the censure of Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger has placed yet another hurdle in the path of protecting American democracy. By threatening politicians with formal disciplinary measures for seeking the truth and preserving bipartisanship and trust in our democratic institutions, the RNC has increased the stakes politicians face when deciding whether to speak out against antidemocratic policies and decreased the likelihood that anyone would accept the risk of political ruin to express opposition to the party’s actions. The resulting authoritarian culture of fear and self-censorship the RNC has created is counterproductive to advancing democratic ideals in the United States and imposes yet another barrier to those in the Republican Party loyal to the Constitution over the authoritarian whims of Donald Trump.
Alfaro, Mariana. “What Happens When a Member of Congress Is Censured?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Nov. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/what-is-censure-congress-/2021/11/18/20245326-4889-11ec-b8d9-232f4afe4d9b_story.html.
Lerer, Lisa. “’Trump Is Wrong,’ Pence Says of False Claim about Overturning Election.” The New York Times, 4 Feb. 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/04/us/politics/pence-trump-election.html.
Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “Chapter 1: Fateful Alliances.” How Democracies Die, Crown, New York, NY, 2018, pp. 13–19.
Zhou, Li. “Liz Cheney’s Censure Underscores Republican Loyalties to Trump .” Vox, 4 Feb. 2022, https://www.vox.com/22917728/liz-cheney-adam-kinzinger-censure-january-6-committee.