In not-so-surprising turn of events, on February 4th, the Republican National Committee (RNC) voted to censure Representatives Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) for their role in investigating last year’s January 6th Capitol riot investigating last year’s January 6th Capitol riot. While the Republicans have felt no qualms about attacking Democrats on a variety of issues, both legitimate, and illegitimate, this censure marks a significant departure from business-as-usual politics. Their ire has now been turned loose within their own ranks. In the RNC’s resolution they stated that they, “immediately cease any and all support of them as members of the Republican Party“. For all intents and purposes, the Republican Party has disowned Cheney and Kinzinger.
This move by the Republican leadership, however, is right on-par with what we have come to expect from the party that has become Donald Trump’s personal task-master. There is no doubt that Trump exhibits the behavior of an aspiring autocrat. He has sought to undermine respectful discourse, smash democratic norms, and diminish pluralism at every turn. This censure is just another episode of his autocratic behavior. In order to achieve his goals of aggrandizement (or weakening institutional checks in order to bolster his own power) , he must ensure that he keeps firm control of his base of support and his allies and he must eliminate any threat to that control. He has worked to co-opt the Republican Party and turned it into the Trump Party. While Trump himself did not hand down the censure, it was done by proxies within the Republican Party, intent on protecting him from the fallout of the Capitol riot. The incidence of this censure perfectly illustrates the tactics he has employed to seize power, both within the party and on a national level.
Step one in the wanna-be autocrat’s handbook is the demonization of opponents. While attacking one’s political rivals goes part and parcel with political competition, the manner in which it is done is significant. While politicians will often criticize a rival’s competence or policies, it is usually done with some level of mutual respect, recognizing that the other person is genuinely trying to do what is best for the country. Where these attacks become indicative of erosion and nefarious ambitions is when the rhetoric takes on a Manichaean bent. Studies have shown that aspiring autocrats across a variety of countries attempt to demonize their opponents to a far greater and more visceral degree than “normal” politicians . Trump’s penchant for these kinds of vicious, personal attacks were exemplified when he said that Cheney was a “smug fool” and that “to look at her is to despise her”. This criticism is not based on any legitimate, ideological differences, but about Cheney as an individual.
Along with changing the nature of political discourse, throughout his presidency, Trump broke just about every norm in the book, so why shouldn’t his behavior extend to his interactions with his own party? This norm-breaking (another calling card of erosive behavior ) has manifested itself in the Republican Party as the abandoning of traditional Republican positions. For example, in foreign policy alone, Trump has single-handedly caused the party to move from positions of interventionism and international participation established by Republican leaders like Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and Mitt Romney, to ones of deep isolationism and the abandoning of the US’s allies. If he can illicit a complete reversal of policy, why can’t he kick fellow party members who pose a threat to his control to the curb?
Perhaps the strongest indicator that this censure is more than politics as usual and indicative of a more sinister agenda, is how Trump is attempting to all but eliminate pluralism within the Republican Party. Pluralism, or in this case the inclusion of many differing voices and stances within a political framework, is often considered a barometer of a successful democratic institution. It is also incredibly pesky when one is trying to consolidate power. In the same study that linked demonization to autocratic behavior, it was also found that aspiring autocrats try to eliminate pluralism within their countries , . If the Republican Party is the structure upon which Trump’s support rests, it stands to reason that he would want to minimize pluralism within the party, as well as the country in general.
In any other scenario, it would behoove the Party to encompass a range of stances, from moderate to staunch Republicans, as a means of appealing to as many potential voters as possible. Furthermore, both Cheney and Kinzinger were well-liked. Cheney is essentially Republican royalty, being the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, and Kinzinger, a lieutenant colonel in the US Air Force, is regarded as a nice moderate candidate from a nice moderate district. So why risk upsetting your base of support?
In a calculated risk, the Republicans (or perhaps more accurately Trump) recognized that Cheney and Kinzinger’s moderation and voices of reason were a liability when it came to securing Trump’s power. Thus, Trump and his cronies took an ax to Cheney and Kinzinger’s ties to the Republican Party. After all, the easiest way to silence a dissenter within your ranks is to label them as a traitor. Bermeo, Nancy. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27, no. 1 (January 2016): 7–12. https://doi.org/10.1353/jod.2016.0012.  Stokes, Susan. “Ideology, Populism, and Democratic Erosion.” Lecture, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, February 23, 2002.  Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. “5: The Guardrails of Democracy.” Essay. In How Democracies Die, 97–117. London: Penguin Books, 2019.  Ginsburg, Tom, and Aziz Z. Huq. “4: When Democracies Decay.” Essay. In How to Save a