It's almost over. A rare remaining ember of resistance to Donald Trump in the upper echelons of the U.S. Republican Party is on the verge of being extinguished.
Republicans will vote Wednesday on whether to purge Liz Cheney from her position in the party leadership in the House of Representatives.
It would have been a mind-boggling turn of events not too long ago.
She's very conservative. She's been a fierce partisan and is the daughter of a former vice-president. Yet party leaders are now angling to replace her with the less-conservative Elise Stefanik.
The episode sheds light on the state of American politics in 2021 — and into the former president's dominance over one of the country's two major parties.
Republican Party at 'turning point,' Cheney says
While this leadership squabble, as with any, includes a dollop of clashing personalities, Cheney casts the stakes in a far starker light: the health of American democracy.
In a fiery speech and public letter, she made clear she'll fight to retain her role, whose official title is conference chair. That makes her the No. 3 Republican in the House, responsible for organizing party meetings and messaging.
Cheney's unofficial role is to be Trump's most ardent high-profile critic among Republicans in Congress, although he has other sporadic detractors.
"History is watching. Our children are watching," she wrote in the Washington Post.
"The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution."
The New York-based Stefanik may not be as much of an ideological right-winger as Cheney, but she has exhibited one quality prized by today's Republican base: a willingness to follow Trump — and to follow him anywhere it may lead.
Her vote to overturn an election on Trump's behalf may have gotten her kicked out of a politics institute at her alma mater, Harvard University. But it cemented her status as a Republican star.
Stefanik is being feted in right-wing media and just appeared on Steve Bannon's podcast, while Cheney published her self-defence in the Post, a newspaper Republicans love to hate.
If the public comments of Republican lawmakers are indicative of how they intend to vote, Stefanik, whose district touches the Canadian border, could soon get a promotion.
That's because few elected lawmakers have voiced support for the daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney; far more have been critical.
Cheney, McCarthy clashed over Trump
She managed to survive a challenge to her position earlier this year.
She kept insisting that Trump's political career was done, that he'd disqualified himself from mainstream politics by trying to steal an election and whipping up the Jan. 6 mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol.
That kind of talk led to awkward moments. Like the press conference where she and her party's leader, Kevin McCarthy, voiced clashing opinions on Trump.
McCarthy has made it clear he's fed up. He defended Cheney in her first leadership test but has announced a formal move to dump her.
"It's clear that we need to make a change," McCarthy said in a letter to colleagues. He said the party can't keep re-litigating the past and must focus on winning back power in the 2022 midterms.
He predicted a vote to remove Cheney on Wednesday.
There's an element of coincidence in the timing, given another event happening Wednesday in Congress: a hearing on January's attack on the Capitol, with Trump's former defence secretary expected to blame the ex-president.
Cheney's few vocal defenders call it ludicrous to turf her for the ostensible sin of re-litigating the election fallout, given that the undisputed champion of dredging up the recent past is Trump himself.
The former president issues statements every day doubling, tripling, octupling down in his refusal to concede the vote of Nov. 3, 2020.
Jan. 6 attack a warning sign for democracy
"It's ludicrous that [Cheney's]having to defend herself. Like, that's insane. But that's where we are," one of her remaining allies, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, told a National Press Club event this week.
"What she is being removed for is making it uncomfortable [for her colleagues] and being consistent. And God bless her."
Kinzinger, a former air force pilot, compares the Jan. 6 attack, for American democracy, to the warning a plane gives off before a crash. When the engine fails, the aircraft shakes before it plunges out of the sky.
He said he tried warning the party leadership before Jan. 6 that violence might erupt based on the threats and comments lawmakers were hearing from Trump supporters, and he pleaded with his colleagues to make clear the election was over.
Kinzinger said he told McCarthy in a party conference call: "'I really, really am concerned about violence.' … The response I got [from the leader] was basically that cricket sound. And then, 'Okay, Adam. Operator, next caller.'"
He said he's now disappointed that his party has decided it's more important to keep focused on winning than in recognizing the threat to American democracy.
Why Republicans feel beholden to Trump
Kinzinger estimates that only a few Republican elected politicians truly believe the election was stolen from Trump — a small group he described as having low IQs. "Maybe 10 [of them]."
The rest, he said, have made a strategic calculus, and Cheney is messing with it. That calculus was perhaps most clearly articulated by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham.
He opined several days ago that if Republicans fought against Trump, he'd take half the party with him. Graham said the party must stick together in that regard.
Had a great dinner tonight with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago. <br><br>He’s in great spirits! We spent the evening talking about working together to re-take the House & Senate in 2022. 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸 <a href="https://t.co/OdtUBxHGSn">pic.twitter.com/OdtUBxHGSn</a>
And while he's previously been allied with the party's more pro-military, hawkish wing, like Cheney and her father, Graham says it's time to accept the new reality.
"I've always liked Liz Cheney," Graham said on Sean Hannity's Fox News show.
"But she's made a determination that the Republican Party can't grow with President Trump. I've determined we can't grow without him."
The state of democratic guardrails
So what's next?
Trump is musing about maybe running for president again. And in the meantime, the institutional guardrails against him are being uprooted from the political soil.
Just this week in the primary for the Virginia governorship election, the only candidate who said Joe Biden was elected fairly finished a distant fourth.
An organizer of a Jan. 6 rally is now reportedly working for the Republican leadership in the House of Representatives.
And now the Republicans are on the potential cusp of purging a member of their leadership who clearly recognized Biden's election win, then called out Trump.
A sobering piece in the New York Times Magazine ends with party supporters angrily demanding that their leaders do more to overturn Biden's win, with one threatening bloodshed.
On the other hand, there's no mathematical reason to conclude that American lawmakers ever came close to blocking the certification of the 2020 election.
In the Jan. 6 vote, even if a majority of Republicans challenged at least one state's results, Biden's win was still certified by the vast majority of the chamber in margins exceeding 33 per cent for every state.
Freedom only survives if we protect it. We must speak the truth. The election was not stolen. America has not failed. <a href="https://t.co/H4KrMxkPdy">pic.twitter.com/H4KrMxkPdy</a>
One election law expert, asked about Cheney's possible ouster, says he's still increasingly worried about American democracy.
"We are in danger of losing the guardrail," said Rick Hasen of the University of California, Irvine.
"Much depends upon whether moderate Republicans can rein in Trumpian authoritarian tendencies and how institutions like the courts protect the rule of law."
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