In June, at the committee’s first public hearing detailing Donald Trump’s efforts to prevent his democratically elected successor from taking office, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming labeled Trump a menace. But she also condemned her fellow Republicans who had enabled Trump’s attacks on the rule of law, democracy and the republic itself.
“I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible,” she said. “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone. But your dishonor will remain.”
The concept of honor is central to self-government. Without honor and justice informing power, there can be no democratic legitimacy. Political parties, more than most institutions, advertise their devotion to such values. That’s why the GOP calls itself the “Party of Lincoln.” It seeks to bask in the reflected glory of the Great Emancipator, who was both a wartime leader and national healer. That’s why the Democratic Party hearkens back to Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, which elevated everyday Americans, and to John Kennedy, who set out to achieve great things not because they were easy, but because they were hard.
In difficult eras, when parties are plagued by failure, or have trouble finding their way, such tethers afford more than a link to the past: They carry the DNA of honor.
Cheney, immersed in politics from childhood, understands that parties require a higher calling, even if they often fail to answer it. Ronald Reagan was a complicated president with an ugly history of race-baiting. But Republicans are not wrong to herald him for staring down the despotism of the Soviet Union. Like all such feats, Reagan’s triumph over the Soviets has elements of myth — but myth can be useful, even enriching, to political parties as much as nations. Danger arises when myth displaces reality.
In the Trumpist GOP, the lie triumphed. Over nearly six months of public hearings, Cheney proved to be a precise and eloquent narrator of that disgrace. The word she used that night in June — “dishonor” — was no doubt carefully chosen. Unlike criminality, dishonor extends far beyond the letters of the law. And unlike incitement or assault, witness tampering or perjury, dishonor is not an act. It’s a state of being.
Watergate was a scandal of the presidency. Trump’s effort to overthrow the republic was also based in the White House. But it spread to every corner of the party, which was so morally degraded and intellectually enfeebled by years of defending the indefensible that it failed to resist. Thousands of Republicans in positions of power repeated Trump’s falsehoods and mimicked his corruption. Many still do. The GOP is too broken to resist.
Cheney and others of her ilk offer an escape. She has sacrificed much for the truth. And her intelligence shines against the dull and crumbling wall of her party. Other Republicans likewise point the way to a better future. Rusty Bowers, the soon-to-be former Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives, is one. He repeatedly asked Trump’s lackeys for evidence of fraud, and performed his duty when the evidence never arrived. He, too, was cast out of the party.
Thugs such as Trump will be prosecuted — or not. Either way, the future of the party depends less on the miscreants than on the bystanders, those who cheered the parade of scoundrels seeking to subvert the rule of law and democracy. From Maricopa County in Arizona to small towns in Michigan and Pennsylvania, many Republican office holders have performed with integrity. But the party still chooses to honor and elevate grifters, liars and criminals. Dishonor is a choice. Until Republicans make a better one, the party remains a risk.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• A Lamentable Move by the Jan. 6 Committee: The Editors
• The Jan. 6 Committee Is Right to Defend the Rule of Law: Noah Feldman
• Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger Put Patriotism Over Politics: Robert A. George
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Francis Wilkinson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering U.S. politics and policy. Previously, he was an editor for the Week, a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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