Liz Cheney’s ouster stirs doubts abroad about health of US democracy

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, speaks to reporters after House Republicans voted to oust her from her leadership post because of her repeated criticism of former President Donald Trump for his false claims of election fraud and his role in instigating the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol attack.
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Rep. Liz Cheney’s ouster from a top leadership post in the Republican Party has drawn attention, and concern, a long way from her home state of Wyoming.

America’s overseas allies, especially in Europe, are as worried as Ms. Cheney about the direction of U.S. democracy. They wonder whether the Republicans are abandoning their traditional policy and political role in favor of personal allegiance to a leader in the populist, strongman mode: former President Donald Trump.

Why We Wrote This

Europeans know from their history the cost of demanding personal fealty to an unchallenged leader. That is why they worry about Liz Cheney’s defenestration.

Ms. Cheney is under fire for refusing to support Mr. Trump’s false claim that he won the election last November. International allies share her concern that such claims could undermine the U.S. tradition of peaceful transitions from one administration to the next.

And Europeans recall the bitter price they paid for personal fealty to an unchallenged leader. Mr. Trump is clearly no Adolf Hitler, but in Mr. Trump’s path to unquestioned control of his party, some hear echoes of the German dictator’s rise to power.

There’s another reason for allied concern. President Joe Biden plans to lead U.S. partners in reasserting shared values in the face of rising autocracies such as China. It will be difficult to fight that battle credibly if America’s own democracy appears in crisis.

The world is watching Wyoming.

Not because of its undeniable natural beauty: jewels like the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone, Jackson Hole or Flaming Gorge. It’s because of Wyoming’s lone member of the House of Representatives, Liz Cheney, and her fears about the direction of the Republican Party and, more widely, of American democracy.

America’s overseas allies, especially longtime partners in Europe, share those fears.

Why We Wrote This

Europeans know from their history the cost of demanding personal fealty to an unchallenged leader. That is why they worry about Liz Cheney’s defenestration.

Their concern has been percolating since election night in November, when prominent European politicians took the extraordinary step of voicing public alarm over Donald Trump’s premature declaration of victory and his call for a halt to the vote count.

But Europeans’ anxiety – informed by their Continent’s own experience, historical and contemporary, of how democratic institutions can erode from within – goes deeper.

They wonder whether the Republicans – one of the two major parties in the most durable and influential democracy in the modern world – may be on the way to definitively abandoning their traditional political and policy role in favor of personal allegiance to a leader in the populist, strongman mode.

Gerald Herbert/AP/File
President Donald Trump walks to board Marine One on Jan 12, 2021. Republican lawmakers have continued to perpetuate his untruthful allegations about a stolen election, making personal fealty to the former president the key criterion for advancement in the party.

Representative Cheney’s refusal to support former President Trump’s insistence that he actually won the election six months ago, and her vote to impeach Mr. Trump over the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, led to her removal as GOP conference chair when House Republicans convened Wednesday. 

But international allies share her view that perpetuating Mr. Trump’s false claims about the November election could have implications for future elections and for a central pillar of U.S. democracy: the tradition of peaceful transfer of power by consensus from one administration to the next.

For Europeans, the potential implications of personal fealty to an unchallenged leader are not just theoretical. They’ve experienced them at great cost in the past and are seeking to avert them even now – cautionary examples powerfully brought home in two books I’ve been rereading in recent days: William L. Shirer’s magisterial “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” and journalist Anne Applebaum’s more recent “Twilight of Democracy,” with its insights into the ways that the post-Soviet democratic system in present-day Poland has frayed.

Mr. Trump, obviously, is no Adolf Hitler. Yet in his path to unquestioned control of his party, some Europeans hear echoes of the German dictator’s rise to power. Yes, intimidation and violence played a major role in Hitler’s ascent. But at key moments, politicians from his own and other right-of-center parties simply surrendered to the leader’s will and agenda. In Mr. Shirer’s trenchant phrase, they “passed quietly, unprotestingly out of existence.” Policy became whatever Hitler said it was.

In America’s clearly quite different context, Ms. Cheney is warning against Republican policy becoming, in effect, whatever Mr. Trump says it is – a trend that was becoming evident even before the election, when the Republican Party convention, for the first time in its history, did not even bother to adopt a new policy platform. 

Bernadett Szabo/Reuters/File
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's shift to what he calls "illiberal democracy" has met with less opposition than expected from intellectuals and politicians.

Yet it is modern-day Poland and neighboring post-Soviet Hungary that may provide more direct European parallels. In both countries, governing center-right parties have fallen behind what their leaders have unapologetically dubbed “illiberal democracies” that have tightened controls over the judiciary, the media, universities, and other independent voices.

Eastern European “illiberalization” has not relied only on fiat or intimidation. As Ms. Applebaum explains, it has involved a wholesale shift of worldview – among politicians and other opinion-formers previously championing democracy – to embrace a narrow, populist, and ultimately anti-democratic project.

One reason that Wyoming is on American allies’ political radar is their antipathy to Mr. Trump himself. That’s in part because he often denigrated, and generally pulled back from, long-standing U.S. alliances overseas.

The current trend toward a Trump-defined Republican Party has raised doubts in their minds about the staying power of President Joe Biden’s assertion of a more familiar American role in the world. Can this promotion of democracy and support for U.S. alliances be assumed from one election to the next?

The very fact that Ms. Cheney has been waging her one-woman battle against a fully Trump-loyal party is a reminder that the argument may not be over.

One reason for the overwhelmingly pro-Trump cast of Republican legislators today is that the former president remains highly popular with many of their voters. It’s a practical political choice. That could conceivably change, depending on the former president’s political stock in the months and years ahead.

But one thing is certain for now: One-half of America’s two-party system is lending credence to Mr. Trump’s untruths about the election result, and is reluctant to discuss, much less investigate, January’s invasion of the Capitol. And that raises a more immediate problem for Mr. Biden and for U.S. allies.

The new president is determined to lead America’s partners in reasserting shared values and, given their rivalry with an ever-more assertive, authoritarian China, to meet what he has called the defining challenge of our age: the contest between democracy and autocracy.

It will be difficult to fight that battle credibly if America’s own democracy appears in crisis.

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