March 8, 2021

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Liz Cheney Wins One for Sanity

6 min read

Liz Cheney

won. She won’t lose her leadership position after her blistering statement supporting the impeachment of

Donald Trump.

The vote in the House Republican Conference Wednesday night wasn’t even close, it was reportedly 145-61. Her antagonists spent two weeks bragging they had it in the bag. She insisted on a vote and called their bluff. Suddenly people remembered: She was raised by a House whip.

What does it mean? It doesn’t turn the page on the Trump era in Congress but it does, tentatively, begin a new chapter. The pro-Trump group lost, and the We Exist in the Time After Trump forces won. The lopsidedness of the vote implies some sympathy for Ms. Cheney’s stand, or at least grudging respect for the idea of a vote of conscience. Some were likely glad to see someone stand up to a bully, even if they won’t. Some may have been thinking: Hmmm, maybe it wasn’t a good idea to offer quiet encouragement for an insurrection that left five people dead. Some no doubt worried Republicans would be seen as the party of knuckle-dragging louts if they removed the only woman in House leadership for doing what she thought was right.

The men who’d threatened her almost from the moment she backed impeachment were left looking like what they are—weak, emotional, spiteful and in the end incompetent.

Rep. Matt Gaetz,

who swanned around in his Elvis hair in Ms. Cheney’s Wyoming in an attempt to whip up a movement against her, looked especially silly, and left the conference meeting with no statement for the press. Which is exactly how

Joe McCarthy

left after

Margaret Chase Smith

gave it to him full in the face on the floor of the Senate 71 years ago.

Sometimes things repeat themselves neatly and in a way rich with meaning. (Though to be fair, Mr. Gaetz later tweeted and went on “Hannity,” but I’m sure McCarthy would have too if he could.)

Minority Leader

Kevin McCarthy,

after letting Ms. Cheney twist in the wind for a few weeks, spoke forcefully in her support and called for unity. He didn’t relieve freshman

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene,

the QAnon-supporting conspiracist whose social-media accounts appear to have endorsed violence, anti-Semitism and denialism of historic events, of her committee assignments, which was wrong and a mistake.

Mr. McCarthy said in an interview soon after that he didn’t really know what QAnon is. He knows what QAnon is. They all know.

Here is what the party, and conservatism, cannot do. They cannot sit back and hope the new extremism will go away, play itself out, magically disappear. It won’t. It is going to get worse. This is the moment, while it’s fully on the table, to face it down. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is not exactly excitable and tends to choose his words carefully, called it what it is, a “cancer for the Republican Party and our country.”

The GOP and the constellation of conservatism—cable news and magazines, local party officials and state leaders—should move against this tendency, in force and together. What exists in the dark corners of the internet has to be exposed and refuted. It’s time for some frank exposés, investigations and documentaries.

Sick theories radicalize and destabilize those who hold them. They encourage disrespect, suspicion, anger and ultimately violence. Individuals and families are harmed, and so is the country.

Parties have reputations. Not everyone is passionately immersed in politics. People see politics as it goes by on their screens; they get impressions. Do Republicans want their party to seem like a serious alternative, or yet another American institution that has lost hold of reality? Suburban voters, the college-educated—they will not align with what appears to be degenerate radicalism.

We are probably already seeing repercussions. In Arizona and Pennsylvania, thousands of voters have dropped their GOP registration.

Republican officials should at least have some feeling of protectiveness toward their own party. Its great virtue was that it stood for certain truths about the relationship between man and the state, between what is justly and rightly demanded of the citizen and what is not justly asked. It is odd that current members of Congress, so obsessed with words like the “brand,” don’t even know their brand, which, at its best, has stood for hard truths gently given. It is wanton and destructive to let it be reduced to crackpot conspiracies loudly brayed.

The whole conspiracy thing will only get worse with time, and more dangerous. A few weeks ago we asked what would have become of the John Birch Society if it had existed in the age of the internet. They were pretty radical; their anticommunism reached the point of suspecting

Dwight Eisenhower

was a Soviet agent. They faded. All they had to spread the word was books, magazines and some radio stations.

In our age they would have flourished. A recent CNN.com piece by

Donie O’Sullivan

described a South Carolina woman,

Ashley Vanderbilt,

who joined QAnon and then left. Ms. Vanderbilt had become increasingly radicalized—passionately pro-Trump, worried about the future, convinced America was nearing its end. Out of work in the pandemic she began spending more time online. She interacted with pro-Trump and anti-Biden videos, and soon TikTok’s “For You” page—“an algorithmically determined feed in the app that suggests videos a user might like,” according to CNN—was showing her conspiracy theories. This “continued on

Facebook,

YouTube, and Telegram,” the network reports. By January, Ms. Vanderbilt said, she was spending hours each evening learning more about the supposed cabal of pedophiles in the Democratic Party that had stolen the election. She believed in “the plan,” the QAnon narrative that martial law would soon be declared and the Biden inauguration halted. Mr. Trump would remain president. When he didn’t, Ms. Vanderbilt panicked. Her family intervened. She came to wonder if she had put Trump before God. Looking back, she thinks she might have quit QAnon earlier if Mr. Trump had condemned it instead of retweeting QAnon accounts.

The internet changes everything, and internet behemoths have some game going. They divine your interests and thoughts from what you search for, then adjust your algorithms. If you’re looking for darkness they feed you poison, nonstop incitement toward further radicalism. If you act on what they feed you, if you post incendiary, racist, anti-Semitic comments and videos, they then make a great moral show of banning you for hate speech.

They are like drug dealers who condemn their clients for becoming addicted to the fentanyl they sell.

There is no particular reason to believe we will have less conspiracism in the future, every reason to expect more. And it has the power to tear the country apart.

Republicans who still don’t know how to think about the big tech companies, whether to break them up or regulate them, might start with this insight: They are not your country’s friends.

There is radicalism and strangeness on the left and on the right, it has been going on for years, it has sped up in the Trump era, and on the right it fed the beliefs that led to the storming of the Capitol. That was a seminal moment, and it’s the work of Republicans to do whatever they can to keep it not the first but the last such moment.

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2021-02-04 18:41:00


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