Months after more Americans voted in an election than ever before, Rep. Liz Cheney appeared before the Cheyenne Rotary Club to discuss her vision for the future of Republican politics.
She discussed the need to uphold the Constitution — she cited the constitutional oath as her reason for impeaching then-President Donald Trump, as well as the policy differences between her party and the Democrats who control Congress and the White House. She also talked about the need to reject conspiratorial thinking in the modern Republican Party, embodied by hard-right newcomers such as Marjorie Taylor Greene.
“I think that it’s very important for us … to be clear that we reject some of the most outrageous, extreme and indefensible positions that we’ve seen,” she said via Zoom.
Nationally, most Republicans seem to agree with her.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll released earlier this week, more than 7 in 10 Americans — including 58% of Republicans — say that the conspiracy theories that have come to dominate American political discourse have gotten out of control. This trend coincides with declining favorability for conservatives: According to the poll, the Republican Party brand appears to have been tarnished by its leadership’s seeming embrace of toxic discourse, with 50% of Americans having a more negative opinion of the party than they did a year ago, compared to 35% of Americans saying the same of Democrats.
Cheney — identified as the figurehead of the modern GOP by a quarter of the country, according to that poll — is trying to bring the party back from the brink that it finds itself teetering on, hoping to reclaim a winning coalition of moderates and conservatives after the party narrowly missed taking control of the government by tens of thousands of votes in swing states around the country.
That’s not necessarily a lock, however. According to that same poll, 28% of voters see Greene — who has a history of trafficking in widely debunked and offensive conspiracy theories — as emblematic of the modern Republican Party.
So what does the future of the Republican Party look like? And is the messaging from Congress the best place to look when so many Americans appear to be sold on the vision of conservatism that currently dominates the public understanding?
State parties across the country are almost universally becoming more conservative, while state-level officials have begun to show even greater degrees of “Trumpism,” a style of identity politics that rejects racial and social justice initiatives, abhors the concept of cancel culture, and is defined by a deep-seated distrust of government. According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight, it is actually state-level GOP officials — not those in Washington — who have pushed for the most aggressive legislation restricting ballot access, opposing transgender athletes’ participation on sports teams and barring schools from using materials from the New York Times’ 1619 Project in their curricula. Notably, the officials advancing those laws are duly elected by a constituency who, theoretically, share those priorities.
Wyoming’s Republican supermajority has long been more moderate than its deep red affiliations suggest. But over the past few years — and particularly, in the 2020 election — many of those more moderate Republicans were swept out in favor of a new, more populist style of conservative, identified by their loyalty to Trump, their embrace of firearms and further cuts to government, and their disdain of new taxes and public health mandates.
Those “old-school” conservatives still control a majority in the House of Representatives, where the characteristics of small neighborhoods and their priorities become much clearer. But if those lawmakers face stiff opposition from more populist politicians in their ranks, does that necessarily leave a winning coalition for a congressperson like Cheney in a primary scenario?
Conservatives who embrace the populist vision for the party have already begun to organize, and Anthony Bouchard — state senator, gun rights activist, COVID-19 truther, and Cheney opponent — has focused his campaign’s efforts on tapping into that wellspring of support. He has appeared on national outlets favored by the far-right like Newsmax, OAN and, recently, the New Right Net to pitch his own vision of a populist Republican future.
And the chief opponent to that vision — alongside Democrats — is the Republican establishment.
“Liz Cheney has failed Wyoming by cozying up to the D.C. swamp and out-of-touch elitists instead of fighting for Wyoming,” Bouchard said in a recent radio advertisement.
Cheney, meanwhile, just completed a stretch in which she — with other members of GOP leadership — introduced a flurry of bills opposing initiatives by the Biden administration that could harm the state’s fossil fuel industry, including “The Safeguarding Oil and Gas Leasing and Permitting Act,” “The Recognizing Local Interests in NEPA Decision Making Act“ and “The Safeguarding Coal Leasing Act.”
Each had the backing of special interest groups including groups like the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, the Wyoming Mining Association, the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
Will policies that affect Wyoming actually resonate with the Republican base? Perhaps. But while conservative, policy-forward politicians can and do get elected, there are scores of conservatives who trend in the other direction. An adviser for retiring Ohio Sen. Rob Portman recently told the National Journal, “If you want to spend all your time going on Fox and (being) an a———, there’s never been a better time to serve,” while newcomers like North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn have placed their focus not on their policy staff but on communications.
“I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation,” the 25-year-old wrote in a Jan. 19 email to his Republican colleagues that was later obtained by TIME magazine.
Is that the future of the GOP in a post-Trump world? The late conservative talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, might have said it best during the 2016 election, when the populist Trump rose to the top of the heap of the Republican field: “The thing that’s in front of everybody’s face and it’s apparently so hard to believe, it’s this united, virulent opposition to the left and the Democrat Party and Barack Obama. And I, for the life of me, don’t know what’s so hard to understand about that.”