WASHINGTON — What should you do when you know you’re losing?
In a political system, it’s an easy question on paper, but a hard one to deal with personally in the moment. It’s at the heart of a peaceful transition of power, and former President Donald J. Trump’s answer to that question in 2020 — his refusal to admit that he lost — hammered away at the political foundations of the country.
It’s also a question that works in other ways: What you should do when you think you might be losing is something Democrats shouldn’t forget ahead of November’s midterm elections. The threat of lost power has animated the last six years of national politics, particularly inside the Republican Party as officials gave way to Mr. Trump and political gravity, remaking their priorities, boundaries and message in the process.
His continued refusal to admit his 2020 defeat makes that tension within the party more alive than ever. Over the past year, Mr. Trump has occasionally issued statements declaring “1 down, 9 to go!,” “2 down, 8 to go!” It’s like a metronome in the background of the midterms, as the Republicans who voted to impeach him retire, leave, lose, exist in a state of uncertainty, reorient themselves to reality.
On the receiving end of Mr. Trump’s attacks and especially the worries from inside the Republican Party about losing, consider Representative Liz Cheney. She seems to know she’s likely to lose her congressional primary on Aug. 16. In a G.O.P. debate earlier this summer in Wyoming, rather than any talk about inflation or local issues, she devoted her closing debate statement to two minutes on the Constitution, the importance of not telling lies, and the option to vote for someone else if people are looking for a lawmaker who will violate their oath of office.
From the outside, how Ms. Cheney has approached the last 18 months might represent the best example of one point of view on the meaning of Jan. 6, 2021, its causes, solutions, the role of the individual and how political figures should face the prospect of losing power.
Many of us agree on a foundational premise about the recent history of our country: The post-2020 election period was a nightmare, culminating in the events of Jan. 6. Mr. Trump repeatedly said the election was stolen, many Republican leaders placated him, some segment of the population listened, and some segment of that population bashed in the windows of the Capitol. Even if we acknowledge that, serious people can still disagree about the nature of the problem, and therefore its solution, and therefore the meaning of the time we’re living in.
Consider these two admittedly reductive binaries:
1. Donald Trump is the logical extension of the Republican Party.
2. Donald Trump is an anomaly.
a. Systems matter most for the peaceful transfer of power.
b. Individual choices matter most for the peaceful transfer of power.
Either framework produces a number of possibilities and they can overlap in unusual ways. A lot of Republican voters and many progressive writers view Mr. Trump as in keeping with the historical bounds of the Republican Party; and plenty of others, haters and lovers alike, view him as a singular entity in American life.
The American social contract, meanwhile, requires both democratic structures and perpetual individual choices in the interests of the common cause. Before the 2016 election, in a piece pinpointing a central problem Mr. Trump posed, Charles Krauthammer wrote that the democratic system is “a subtle and elaborate substitute for combat,” a “sublimation” that only works by dent of mutual agreement on its legitimacy and boundaries, and fragile norms of restraint built over “decades, centuries.”
If you start clicking these binaries together, you can trace logical paths to wildly different arguments about the current path out of these problems. An emphasis on structure, on Mr. Trump as the product of our system and the saturation of election denial as a reflection on that system, can take you everywhere from the legislators diligently trying to pour concrete into the archaic flaws of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, to the writers who argue that expanding the Supreme Court will correct for political ossification and minoritarianism.
And an emphasis on Mr. Trump as anomaly takes you right to Capitol Hill on a recent Thursday night with Ms. Cheney. Dressed in white and seated inside a room watched by millions, she sat up on the dais for hours, stoic and grim, during the committee’s last hearing this summer.
Ms. Cheney has argued that personal agency matters since Jan. 6 took place: Institutions comprise individuals and individuals shape political reality, regardless of whether they intend to do so. Officials, she told one interviewer, have a duty “to recognize that we can influence events.” She told another, “We clearly have a situation where elected officials have to make a decision about whether we are bystanders or leaders,” calling it “irresponsible” to act “as though our institutions are self-sustaining, because they’re not; it takes us, it takes people, to do that.”
In a closing statement that addressed criticisms of the committee, Ms. Cheney centered the individual against the system. Individual witnesses testified instead of hiding behind executive privilege, she said; individuals have made what she called a “series of confessions” from inside the party and White House, rather than as part of some broader political class against Mr. Trump; an individual like William P. Barr is no “delicate flower” that will break under cross-examination. Each theoretical objection to the committee’s political case corkscrewed into a central point about the principal character in this scenario: that, in the lead-up to Jan. 6, it didn’t matter what everyone knew and said inside and outside the White House, Mr. Trump was going to do what he did. And in response, Ms. Cheney has pointedly subjected herself to his endless reserves of attacks, as well as the party’s essential ostracism.
Over the last decade, some conservative Trump critics have tended to be of the more-in-sadness-than-in-anger style, and often a little at a loss about how to deal with Mr. Trump and everything MAGA entails, in policy and style.
Ms. Cheney, however, isn’t like that, or hasn’t been for the last 18 months. There is no emotion; if those guys run hot, she runs cold, “as emotional as algebra,” as one Republican lawmaker said last year; there is no personal anecdote about how life has become more difficult for her; there is very little ornamentation; there is nothing but this granite singularity. She is apparently willing to continually give up power without it appearing like much of a sacrifice, so much so that you can almost forget it’s happening. Here, then, is the individual, making a choice, extending personal agency to the max within the bounds of the political system, to address the crisis posed by another individual in Mr. Trump.
Ms. Cheney shares some of her father’s speaking tonalities and mannerisms. There’s that same precision and even keel, the disinterest in public opinion vs. their own perspective, the emphasis on American exceptionalism, and the little extra current produced by a subtle wryness, like they might end a speech, “Thank you; I’ll see you all in hell.” Setting aside the larger policy matters, some of the qualities people hated (or loved) about Dick Cheney are ones people love (or hate) about Ms. Cheney.
Since Mr. Trump announced for president in 2015, his emotions have shaped politics, from policy to the everyday tenor of the White House to the relentless campaign against those he believes have wronged him. His emotional valence echoes throughout American politics and culture, and worked to increase the pitch and excess of those who support him and many who respond to him. Even the select committee drifts into this excessive dimension in highlighting the tabloid (see: the dripping ketchup), which the public and especially media sometimes elevate over more dire information. In this general universe of emotion, Ms. Cheney’s ordered lack of it might be the source of public fascination with her currently, even beyond the intrinsic anger and praise for people who break with party.
But Ms. Cheney flatly telling Republican officials that their dishonor will remain after Mr. Trump leaves is not an obvious path to remaining in the United States Congress, representing arguably America’s most conservative state. And this is where an emphasis on individual choice becomes more complicated in a two-party system.
During this midterm cycle, a small handful of Republicans have tried to triangulate out of a situation where Mr. Trump has made their refusal to do what he wants an endless attack line. “We made a determination that, if you want to win an election, we are going to have to have people who like Trump also like us,” an aide to Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia recently told CNN after his defeat of a challenger Mr. Trump backed solely because Mr. Kemp did not intervene in Georgia’s election results. “We had to give Trump supporters permission to like both of them.”
Ms. Cheney clearly either did not believe that was a path open to her or did not want to attempt it. Her answer, in this in-between period after Jan. 6 and before the next presidential election where nothing about the future is determined, has been to commit entirely to what’s causing her to lose, most likely, a primary, and ultimately her power. She seems, at the very least, frustrated that many of her elected peers have been unwilling to take even the path of Mr. Kemp or former Vice President Mike Pence in how they discuss the 2020 election. If you buy into the idea that the difference between one person and the next really matters in politics, and especially in governance, this requires endless separating between vain and noble motives, and more to the point, worthless and meaningful actions.
Getting out of this situation, where a big segment of voters falsely believe an election was stolen and a former president has made it a political mission to remove from office anyone who disagrees, is deeply complicated.
In an interview last winter, the Republican Representative Peter Meijer, who also voted to impeach Mr. Trump and may himself lose a primary this week, carefully framed the problem as one where “you subordinate what your principles may be, saying, ‘Well, I know that this is really important but there’s a thing I care about more, and if I am not in office … I won’t be able to do that thing I care about more.’” These concessions, he said, can “really accumulate into someone just losing any sense of bearing.”
There’s a line of thinking, one that somehow achieves eternal hope and cynicism simultaneously, that Mr. Trump imperils himself through his fixation on the past, and his power will fade and the country will move on passively, and lawmakers — the ones who privately want Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, Mr. Pence, or anyone else to be president — can slip from one era to the next silently, without having to risk losing much of anything.
That perspective relates to one that’s been there from the beginning, that an external collective composed of the party apparatus, or donors, or cable news, will intervene and reassert some authority they don’t have over Mr. Trump and talk the voters out of it — that now, for real, someone will turn on him, and that a large segment of the country doesn’t actually want Mr. Trump. It’s even, on some level, related to the political cynicism of the Democrats spending to promote candidates who believe the 2020 election was stolen because they might be easier to beat in a general election, like elections are just spreads to bet against.
Inconveniently, then, for anyone hoping Jan. 6 ended on Jan. 6, the hearings this summer have centered on the wreckage of people’s lives: bodies crumpling against concrete steps, volunteers leery of giving their names, audio of frightened Secret Service agents, apologetic men who’ve pleaded guilty, and things happening even when some other authority theoretically should have been there. The hearings have been ruin, ruin, ruin all the way down, with visible lucky breaks that avoided further violence or legal nightmares in between.
The hearings have deepened our understanding of that period, and reoriented the public’s attention toward its severity. The meaning of it all — especially the direction to go in from here — remains unresolved, a developing conversation about whether the solution is legal or political, systems and individuals.
But the case Ms. Cheney has been implicitly making since Jan. 6 is that you have to use power while you still have it, and act like you’re prepared to lose it, rather risking something worse in an effort to maintain it or conceding the truth only when there’s nothing left to do. Because, more than anything, her actions seem to reflect the ultimate individualist view of the last six years: If you don’t do it yourself, nobody is coming to help you.
Ms. Miller is a staff writer and editor in Opinion.
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