Color me naive, but when I first heard that Rep. Liz Cheney was in trouble over in the Republican Party, I had an instinctual sense of alarm. It wasn’t based on anything with regards to any affinity to Liz Cheney, much less any of her beliefs in policy; rather, it was borne of a sense of the actions of the GOP appearing, at least to me, unprecedented. I’ve never witnessed either of the major U.S. political parties behave the way that the leadership in the GOP is currently behaving. This is less a novelty than an abnormality, an anomaly so aberrant that it seemed to warrant said alarm. But what message, ultimately, would the GOP send with its decision to send Cheney packing?
As I consumed article after article, I chanced upon a short series on YouTube under the auspices of Academy of Ideas. The channel over the years has explored such topics as philosophy, history, and the nature of the individual versus that of society. Not knowing exactly what this newest video would concern, by the time I finished it I already had overlaid a mental map of the current state of the GOP upon the outlines of the video-essay’s argument. I realized that Liz Cheney was the proverbial canary in the Republican coal mine, and that her demise might signal the demise of the GOP as a whole—perhaps even the extinction of the entire American experiment.
I do not mean to be hyperbolic, nor do I intend to catastrophize. The drama unfolding right now—the disposal of lieutenant who dared to deny a lie—is nearly Shakespearean, and we ignore its importance at our peril.
To be clear, the GOP is punishing Liz Cheney for her outspokenness. In November, Donald Trump lost the U.S. election, and Cheney, third-highest member of the House leadership, minced no words about his loss. Her clarity grew ever sharper as time passed, due to the fact that Trump himself kept muddying the issue, over time even flatly declaring that he had won the contest. In the face of this blatant falsehood, Cheney reiterated week after week that the election was above board. After the insurrection of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, Cheney was even more plain: Trump’s untruths amounted to the Big Lie which precipitated the violence perpetrated that day.
Trump has demanded that the rest of us accept his claim that he won the election, but there is no evidence for this. In fact, there is all evidence to the contrary. So what Trump demands is that his followers deliberately believe something contrary to reality. Members of the House GOP seem to be aware and alert enough to see that Trump seeks their corroboration—that is to say, they realize that they are being asked to lie. However, for some of the rank and file, Trump is more or less infallible and so they accept his word as true. Both of these populations, in their own way, have swapped reality for irreality.
This irreality exemplifies what Academy of Ideas frames as a symptom of mass psychosis. “A ‘mass psychosis’ is an epidemic of madness, and it occurs when a large portion of society loses touch with reality and descends into delusions” (Is a Mass Psychosis the Greatest Threat to Humanity?, 1:36). Notable examples of such a phenomenon would be witch hunts in Europe and America as well as 20th-century totalitarianism.
Again, mentioning totalitarianism may seem like raising too high of an alarm. However, look at how observers have characterized Trump’s behavior in the last few weeks:
The GOP crusade against Cheney offers yet another vivid example of the party’s descent into authoritarian madness — and sends an ominous message about the future of American democracy. (Washington Post, emphasis added)
For the activist base of the Republican Party, affirming that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential contest has become a qualification for membership in good standing. […] The GOP is increasingly defined not by its shared beliefs, but by its shared delusions. (Washington Post, emphasis added)
These days, you must bend the knee to delusion to be a Republican in good standing. (Miami Herald, emphasis added)
Academy of Ideas clarifies further: “In place of thoughts and beliefs that conform to the facts of the world, the psychotic becomes overrun by delusions, which are false beliefs that are considered to be true despite the existence of evidence that proves the contrary. ‘Delusion,’ writes [medical doctor] Joost Meerloo, ‘can be defined as the loss of an independent, verifiable reality, with the consequent relapse into a more primitive stage of awareness’” (Is a Mass Psychosis the Greatest Threat to Humanity?, 4:36). This last part is important and will be explored later, but first let’s focus on the set of Trumpian false beliefs before us.
With regards to the Big Lie, we can safely assume that the members of the GOP on the Hill are in on Trump’s deception. “To be a loyal Republican,” Michael Gerson wrote, “one must be either a sucker or a liar. And because this defining falsehood is so obviously and laughably false, we can safely assume that most Republican leaders who embrace it fall into the second category.” However, as anecdotes have revealed, the rank and file are not in on it. In fact, they are fully hoodwinked:
Debra Ell, a Republican organizer in Michigan and fervent supporter of former president Donald Trump, said she has good reason to believe the 2020 presidential election was stolen.
“I think I speak for many people in that Trump has never actually been wrong, and so we’ve learned to trust when he says something, that he’s not just going to spew something out there that’s wrong and not verified,” she said, referring to Trump’s baseless claims that widespread electoral fraud caused his loss to President Biden in November. (emphasis added)
Over the course of six months, the Republican electorate has moved from being unsure as to whether or not the election was accurate to demanding that their representatives back up Trump’s claims. How do they know the claims are true? A tautology: What Trump says is true because they “have learned to trust” that Trump is truthful. In December, 27 of the 249 Republicans in Congress said unequivocally that Biden won the election. Soon enough, January 6th shocked the conscience of the nation. The Week reminds us that
when Trump attempted to overthrow the government and install himself as president-for-life with a putsch, Cheney turned against him. She voted to impeach him afterwards, and continued attacking his lie that the election had been stolen. For a brief time after the putsch — when, let us remember, numerous GOP members of Congress and Vice President [Mike] Pence were nearly lynched by the mob — that was an acceptable opinion for a Republican to have.
Even near the end of April, at the House Republican annual policy retreat, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy still had enough latitude to “pointedly [decline] to say whether Cheney — who ha[d] publicly criticized Trump’s refusal to accept the election results — was a ‘good fit’ for the party’s leadership team.” But Republican voters rapidly refused to tolerate any distance between Trump and other GOP members. As reported by the Washington Post, a CNN poll published April 29th showed that 70% of Republicans believe the 2020 election was marred by fraud. Swiftly, actions led to reactions: Trump reiterated his claim; Cheney said such claims were dangerous for American democracy. Then on May 2nd McCarthy let slip on a hot mic that he had “lost confidence” in Cheney. By May 3rd, Steve Scalise, the second-in-command in the House, joined Trump in publicly supporting a challenger to usurp Cheney’s leadership role.
To be sure, the shift in public opinion is due to Trump’s more and more strident insistence that his account be believed as the correct one. And no matter what the GOP as a party does, Trump surely will capitalize on that extraction of loyalty to solidify his otherwise precarious position in the GOP hierarchy, to crown himself.
Trump has reasserted complete control over the Republican Party, demanding (and receiving) slavish obedience to his will. (The Week, emphasis added)
The defeated ex-president is propelled primarily by a thirst for retribution, an insatiable quest for the spotlight and a desire to establish and maintain total dominance and control over the Republican base, said several former senior White House advisers. (Washington Post, emphasis added)
What will Trump do, having newly re-established this alpha stance? If Academy of Ideas is instructive as to what may be occurring, then we may be witnessing or soon witness the first concrete steps toward the installation of an American totalitarian state.
How do these authoritarian ideologies which set a society up for the horrors of totalitarianism spread throughout society? Typically, the first to be possessed by the demon of authoritarianism are individuals with a particularly strong thirst for power and who desire to quench this thirst through control over others. ‘Not all men want to dominate a large number of other persons,’ writes [the psychologist Silvano] Arieti, ‘but those who do affect the life of many.’ (The Mass Psychosis and the Demons of Dostoevsky, 6:06, emphasis added)
But it takes more than just delusional thoughts to trigger a mass psychosis, and more than a mere strongman to create a totalitarian state. Next, I hope to examine other factors that cumulatively can affect a populace so thoroughly that it has the possibility of transforming into something unrecognizable.
There is a lot to unpack here, many topics that relate to a central theme. So I plan to return to this overall topic of Liz Cheney’s departure from the GOP leadership, with at least one more installment. I don’t want this first exploration to get tl;dr.
I will say this. I am thankful to Liz Cheney for standing pat and not resigning. By continuing to speak out and forcing the GOP to expel her, she has shone a light so as to put the unreasonableness of Trump’s demand—that we shun truth tellers—into unmistakable relief.
I just wanted to thank everyone for a varied and thoughtful discussion. I plan to keep checking in periodically while I work on the possible follow-up. Thanks again!