Inner party primary elections for one congressional seat in America's least populated state -- 600,000 people; less than in a housing society in South Asia -- shouldn't normally matter to the rest of the world. But these are extraordinary times in the United States. As party primaries go, it was the ultimate bellwether -- a term that appropriately for this occasion comes from a bell tied to the leading sheep of the flock -- to assess former President Donald Trump's hold on the Republican Party, and the future direction of the Grand Old Party.
As it turned out, Liz Cheney, a three-term Republican lawmaker, crashed to a heavy defeat against a party rival backed by Trump. Based on pre-poll surveys, her loss was a foregone conclusion. Still, the American commentariat keenly watched the margin of defeat to assess the extent of Trump's stranglehold on the party. A roughly 65-30 margin of victory in vote percentage terms for her one-time friend and now rival, Trump protege Harriet Hageman, suggests Trump's grip on the Republican base is formidable. But it is also not complete or crushing that say a 90-10 or 80-20 margin would have presaged. Could the civil war that many fear will rage in America begin within the Republican Party?
Liz Cheney is no ordinary rank-and-file Republican. She is the daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney, and a powerhouse in her own right in a Republican-dominated state whose conservative politics her family has dominated. Till she fell out with Trump over his claims of a stolen election and the January 6 insurrection, she was a leading light of the party's legislative leadership, voting for Trump positions 93 per cent of the time.
That wasn’t enough in a set-up where total loyalty to Trump on the claim of a stolen election is the qualifying test for party nomination. Anything less risks attracting the label RINO – Republican in Name Only – regardless of the legislative record of the candidates. Dissent on that one issue was enough to torpedo Cheney’s prospect. Not even the support of Democrats in Wyoming, many of whom re-registered as Republicans simply to give her a boost, was enough to save her.
With Cheney’s rout, eight of the 10 Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach Donald Trump have either lost their primaries or have decided to retire in the face of imminent defeat. In the last Congressional election two years ago, Cheney had won the party primary polling 73 percent of votes. The turnaround now stamps Trump’s authority on the party, a development that the fast-dwindling anti-Trumpers in the GOP described as the arrival of an “ authoritarian nationalist cult dedicated only to Donald Trump."
In any other country, such inner-party skirmishes would have hardly mattered to the rest of the world. Last week, Kenya completed a tense national election without as much as a ripple in America. Parliamentary elections also took place in Congo and Senegal. The world hardly noticed. Even elections in Japan and Israel do not affect global politics much.
The United States is different. For all its imperfections and often gratuitous moralizing, it is seen as a stabilizing force and a global bellwether for democracy -- even for sketchy democracies. For that matter, even dictators and demagogues across the world look to America to assess how far they can push the envelope of illiberal totalitarianism. Among the visitors to the US last month was Hungary's Prime Minister Victor Orban, who headed straight to drink deep from the Trump trough, talking up America's white and Christian heritage in a speech at a conservative conference.
Demoralizing as it is for the so-called establishment Republicans, the Cheney take-down still leaves many unanswered questions: chief among them is what percentage of never-Trumpers will endure after this rout. For all of Trump’s dominance over the GOP, America largely hews close to a 50-50 divide in the presidential election, with a swing of a few percentage points – seldom more than five percent – often determining the winner. In one of the most lopsided elections, Democrat Lyndon Johnson won 61 percent of the votes to defeat Barry Goldwater in 1964, the popular vote translating to a 486-52 margin in the electoral college. Similarly, in 1980, Republican Ronald Reagan won close to 51 percent popular votes to Jimmy Carter’s 41 per cent to carve out a landslide 489-49 victory in the electoral college.
For all his control of the Republican Party, Trump is nowhere near that level of dominance at the national level. If anything, if he wins the GOP nomination and runs for the White House in 2024, it is more than likely he will lose the national popular vote again – for the third time after 2016 and 2020 – although that does not preclude him from becoming President in a flawed system that disproportionately rewards geography over demographics. But even if ten per cent of Republicans remain never-Trumpers, the former President will remain just that. - The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington
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