By Michael Steele, MSNBC Opinion Columnist
Addressing a reunion of Civil War soldiers in 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant predicted that the dividing line in the nation’s next great conflict “will not be Mason’s or Dixon’s, but between patriotism and intelligence on one side, and superstition, ambition and ignorance on the other.”
A century and a half later, a once proud Republican Party is convulsing with conspiracy theories and lies about the 2020 election while desperately trying to recast the insurrection of Jan. 6 as nothing more than a tourist event.
Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming was direct and to the point when she said, “We cannot embrace both the big lie and embrace the Constitution or even democracy itself.” Vowing to make the “GOP worthy again of being the party of Lincoln,” she told fellow Republicans before they voted to remove her as their conference chair, “If you want leaders who will enable and spread his [Trump’s] destructive lies, I’m not your person.”
If history is any indication, this will not end well.
Returning to the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln could have been describing the work that lies ahead for Cheney and other Republicans fighting for the soul of Republicanism when he said, “We will make converts day by day; we will grow strong by the violence and injustice of our adversaries. And, unless truth be a mockery and justice a hollow lie, we will be in the majority after a while.”
The fracture within the Republican Party is not the biggest issue in American politics today. But it is significant in highlighting what is: the battle to preserve, protect and defend American democracy. From voting rights, the Constitution and the rule of law to the once-lauded choice of principle over partisanship, character over corruption and country over party, we have witnessed the Republican Party — my party — quietly approve of or outright participate in the systematic deconstruction of the legitimacy of our republic.
Since his exile to the modern-day Elba of Mar-a-Lago, the disgraced former president’s mantle of lies and divisiveness has been trumpeted by elected GOP apostates of Republicanism and the conservative ideals that animate its principles. Willing to speak truth only in whispers and behind closed doors, they have taken a jackhammer to the very foundation of our democracy as they persist in promoting the “big lie.”
Even more appalling is that House Republicans removed one of their most conservative and principled leaders not because she voted against then-President Donald Trump’s key tax cuts — that would be Cheney’s replacement, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York — but rather because Cheney dared to tell the truth about their lie. In removing Cheney, House Republicans not only tightened Trump’s grip on their ranks and demoralized Republican and independent voters who want to move on from Trump but in their short-sightedness turned Cheney into a political Joan of Arc armed with a national megaphone, public sympathy and a reason to return the favor. As Rep. Patrick McHenry of North Carolina, a former member of GOP House leadership, noted, “I do think it enhanced Liz’s stature and position in a way that furthers her message but to the disadvantage of the broader party.”
Such self-destructive idiocy by House GOP members was topped with a dunce cap of jaw-dropping mendacity when their leader, Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, declared upon leaving an Oval Office meeting only hours after Cheney was stripped of her leadership post, “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election.”
OK, Kevin. Never mind that just 48 hours earlier, Trump posted on his blog that “… votes were intentionally switched from President Trump to Joe Biden. The number of votes is MASSIVE and determinative. This will prove true in numerous other States.”
It’s little wonder that a recent NBC poll found that exhausted rank-and-file Republicans are moving away from Trump. Yet stalwart purveyors of Trumpism are right about one thing: Trump has redefined the party. I wouldn’t brag about it, though. This is not the party of the working class — they voted for President Joe Biden — but it is more and more becoming the party of angry white nationalist and faux patriots afraid of their future and stewing in their own victimhood as they dine on a steady diet of GOP cancel culture, conspiracies and lies.
From the day Trump descended that escalator to declare his presidential ambitions, many Republicans have been engaged in a grotesque and perverted dance with the devil. From the likes of Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz to Josh Hawley and now the tag team of disgraced Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, my party has descended further into madness. And as the events of Jan. 6 remind us, such madness never leads to anything good.
Defeating ambition and ignorance with patriotism and intelligence will require us to follow Lincoln’s advice to engage one another and our nation around core principles for a successful American democracy like pluralism and civic responsibility; or the rule of law and Constitutional order, so as to make converts to truth and justice day by day, neighbor by neighbor, conversation by conversation. Yeah, we have some work to do; otherwise, this does not end well — for any of us.