Update (May 12, 2021, 9:50 a.m. ET): This piece has been updated to reflect that Republicans voted to oust Rep. Liz Cheney from her House leadership position.
From time to time, House members who have been elected to top party positions get deposed from those coveted roles. Usually, these internecine bouts of political bloodletting happen when an election has gone poorly and rank-and-file lawmakers want a proverbial head to roll.
Trump has made it clear ever since his defeat that the only thing that matters is whether Republicans embrace his lie that the election was stolen.
It's a sign of the unorthodox political times we're in that on Wednesday, we witnessed a rare instance of change in party leadership in the midst of a congressional term. House Republicans voted out Liz Cheney of Wyoming as chair of the House Republican Conference, the No. 3 position in House GOP leadership, over her unwillingness to keep quiet about former President Donald Trump's lies that the 2020 election was stolen.
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As if that wasn't atypical enough, waiting in the wings as conference chair — essentially head of messaging for House Republicans — is Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a politician with a much weaker conservative track record and political lineage than Cheney, the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney. In her early years in the House, Stefanik had one of the more moderate and bipartisan voting records among House Republicans, even opposing Trump in 2017 over his signature tax cut law. But two years later, the upstate New York lawmaker went all in for Trump in the run-up to his first impeachment trial, and she has since been among his most vocal defenders.
The move shows that the party has gone all in on one very specific strategy for regaining power: Donald Trump's revenge politics. While it could have been argued before Election Day last year that the party's fealty to its president was leavened with some ideological goals, such as a hard line on immigration and a focus on right-wing court appointments, Trump has made it clear ever since his defeat that the only thing that matters is whether Republicans embrace his lie that the election was stolen.
Though Trump was banned from Twitter during the waning days of his presidency for fomenting violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, his statements on his website drip with rage and fury about the election outcome. "If a thief robs a jewelry store of all of its diamonds (the 2020 Presidential Election), the diamonds must be returned," Trump said in a typical missive Monday night. "The Fake News media refuses to cover the greatest Election Fraud in the history of our Country."
House Republicans, by siding with Stefanik, a Trump ally, against an internal critic, Cheney, are effectively abetting his revenge campaign. It's a move not without logic, strictly from a short-term political perspective, given which GOP candidates have been successful most recently. And it also has a longer-range precedent in the successful campaign of Trump hero Andrew Jackson in 1828. It's the only time in U.S. history that a major-party candidate has won a campaign based purely on comeuppance, and it was arguably the ugliest contest America has ever seen.
Over the past five years, down-ballot Republicans have performed best when allying themselves with Trump. House Republicans lost their majority for the first time in eight years during the 2018 midterm cycle. Many of the GOP lawmakers who went down tried, futilely, to distance themselves from Trump.
But with Trump leading the ballot last year, even in what turned out to be a losing re-election bid, House Republicans gained 12 seats, putting them within striking distance of winning a majority next year. It's no surprise, really, that Republicans want to hug the former president politically as closely as possible. "I would just say to my Republican colleagues: 'Can we move forward without President Trump?' The answer is no," Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said in a recent interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity.
Trump is betting on such GOP fealty as he eyes a 2024 race against President Joe Biden. If Trump seeks a comeback along the lines he's hinted at to date, he'll be the first candidate to run a purely revenge-based campaign since Jackson's in 1828. It's not particularly surprising that he would embrace this unconventional strategy, since Trump has already shown affection for the seventh president, having hung a portrait of him in the White House.
Jackson's bête noire was President John Quincy Adams. His loathing of founding father John Adams' son stretched back to the 1824 election. Jackson that year finished first in Electoral College votes but without enough support to claim a majority, throwing the contest to the House. Adams ended up as president through an alliance with House Speaker Henry Clay, himself a presidential candidate, with Jackson declaring his loss a "corrupt bargain."
Jackson, a retired general and military hero of the War of 1812, effectively waged a four-year battle against the president. Jackson's allies, among other tactics, dredged up a decade-old rumor that as the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Adams had acted as a "pimp" for the czar, supplying young women in exchange for favorable trade treaties and relations in general between the two countries.
Adams' forces weren't shy about hitting back — alleging, among other things, that Jackson married his wife, Rachel, before her divorce from her first husband had been finalized. In their 1828 rematch, Jackson won a clear Electoral College majority.
While there are some reasons to suggest Republicans might have chosen the right political strategy by embracing Trump's quest for vengeance, the ouster of Cheney leaves them little room for error. The move alienates the principled conservatives and suburban voters who were already turning away from the GOP, helping seal Trump's defeat. It's either Trump's way or the highway.