The choice by congressional Democrats on the 6 January House committee on the US Capitol riots to put the two Republican members, Adam Kinzinger and Liz Cheney, front and centre has paid off. The GOP duo have grabbed the spotlight and performed well. However, there is a danger in letting the pair overdo the pretence that there is a split in the conservative movement away from Donald Trump.
Having Cheney and Kinzinger take such prominent roles in the hearings serves a clear purpose: it allows House Democrats to make a plausible argument that there’s at least a whiff of bipartisanship to the committee. That’s been made necessary by the refusal of Republicans to even entertain the possibility of participating in the hearings. GOP members boycotted the committee after the Republican minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, removed his picks in protest. The presence of Cheney and Kinzinger, who have both been shunned by the party for their rejection of the 6 January riot and election denialism, made for a public display of cross-party agreement.
This tactic is paying off in the court of public opinion – the hearings are having an effect on the watching American people. According to a poll released yesterday (21 July), ahead of what was, for now, the committee’s final hearing, a 57 per cent majority of Americans – including 92 per cent of Democrats, 57 per cent of independents, and 18 per cent of Republicans – believe that the former president Trump is to blame a “great deal or a good amount” for the violence at the Capitol.
But there’s another side to the strategy, one that may end up having deleterious effects on the country’s democracy. Kinzinger and Cheney’s positions on the committee are opening the door to a wholesale rehabilitation not only of their own reputations and histories, but those of the Republican Party too. And yet, this reset runs up against a number of uncomfortable facts that no amount of whitewashing can erase. Despite their respective rebrands as de facto members of the anti-MAGA (Make America Great Again) coalition, both Kinzinger and Cheney were enthusiastic backers of the Trump agenda during the former president’s term. According to FiveThirtyEight’s tracker, Cheney voted with Trump 93 per cent of the time and Kinzinger, 90 per cent of the time – hardly the actions of politicians bravely resisting Trump’s authority.
For Cheney and Kinzinger to now try to reboot their reputations is, by extension, an attempt to reboot the reputation of the GOP – their work on the committee implies that there is a disagreement within the party when it comes to the dangerous authoritarianism and radical right-wing policies of Trump. This lack of uniformity is a nice fantasy for Democrats and Republicans, who still hold out hope that there’s a way to work together in a political landscape in which everyone is united in their love of country and service.
But this is a fantasy. It’s not the world we actually live in, and it hasn’t been for decades (or perhaps ever). The Republican Party that Kinzinger and Cheney belong to and want to uplift was always the same party, whether it was led by Trump or his direct ideological predecessors, George W Bush, Ronald Reagan, or any of the other far-right zealots who have controlled the GOP for the past 40 years. More honest, modern Republicans realise this, and Kinzinger and Cheney likely do too – they’re just pretending things are different to how they actually are.