This week’s decision by Facebook’s oversight board — its “supreme court” — to prolong Donald Trump’s suspension added to Republican fury about so-called cancel culture. There is nothing in America’s first amendment that enshrines any right to belong to a private establishment, including today’s social media giants. Trump will continue to exercise his right to speech through favourable outlets. But Facebook’s move crystallises the sense that the US is dividing into irreconcilable tribes. The difference is hardly about principle. One of those tribes, the Republican Party, has taken on the hallmarks of personality cult.
Six months after Trump was defeated in the US presidential election, no Republican can dispute his claim that Joe Biden stole it and expect to prosper among their peers. Facebook’s initial decision to suspend Trump’s account came after he had egged on the mob that assaulted Capitol Hill on January 6 in what was the most serious threat to American democracy since the civil war. Since then, Trump’s language has only grown more ominous. Republicans who think they can keep their head down and wait out the Trump era are probably deluding themselves. Trump is only consolidating his hold over their party — and shows every sign of planning a 2024 presidential run.
What should principled conservatives do? One option is to follow the example of Liz Cheney, the number three Republican in the House of Representatives, who correctly reminds her colleagues that last year’s election was legitimate and the assault on Congress was sedition. She will almost certainly be removed from her position next week.
This is nothing to do with ideology. Cheney is among the most conservative figures in the House. Elise Stefanik, who is set to replace her, is more moderate. Stefanik, however, has an unblemished record of echoing whatever Trump says, including that America’s voting is rigged. Like any revolution, the demands on its children grow more outlandish. The more preposterous the conspiracy theory, the greater the demonstration of loyalty from those who embrace it. The downsides to Cheney’s act of courage are obvious. She will lose her influence and ultimately even her Wyoming district to a Trump loyalist. Others among the principled holdouts, including Illinois’ Adam Kinzinger, are also at risk.
A parallel line of attack would be to point out that Trump is already jeopardising his party’s hopes of regaining control of Congress in next year’s midterm elections, and the White House two years later. Trump lost the presidency, but his party did far better in non-presidential races. Millions of voters who endorsed Biden switched to Republicans down ballot. Not once in four years did Trump’s approval rating exceed 50 per cent. Biden’s has not yet fallen below that.
Trump can keep the party united through fear of defenestration but his grip will make the party less appealing to the larger electorate. Sadly, there is little hope right now of severing Trump’s bonds to a party that is now largely his — 70 per cent of its voters say the election was stolen.
In any other cycle, Republicans would be shouting from the rooftops about Biden’s unprecedented spending. The risks of boondoggles and potential inflation are real and conservatives should be pointing that out. Likewise, Biden’s trimmed defence budget does not match his ambitious foreign policy goals. While they are searching for heretics within their ranks, Biden has the field largely to himself. Trump continues to be Democrats’ biggest asset.