During his seminal “House of Many Mansions” address, Winston Churchill identified the problem with appeasement in one of history’s most momentous mixed metaphors. “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear greatly that the storm will not pass.”
The Trumpian storm did not pass for establishment Republicans after his defeat in November, in fact it came for them in the most tangible way imaginable. The crocodiles they had been coddling in the MAGA base breached the Capitol carrying the banner: #WeAreTheStorm. They came to eat the Republicans who were not willing to go along with the mob’s anti-democratic demands. They did so to fulfill the prophecy of Q, their conspiratorial shitposting muse, and at the explicit request of the President of the United States and several Republican legislators who were using the MAGA mob as part of their last-ditch effort to cling to power and stop the transition to the duly elected president.
This insurrection was a clarifying moment for any Republicans who were hoping in vain that things might “go back to normal” after Trump decamped to Mar-a-Lago. For four years, this shrinking cadre of “normie” Republicans fed the conspiratorial insanity that led to the insurrection in ways big and small because they believed that’s what was needed in order to survive.
They would avert their gaze when Trump would retweet QAnon accounts or tell the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” They would try to tiptoe around the crazy, expressing concern about the “deep state” or by attacking the elitist media for not taking the supposedly legitimate but unspecified concerns of their constituents seriously. They’d tell reporters on background that they were “uneasy” about what was happening but not actually do anything about it. They’d offer strained equivalences pointing to “something something AOC” rather than address the termites eating away at their own mansion.
But something changed January 6th. There was a sense for a fleeting moment that the crocodile would be confronted at long last. After the Senate well was breached, Mitch McConnell, whose black heart beats for the institution, flirted with the possibility of ending his policy of appeasement. That day, Josh Kraushaar reported that among McConnell-aligned Republicans the “mood is for declaring war on Team Trump” over the reckless lies that led to the storming of the Capitol. McConnell himself pointed his finger at Trump days later, saying he “provoked” the mob that tried to stop the transfer of power. House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy concurred, saying Trump “bears responsibility for the attack on Congress.”
But as the weeks wore on and political pressure from the Republican base bubbled up, once again the appeasers’ spines began to weaken. They determined they could live to fight another day if they just fed that crocodile one more time.
So McConnell voted against holding an impeachment trial based on an absurd legal argument dreamed up by Trump sycophants. McCarthy went a step further, flying down to Florida to offer himself as Trump’s submissive, resulting in a photo of the biddable wanna-be speaker meekly standing next to a grinning Trump inside what appeared to be Uday and Qusay Hussein’s drawing room. Many of McConnell and McCarthy’s members have followed suit.
But despite this widespread abdication for the first time in the Trump era, there was a flicker of fight. A sense that not everyone in the caucus was a Chamberlain.
At great political risk, 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives joined Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on the short list of those who have voted to impeach a president of their own party. Together, that is more than double the number that had ever taken such a drastic action in the history of our country. A pair of Republican forebears, Jeff Flake and Justin Amash, had previously stood up to Trump, only to announce that they were not planning to pursue reelection.
These 11 Republicans aren’t eyeing the exits. They plan to stay in Washington and fight for their political lives. The question for them is how to chart the path forward.
The group of 10 House rebels has been sharing ideas and strategies and arguments with each other in a sort of informal support network, according to conversations I had with them over the past few weeks. They passed around a stirring plea from David Holt, the Republican mayor of Oklahoma City, about how politicians benefit from telling their constituents the truth, even if at times they don’t want to hear it. They were buoyed by a Zoom conversation with Arthur Brooks, the conservative social scientist and former president of the American Enterprise Institute think tank, in which he compared them to the “early adopters” that you see in tech where the first 5 percent who stick their neck out carry risk, but often end up benefiting over time as more information comes to light and others come on board.
They’ve started a joint fundraising committee called the “Governing Leaders Fund,” working with the political consultants who had spearheaded the “Tuesday Group,” which has supported moderate Republicans in the past. They believe that a show of fundraising strength in the first quarter, when most campaigns are not yet started in earnest, could help demonstrate momentum and draw more support to their side of this internecine fight.
But there remains a range of views within the rebel caucus on just how to handle the crocodiles.
On the one side there’s Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who is ready to put on his best Steve Irwin costume and start hunting. On Sunday, he announced a new offensive “calling out the conspiracy theorists and far-right fringe of the party” with a video that kicks off saying, “This is no time for silence.” He’s calling this effort “Country First,” in a nod to John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign slogan.
Kinzinger, 42, is a sixth-term congressman representing exurban Chicago and Rockford, Illinois, who was swept in during the tea party wave of 2010. While he was aligned with that initial insurgent class on spending issues, as his tenure went on he gravitated toward the establishment, endorsing Jeb Bush in the 2016 primary and becoming a rare member of the House caucus willing to speak out against Trump over the course of his term. He served as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and is not shy about framing the battle in front of him in such terms.
Kinzinger told me that he sees this moment as “an open flesh fight for what the party is about,” a “longer term battle openly and very aggressively calling out those that continue to promulgate mistruth,” which includes “shaming the Q movement … [to] take on Russian disinformation.” He recognizes that the conspiratorial mindset has purchase on the far right and isn’t going away but thinks the only path forward is to “marginalize” those on the extreme in order to win back suburban voters the party hemorrhaged in the Trump era.
There are outside forces that want to support Kinzinger in such a fight. One top campaign adviser to a rebel congressperson assessed the situation this way: “I don’t think you can accommodate anymore. There is no accommodating. They want everything.”
Meanwhile, the Republican Accountability Project has pledged $50 million and plans to be the muscle for the effort, both defending the Republican elected officials who supported the Trump impeachment in upcoming primaries while also bird-dogging the insurrectionists to ensure they face political headwinds. The group went up last week with billboards calling for the resignation of a dozen pro-coup lawmakers, and was on the receiving end of a broadside from Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) with anti-Semitic undertones over their association with Bill Kristol.
Others in the rebel caucus seem less primed for full-frontal attack.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) sees value in Kinzinger’s approach, but she is also trying to navigate how best to reach the Republican voters of good faith who got swept up in the lies. She, like Kinzinger, is a 40-something who came to Congress during the 2010 wave with arch-conservative views on issues, but who is finding herself at odds with an increasingly nationalist and conspiratorial caucus. “I’m not afraid to tell the truth, now how do I do it in a way that helps people hear it? I could get into a Twitter war with some crazy person in my caucus, not a problem, but is that going to help anybody?” she said.
From Herrera Beutler’s perspective, there will continue to be value in “pushing back forcefully” when her fellow Republicans aren’t being truthful, but the challenge she’s trying to navigate is how to do it in a way that might attract Republican support rather than repel it. “How do I get beyond that to the people who are following them?” she said. “That’s who I’m after. How do we inspire and reach people who may or may not have the complete picture? How do I bring most of them aboard?”
Mitt Romney hasn’t been afraid to throw a gentlemanly elbow, and he let out his inner Pierre Delecto on Sunday with a tweet aimed at Marjorie Taylor Greene and former President Trump. But off-the-record conversations with allies of Senator Romney and other pro-impeachment Republicans on the Hill indicate that most have a personal desire to take on a more prolonged and direct intra-party fight but maintain deep reservations about whether in the end there will be the foot soldiers or allies to carry it out with them.
Rep. Liz Cheney’s battle to stay on as House Republican Conference Chair is a case study in this mindset. Her position is extremely tenuous going into the upcoming conference meeting. Her attempts to beat back the challenge were described by one of her advisers as a “knife fight” where “she’s in the goddamn struggle with her sleeves rolled up and blood all over her.”
And while it is true that she is fighting a good and righteous and clear-eyed fight, the problem is most of the flesh wounds are her own. The Trump-friendly members of Congress and media outlets have been using Cheney as a piñata for rage retweets from Trump supporters who believe he was stabbed in the back.
According to a New York Times report this weekend, Cheney is doing everything in her power to woo members of the caucus to her side. But such an effort means flattering the more Trump-friendly colleagues like Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) with whom she has been at loggerheads in the past and aiming her public fire at the Biden administration rather than Trump or his Q-coup-squad. (I would be remiss to not note that Cheney did land one delicious blow on Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) who travelled to Wyoming to harangue her from the Cheyenne capitol steps. “Gaetz can leave his beauty bag at home. In Wyoming, the men don’t wear makeup,” her spokesperson said.)
The Cheney conundrum encapsulates the dilemma facing these rebels. While they may want to go hard at Trump, if the Republican voters still demand the uncut orange crazy, their mission is a kamikaze one. On the other hand, if they do nothing, it’s not hard to figure out who the crocodile is going to chomp next.
Heads they risk getting eaten, tails they risk getting eaten.
They all understand how precarious it is; at times, it sounds as if they are already eulogizing themselves. Rep. Tom Rice (R-S.C.) said that “if [the voters] decide that it’s time for me to come home, that’s OK, too.”
“There’s not a single one that has an ounce of regret. We feel utter peace about it,” said Kinzinger about the votes.
“I think if you do the right thing and you do it for the right reasons, I’m not afraid of the consequences,” Herrera Beutler said.
But as someone who was in their shoes not too long ago, to me the choice is simple: After all the pain that Trump has caused them with his lies, after the party has lost the White House and both branches of Congress, after a mob of his creating literally charged their workplace looking for blood and screaming for hangings, isn’t the only answer to fight?
That’s where Kinzinger lands. “There’s gonna be a real massive battle,” he says. “I’m not going to shut up no matter what happens.”