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The Republican Party Faces An Identity Crisis

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

What normally happens to a one-term president after a loss is that they go off to lucrative speaking engagements. They write a book, build a library. But former President Trump still falsely claims he won the last election and is, according to those close to him, planning to run again. And his Republican Party is doubling down on Trumpism, purging those in leadership like Liz Cheney, who refuse to indulge the president's fantasies over the 2020 results. Tim Alberta is a political writer at The Atlantic who has extensively covered the GOP, and he joins us now. Welcome to the program.

TIM ALBERTA: Thank you so much for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How much longer do you think Cheney will be the House Republican Conference chair?

ALBERTA: I suppose you could count by the hours or count by the days. But in either event, it won't be long. We're expecting that House Republicans will essentially call a special internal election, which, you know, could effectively be considered kind of a vote of no confidence on a member of their leadership, sometime, probably, in the next week. And if, in fact, that's the case, Liz Cheney, the No. 3-ranking House Republican, has made clear that she has accepted her fate. So it is very much, at this point, a foregone conclusion that she will be ejected from the House Republican leadership.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: New York's Elise Stefanik seems set to replace her. And to be clear, those two Republicans have quite different voting records, don't they?

ALBERTA: Elise Stefanik came to the House of Representatives very much in the mold of a new generation of moderate Republican who was looking to be forward-thinking on issues like climate. And Liz Cheney, partly by virtue of representing Wyoming but also just owing to her own political DNA...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Literal DNA - she's Dick Cheney's daughter (laughter).

ALBERTA: Yes, both family DNA and political DNA - you know, Liz Cheney is just much more of a sort of traditionally hard-line conservative thinker. And so it is not lost on many folks that while Liz Cheney is being essentially expelled from the party leadership because of a lack of fidelity to Donald Trump, as far as sort of fidelity to traditional conservative ideals and voting records, Stefanik is not nearly as conservative as Cheney is.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's listen to Stefanik on former Trump adviser Steve Bannon's podcast. Here she is heard supporting a Republican-led recount of a part of the Arizona election results.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BANNON'S WAR ROOM")

ELISE STEFANIK: I fully support the audit in Arizona. We want transparency and answers for the American people. What are the Democrats so afraid of?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, let's state this clearly. The Republican secretary of state in Arizona opposes this recount, says there's no indication anything was awry with the vote there. And the recount is being conducted by a private firm. It's said to be sloppy, agenda-driven. So you are saying there that Stefanik is tying herself to Trump, at least verbally, because that's the only way forward in the Republican Party now?

ALBERTA: Yeah, in so many words. Look. Sometimes, in politics, things are really, really complicated, and they deserve a great deal of nuance. This is not one of those times. Elise Stefanik is, in many ways, sort of symbolic of the modern Republican Party - somebody who was, at first, very much opposed to Donald Trump and very uncomfortable with his candidacy and said so and then evolved into sort of a full-throated supporter not because her opinions of him had necessarily changed but because she came to understand that, as a matter of self-preservation, if she was going to survive and advance in this Republican Party, then that would require a certain degree of not only loyalty to the former president but really a willingness to champion him and be a defender and a promoter of his.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain this to me if you can. Common wisdom says that the bigger the tent, the bigger the party, right? So why demote someone whose opinion some in the GOP might share? I mean, you know, my stepfather voted for Trump twice. After January 6, though, he is right there with Liz Cheney. So if my stepfather's out of the tent, who's going to replace him inside it?

ALBERTA: That's such a great question. Well, so when you hear Republicans like Lindsey Graham talk about that - like, we can't survive without Trump moving forward - this is not about needing Trump as sort of the engine to drive the Republican Party. It's out of a fear that Trump, if spited, could essentially take a wrecking ball to the Republican Party. And so that's what many Republicans, even though they won't speak this publicly - that's the fear they have, is that if they fail to continue to prop him up and speak about him as the titular head of the party, that he could turn on them and turn on the party itself. And I wrote about this a lot in my book, and I've written about it elsewhere in recent years. It has actually rendered the party sort of completely idle in thinking about some of the great questions of the day. And how do they sort of position themselves as a solutions-oriented party that can be relevant to the needs of a changing America that they can use to promote the party and win elections?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There is increasing confidence, though, that the party will retake the House majority in 2022. If there is this sort of lack of answers to the great pressing questions of the day, how do they think they can do that?

ALBERTA: It's a bit of a Catch-22 because if you're a Republican right now and you look around and you realize that, intellectually, the cupboard is bare and that the party really doesn't stand for much of anything at this point - I mean, for crying out loud, the Republican Party didn't even introduce a platform during the 2020 convention, which is unprecedented and unheard of. Moving forward, there are a lot of Republicans who think, you know, jeez, we can't grow like this. But on the other hand, the country being as divided as it is, those same Republicans, when they get into a conference room with some of the party's, you know, top pollsters and they look over the PowerPoint presentations and look at where public opinion is and when they sort of overlay that on historical trends that show that in a midterm election cycle, a new president's party gets walloped almost every time, a lot of those same Republicans, Lulu, will say, you know, if we just sort of stand by as the loyal opposition party, then we'll probably pick up 10 or 15 or 20 seats just by doing nothing. But taking a much longer view, does it help to resuscitate a party whose brand has really been withering on the vine?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Tim Alberta of The Atlantic magazine. His book is "American Carnage." Thank you very much.

ALBERTA: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly say that Arizona's secretary of state is a Republican. She is a Democrat.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 10, 2021 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly say that Arizona's secretary of state is a Republican. She is a Democrat.