Uh oh: MAGA turning on Liz Cheney's replacement already?

(AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

I’m trying to decide how seriously this should be taken. On the one hand, I’m sure Trumpers’ irritation is sincere. Elise Stefanik has a more liberal voting record than Cheney and has been especially questionable on immigration, populism’s pet issue. She used to work for George W. Bush, was mentored by Paul Ryan, and was iffy about Trump until she realized at some point during his first term that the base’s infatuation with him wasn’t about to blow over, at which point she transformed into a pretend MAGA enthusiast. True populists have no reason to trust her. If the mood in the party were to shift tomorrow, Stefanik would shift with it.

I think of her as a sort of Republican Kirsten Gillibrand, another ambitious politician who started in upstate New York. Gillibrand was a moderate representing a centrist district when she was in the House; she supported border enforcement and gun rights. As soon as she was appointed to the Senate and realized she’d need to face a much more liberal statewide electorate in the future, she became a staunch left-winger. Stefanik made the same move, turning from establishmentarian to Trumpist once she realized that the constituency to which she’d need to pander to keep getting reelected had shifted and wasn’t shifting back.

So, sure, on the one hand, the Freedom Caucus and populist activists have every right to be pissed that they’re getting a counterfeit in leadership instead of a true blue MAGA person.

But on the other hand, Trump has endorsed Stefanik. He doesn’t give a wet fart about her voting record. He cares about unconditional loyalty, she’s offering that, so the deal is done. She’s also a woman and one of the youngest members of the House, making her a good fit demographically for the image the GOP wants to project. MAGA types in Congress aren’t about to stage a rebellion against Trump’s choice at a moment when the caucus is already in turmoil over the Cheney saga and needs a replacement ASAP.

So who cares how they feel about Stefanik? Only one person in this party gets a vote and he’s cast it. The debate is over.

The backlash against Stefanik didn’t surface out of nowhere. For years, she’d been viewed with suspicion by hardcore elements of the MAGA base, with Big League politics running several pieces slamming her for her disloyalty to figures such as provocateur Laura Loomer. She criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris climate accord and failed to pass the MAGA smell test on several key issues: immigration, border control, abortion and the war in Afghanistan

“She ties with a couple other Republicans for the worst career voting record on immigration in New York,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the anti-immigration Center on Immigration Studies, ticking off a few of her previous positions: a yes on H-2B visas, the Farm Workers Modernization Act, and the Hong Kong Refugee bill, and a no on Trump’s child border separation policies

Another issue that could harm Stefanik among MAGA supporters is her record on Afghanistan. As recently as 2019, she co-sponsored a bill with Cheney to keep 10,000 troops in the region for a year and stop troop reduction — a bill that was highly controversial among anti-war MAGA voices, who had backed Trump’s talks with the Taliban at the time.

The fact that Trumpers have spent the past few days pretending that Cheney’s support for the Afghan war is some important liability for her only to end up with Stefanik instead is hilarious.

It’s not just activists who are suspicious of the new leader-to-be. Inside Congress, the Trumpiest factions of the caucus are grousing that she’s not as conservative as they want for conference chair:

During a Wednesday night conference call, multiple members of the far-right Freedom Caucus voiced deep reservations about Stefanik as the consensus choice for Republican conference chair — even as they conceded she has the votes to succeed Cheney. A House member on the call told CNN the Freedom Caucus has concerns about Stefanik’s moderate voting record and her uneven stance on a wide range of issues the group prioritizes, including immigration and LGBTQ rights…

“Liz Cheney is a true conservative. She has better ratings across the board. Elise was a moderate and a Trump skeptic who realized she had to pivot to Trump — and she did,” said one prominent conservative activist who was granted anonymity to speak more freely. “Elise satisfies the litmus test that she is pro-Trump. And that’s all that counts these days in our coalition. And I think we are a coalition, not a party today, because there are plenty of the Trump folks, the MAGA folks who are not true Republicans.”…

“This train is headed down the tracks. The only way to stop it is to blow up the tracks and nobody seems to have the willpower or desire to do that at this point, so we’re going to have to pray this doesn’t turn out to be a mistake,” the head of one prominent conservative advocacy group told CNN.

The bad news for Trump fans is that they’re stuck for the time being with a phony populist. The good news is that Stefanik is at least willing to pretend she’s on the team, unlike Cheney. And look, if I’m right about her being a Republican Gillibrand, you can rest assured that within a year her voting record will be as far right as Jim Jordan’s or Matt Gaetz’s. She’s a careerist; she’ll do whatever she needs to do to advance her career. Now that it’s been made clear to her that the national GOP base views her skeptically for her moderate past, she’ll work overtime to dispel that impression. That’s why her first interview after emerging as Cheney’s successor-in-waiting was with Steve Bannon, not Fox News. The charm offensive with MAGA fans has already begun.

You don’t need to worry about Stefanik ever having a moment of conscience like Cheney’s had. She’ll say whatever you want her to say to protect her position, including praising Trump in these terms four months after he tried to overturn a national election:

She’ll be the most MAGA member of the House in no time. Especially since there’s a fair chance that New York’s Democratic state legislature will end up redrawing her district to make it redder, consolidating Republican votes there in order to make Democrats more competitive in nearby swing districts.

Actually, I guess she’ll be the second-most MAGA member, as no one’s going to be Trumpier than Marjorie Taylor Greene. Personally I’d prefer Greene to Stefanik as Cheney’s replacement. She’s much closer in spirit to the Republican base, she’d probably raise more money among small donors than Stefanik will, and she has the great virtue of actually being the person she seems to be, which Stefanik does not. Having Greene in leadership would present voters with a stark vision of what the party’s become. We deserve truth in advertising.