Ride or die.
Support The Bulwark.
  Join Now

The Republican Party’s Partisanship Projection Problem

Rep. Liz Cheney, Susan Hennessey, and Natasha Bertrand have all had their integrity questioned because of their commitment to the truth.
May 26, 2021
Featured Image
Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee May 1, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Republican party has transformed projection from a psychological phenomenon into a political strategy. In a clinical setting, projection—accusing others of one’s own flaws—is an uncontrollable behavior. While that may be true of Donald Trump (Lord knows he presents as a compelling case for psychoanalysis), it is not true for his loyal minions. For them it is a conscious effort to stuff reality down the memory hole.

Three women have exposed the viciousness and nihilism guarding the official Republican version of history by daring to contradict it. The abuse that Rep. Liz Cheney, Susan Hennessey, and Natasha Bertrand have suffered says more about the Republican party than it does about them.

What could generate such animus?

Though there is more than a hint of misogyny in the assaults on the integrity of the three women, the graver problem for the Republican party is the intellectual threat they pose in reminding people of the truth.

Cheney had the temerity to refuse to forgive or forget the January 6 insurrection. In addition to being ousted from her leadership role in the party, she has been criticized for everything from her politics to her decision to politely greet President Biden during the State of the Union address. One of her colleagues, in display of the sort of juvenile trolling increasingly common among Republicans, tweeted a childish “hey, hey goodbye” at her after she lost her position.

The events of January 6 are sufficiently recent that the effort to erase the memory of them is still ongoing. Some Republican members of the House are trying to recharacterize the riot as a “normal tourist visit” and condemned the FBI’s investigation of the insurrection as the “harassing peaceful patriots.” Likewise, Sen. Ron Johnson has claimed that the assault was “by and large” a peaceful protest, which is true in the same sense that Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865 was “by and large” free of assassinations.

Cheney’s refusal to let this destruction of history stand unchallenged is what they fear. Projection is a strategy born of weakness and the recognition that there is no defense for the Republican party’s actions. By refusing to be deterred, she exposes the Republican party to scrutiny for inciting and defending the insurrection.

Similarly, there is no defense for former Attorney General William Barr’s shameful actions while in office, so projection is the only option. Hence the absurd charges that Hennessey, who recently left the Lawfare blog (where I am a contributor) and joined the National Security Division at the Department of Justice as a special counsel, will politicize the Department of Justice. The rightwing commentariat went ballistic at her appointment, claiming that her work on Russiagate and the history of DOJ politicized engagement reflects a political bias and would somehow make DOJ more political than it was before. Even if partisan squabbles were in her nature, given the history of how Barr bent DOJ to Trump’s service, that would be a tall order.

The list of Barr’s corruptions, abuses, and lies is long and sordid, including politically motivated interventions in multiple prosecutions of Trump’s allies, the Lafayette Square incident, refusing to respond to congressional oversight, misleading the public aboutthe content of the Mueller report, and being an early proponent of the “foreign ballot” conspiracy. One recent revelation about Barr’s tenure is both troubling and comical: The Washington Post reported last week that DOJ tried to protect Rep. Devin Nunes from an anonymous critical parody account by issuing a subpoena to Twitter seeking the identity of the user known as “Devin Nunes’ Alt-Mom.” (Under Attorney General Merrick Garland’s leadership, DOJ withdrew the subpoena earlier this year.)

Hennessey’s appointment, far from being a politicization of the Department of Justice, is a rejection of the politicization of the department during Barr’s twenty-two month tenure. As a skilled lawyer and an assiduous observer of the Trump administration and its Russian connections, she’s well positioned to repair the damage done to the department under Barr.

The final leg in this tripod of forgetfulness is the ongoing attempt to rewrite the history of Trump’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 election by calling all of those who reported on the story or analyzed it “conspiracists.”

Hence the case of Natasha Bertrand, a reporter for CNN. She’s been prolific in reporting on Trump’s connections to Russia. For her efforts, as recounted in Washington Monthly, she was sued by Kash Patel, a Trump/Nunes acolyte, for defamation. The case has little if any factual basis, to say nothing of its lack of legal merit. More recently, Glenn Greenwald called her a “deranged conspiracy theorist” and “scandal-plagued CIA propagandist.”

This assault is a classic case of misdirection. Both Bertrand and Hennessey were, it is said, more credulous of the allegations of the Steele dossier than the document warranted. In hindsight, maybe so. But their analysis of one document doesn’t disqualify the validity of their observations of the myriad Trump-Russia connections, nor absolve Trump and his enablers of one of the most grievous acts of unpatriotism of the twenty-first century.

The fact remains that the Mueller report, and, more recently, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, described a pattern of activity that involved hundreds of steps taken by Trump, his campaign team,and his friends and confederates during the 2016 election campaign in which Trump or his associates connected themselves to or benefited from Russian actions.Never has the history of American politics seensuch an entanglement. The report describes, in painstaking detail, what happened—and the wholesale assault on Bertrand and Hennessey as conspiracy mongers is nothing less than historical revisionism. In the end, at least sixteen of Trump’s campaign staff can be proven to have had Kremlin connections.

The five-volume Senate report is replete with detail, which is precisely why Republicans won’t allow reality to stand. Trump’s subservience to Russia, his corruption, and his attacks on constitutional democracy are political liabilities. Forgetting, distracting from, or distorting them is political necessity. And for insisting on those truths, Cheney, Bertrand, and Hennessey have become the objects of Republican ire.

As George Orwell said: ““The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”The objective of the Trumpians who wish to destroy democracy is exactly that: to obliterate history and, at the same time, destroy those who would remind us of it. The only way to fight them—the only step left for those of us who prize history and rationality over power and authority—is to remember that history so that it will never be repeated.

Paul Rosenzweig

Paul Rosenzweig is a professorial lecturer at the George Washington University Law School, former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security, and a former senior counsel at the Office of the Independent Counsel.