If you start clicking these binaries together, you can trace logical paths to wildly different arguments about the current path out of these problems. An emphasis on structure, on Mr. Trump as the product of our system and the saturation of election denial as a reflection on that system, can take you everywhere from the legislators diligently trying to pour concrete into the archaic flaws of the Electoral Count Act of 1887, to the writers who argue that expanding the Supreme Court will correct for political ossification and minoritarianism.
And an emphasis on Mr. Trump as anomaly takes you right to Capitol Hill on a recent Thursday night with Ms. Cheney. Dressed in white and seated inside a room watched by millions, she sat up on the dais for hours, stoic and grim, during the committee’s last hearing this summer.
Ms. Cheney has argued that personal agency matters since Jan. 6 took place: Institutions comprise individuals and individuals shape political reality, regardless of whether they intend to do so. Officials, she told one interviewer, have a duty “to recognize that we can influence events.” She told another, “We clearly have a situation where elected officials have to make a decision about whether we are bystanders or leaders,” calling it “irresponsible” to act “as though our institutions are self-sustaining, because they’re not; it takes us, it takes people, to do that.”
In a closing statement that addressed criticisms of the committee, Ms. Cheney centered the individual against the system. Individual witnesses testified instead of hiding behind executive privilege, she said; individuals have made what she called a “series of confessions” from inside the party and White House, rather than as part of some broader political class against Mr. Trump; an individual like William P. Barr is no “delicate flower” that will break under cross-examination. Each theoretical objection to the committee’s political case corkscrewed into a central point about the principal character in this scenario: that, in the lead-up to Jan. 6, it didn’t matter what everyone knew and said inside and outside the White House, Mr. Trump was going to do what he did. And in response, Ms. Cheney has pointedly subjected herself to his endless reserves of attacks, as well as the party’s essential ostracism.
Over the last decade, some conservative Trump critics have tended to be of the more-in-sadness-than-in-anger style, and often a little at a loss about how to deal with Mr. Trump and everything MAGA entails, in policy and style.
Ms. Cheney, however, isn’t like that, or hasn’t been for the last 18 months. There is no emotion; if those guys run hot, she runs cold, “as emotional as algebra,” as one Republican lawmaker said last year; there is no personal anecdote about how life has become more difficult for her; there is very little ornamentation; there is nothing but this granite singularity. She is apparently willing to continually give up power without it appearing like much of a sacrifice, so much so that you can almost forget it’s happening. Here, then, is the individual, making a choice, extending personal agency to the max within the bounds of the political system, to address the crisis posed by another individual in Mr. Trump.