Wyoming is home to Crook County, a fairly flat stretch of land with a very peculiar feature: a spire of solid rock that erupts out of the ground to a height of more than 1,000 feet. It’s known as “Devil’s Tower” and was the focal point of Stephen Spielberg’s 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which makes sense. It’s the kind of alien landscape that suits otherworldly events, even if what happened on Tuesday night wasn’t so much a close encounter of the third, second, or even first kind. Liz Cheney came face-to-face with the alien host that has wholly taken over her Republican Party.

There was no surprise that Cheney lost her primary in Wyoming, winning just 28.9 per cent of the vote she’d previously won by a whopping 73 per cent in 2020. Nor was there anything shocking about the desultory way her opponents welcomed her defeat. Donald Trump took time out of running what increasingly looks like a crime syndicate to comment: “Now she can finally disappear into the depths of political oblivion where, I am sure, she will be much happier than she is right now.” The problem for Trump is that his vision of oblivion might well be exactly where Cheney wants to be. Her defeat is less about calculation at this stage than it is about principle. In a landscape that’s becoming uniformly Trumpian, Liz Cheney is now standing tall as the last principled conservative.

Though she clearly hopes that the Republican Party will eventually come around and cleanse itself of the Trump toxin, it’s hard at this stage to believe that’s an inevitability. Hard too to believe that large portions of America can wean itself off the ugly politics that have come to define them. Those politics didn’t emerge fully formed as Trumpism. As former President Obama once observed, Trump “is not an outlier; he is a culmination, a logical conclusion of the rhetoric and tactics of the Republican Party.”

This brutal style of politics grew organically from within the party. It was always there in the Gingrich Doctrine. In 1979 the young Newt finally won his race for Congress (he’s failed two other times) and during his campaign set out a view of politics that would later change his party. “I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty. We encourage you to be neat, obedient, loyal and faithful and all those Boy Scout words, which would be great around a campfire but are lousy in politics.”

As Speaker of the House in the 90s, Gingrich ensured that this nasty attitude became habitual, turning politics into a bloodsport, and although Cheney has thrived in the atmosphere that prevailed thereafter (there were few more bruising players than her father), Trump has now taken it to a place where she could not follow. “That was a path I could and would not take,” she said about repeating the lie that Biden did not win the election, which has become the basic requirement to win a Republican primary.

So, even if she might harbour hopes for a future rehabilitation under a different Republican Party, her defeat feels more like immolation. She has sacrificed herself for a greater good which is the destruction of Trump. To that end, she still has work to do on the 6th January Committee. She will remain in Congress until the New Year and provide an important voice in the Democrat-heavy committee. As Jamie Raskin, Representative from Maryland and a key figure in Trump’s prosecutions has said: “Liz speaks fluent Republican – it’s her native tongue. She has really helped me to decode the ideological currents informing all the different sectors of the attack.”

After that, there’s talk of a run for the Presidency in 2024, which might go some way towards her fulfilling her vow to “do whatever it takes to ensure Donald Trump is never again near the Oval Office”. That, no doubt, is Cheney’s near-term goal. Third-party candidates rarely make serious bids for the White House, but Ross Perot proved that they can often do enough to destroy another candidate’s chances. In 1992, Perot won 18.9 per cent of the national vote, largely assumed from Republicans who had gone soft on George H.W. Bush. That left a path to the White House for Bill Clinton who won with just 43 per cent of the vote, the lowest since 1912 when the big beast Teddy Roosevelt shook things up with his Progressive Party (Wilson won with a 41.8 per cent share).

Of course, the same logic also applies to the Democrats and the announcement that Andrew Yang is launching a new centrist party (the Forward Party) might also muddy the waters, even if his reasons appear to have less to do with political necessity and more to do with his shamelessly craving the limelight.

For Cheney, however, her challenge is to cut out a political career in a landscape where she’s now a pariah: too conservative to join the Democrats, too anti-Trump for the Republicans. Yet that’s not to say other opportunities won’t become available. Cheney has rapidly become the kind of monumental figure in US politics that are historically relevant, very much a latter-day Margaret Chase Smith who stood up to Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

There will always be interest from the media in any committed and high-profile anti-Trumpian (the so-called Rhinos, or Republicans in name only) for as long as Trump remains in the public eye. It is also unlikely but not entirely unfeasible that Joe Biden might make room for her in his administration or offer her a role in wider government. Biden is notoriously bipartisan, believing in a politics based on concessions and cross-party agreements, and it might appeal to his vision of America if traditional conservative voices are not entirely frozen out. Whether such a move would be supported by others in his already fractured caucus is unlikely, but it also might not appeal to Cheney whose singular focus appears to be retaining the ground abandoned by Trump cultists.

Least likely of all, perhaps, is establishing a new party. Not only does it require huge amounts of money and the kind of ground operation that’s unlikely to self-generate in such a polarised nation, but it would require a concession that Cheney does not appear ready to make. It’s not Cheney who has abandoned her party but, rather, the party that abandoned her. As the Republicans increasingly stray across the flat wilderness of nativism, personality cults, and anti-government paranoia, it makes more sense that she remains firm. She is the heretical Devil’s Tower in the landscape of Trumpism, marking the spot where the last true conservative broke from the pack and the point at which they could yet again come together.