I wish I could be a Cheney fan. I really do. Rep. Liz Cheney has conducted herself honorably for the past nine months. Her courage in telling the truth about the election and the insurrection of Jan. 6 has been punished by the Republican conference, which booted her from leadership and replaced her with the lying, scheming Trumpist, Rep. Elise Stefanik. Former President Donald Trump is apparently working feverishly to unseat Cheney from Congress altogether, and his lickspittle lieutenants are joining the effort.

The invertebrate minority leader, Kevin McCarthy — who, let's recall, declared on Jan. 13 that "the president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters" — has long since scurried back under Trump's skirts, from whence he issues barbs against the few remaining Republicans who still have some principles. McCarthy sniped that Cheney and Rep. Adam Kinzinger, the other Republican appointed to the Jan. 6 committee over the objections of party leadership, are "Pelosi Republicans."

The opening segments of the Jan. 6 committee were another fine moment for Cheney. She began by thanking the police officers who testified about their experiences defending the Capitol that day:

"Thank you to each of the witnesses appearing before us today. ... You defended the Constitution and our Republic, and every American owes you our undying gratitude. Every American, I hope, will be able to hear your testimony today and will watch the videos. The videos show the unbelievable violence and the inexcusable and intolerable cruelty that you all faced, and people need to know the truth."

She went on to outline the stakes:

"If those responsible are not held accountable, and if Congress does not act responsibly, this will remain a cancer on our Constitutional Republic, undermining the peaceful transfer of power at the heart of our democratic system."

Those are good words, and as I said above, I respect Cheney's willingness to pay a price. She understood that by taking on the "Big Lie" and the almost-as-consequential lie about what happened on Jan. 6, she was risking her leadership position, her seat and possibly her own security. Every word of truth that she (and Kinzinger) utters is like a balm of Gilead.

And yet, the voice in the back of my head keeps saying, "Is it too late?"

Both Cheney and Kinzinger, may they live to be 120, had many, many earlier opportunities to extinguish this forest fire before it became a raging inferno. Both supported Trump's reelection in 2020. Kinzinger said he was "upset" by President Joe Biden's victory. Cheney appeared on "Fox and Friends" in July 2020, and while she allowed that she disagreed with Trump on some issues, most notably withdrawal from Afghanistan, she emphasized how important it was that Trump be reelected: "Whether or not we have debates and discussions internally — as I'm sure we continue, we will continue to do — we are going to be absolutely united going forward on the big issues, and I'm not going any place."

Both Cheney and Kinzinger voted against the first Trump impeachment. They stuck with their support for his reelection, despite the first debate with Biden, despite the catastrophic handling of COVID-19, despite Trump's green light to China's Uyghur camps, despite QAnon, and despite the avalanche of lies and cruelty that corrupted America's soul — and prepared the ground for the violent insurrection they are now investigating.

Is it welcome that they finally found a line they couldn't cross? A thousand times, yes. But how might this story have unfolded differently if they, and thousands of other Republicans, had found their uncrossable lines sooner?

You can say, "The base is calling the shots, and the elected are just following what the voters demand." That's nonsense. The base doesn't get its ideas from nowhere. It gets them from Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and the rest of the conservative media world. And it gets them from elected officials. To paraphrase what Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn told the Jan. 6 committee: When elected officials give permission, there is no limit to the violence that may ensue.

Trump was the arsonist. But if every time he dropped a match on the dry tinder of American polarization, Republican elected officials and others had leaped to extinguish the small flames, we would not be here.

And where is here? We have seen the end of 160 years of the peaceful transfer of power. We've seen the majestic United States Capitol turned into a scene from a dystopian fantasy; an armed mob attempting to subvert an election. They smashed and tortured and caused deaths. They erected a gallows and hunted for the speaker of the House and for the vice president. And Republicans, almost to a man and woman, are excusing, downplaying or whitewashing what happened. An entire political party has abandoned commitment to the rule of law.

To speak up now, well, it's better than nothing. But it's a little like saying you'll take away a drunk's driver's license after he crashed into and killed an 8-year-old. What about all of those times when you saw him get behind the wheel after five drinks and did nothing?

Trump attacked the basics of American democracy. The consequences were foreseeable. There were countless warnings. The great tragedy of this moment is not that Trump attempted what he did, but that so few Republicans tried to stop him when it would have made a difference.

Mona Charen is policy editor of The Bulwark and host of the "Beg to Differ" podcast. Her column is distributed by Creators.