early and often

The Culpable Liz Cheney

Photo: David Stubbs/REUTERS

On Tuesday, inevitability claimed the political career of Liz Cheney. The Wyoming Republican lost her primary race to Trump-backed Harriet Hageman by over 30 points. Yet she may not be out of politics for long. Presidential speculation has already begun to circulate thanks in part to Cheney herself. Asked on the Today show if she intended to run after her loss, Cheney said, “That’s a decision that I’m going to make in the coming months, and I’m not going to make any announcements here this morning. But it is something that I am thinking about.” She may be thinking about it, in the way people think about lots of impossible things. Her chances of becoming president are practically nonexistent. A run could hardly raise her profile more than resistance liberals have already raised it. Cheney might be a loser in one sense, but in another, she’s a star.

The case for Cheney’s heroism is predictable by now. At a crucial moment for her party and the country, she broke with Donald Trump and immediately called for his impeachment after the events of January 6 appeared to shock her. “You saw the symbols of Holocaust denial, for example, at the Capitol that day; you saw the Confederate flag being carried through the Rotunda, and I think we as Republicans, in particular, have a duty and an obligation to stand against that, to stand against insurrection,” she told the Reagan Institute not long after the riot.

Cheney went on to become a Trump critic, and she co-chairs the House committee investigating the insurrection. “She didn’t think another two years sitting at the right hand of an invertebrate like Kevin McCarthy — in a caucus stacked with cranks, bigots, cowards and time-serving hypocrites — was worth the price of her silence,” the anti-Trump conservative Charlie Sykes wrote for MSNBC after her loss. She even attracted Democratic donors like Jeffrey Katzenberg, who told the New York Times in July that “she has done something that very, very few people in history have done, which is she’s put her country over party and politics to stand in defense of our Constitution.” Stirring words, but this is not an Aaron Sorkin show. To transform her into a symbol of democratic courage is to obscure her. The full Cheney deserves no one’s praise.

Cheney is a committed, even hard-line, conservative. She has been honest about her views with anyone who questions her. In a 2021 interview with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, she confirmed that she is anti-abortion, though she regrets her previous stance against same-sex marriage. (Her sister, Mary, is an out lesbian.) On foreign policy, she is a hawk. She opposes the Iran deal and can sound exactly like her father, the infamous Dick Cheney. “Waterboarding, a.k.a. torture,” Stahl says in the interview, and Cheney cuts in: “Well, it’s not torture,” she tells Stahl, adding that she “absolutely” supports the practice.

During Cheney’s long tenure in public life, she stoked the same nationalism that gave rise to Trump. As Spencer Ackerman notes in his book, Reign of Terror, she co-founded Keep America Safe with fellow neocon Bill Kristol and Debra Burlingame, the conservative sister of a pilot killed in the September 11 attacks. As the Guardian reported at the time, Cheney’s group “dubbed lawyers who acted on behalf of accused terrorists, and who now work for the Department of Justice, the ‘al-Qaida seven,’” and called the DOJ the “Department of Jihad.” The group participated in a right-wing furor over the so-called Ground Zero Mosque, in reality a planned community center blocks away from the former site of the World Trade Center.

“The president supports a mosque at ground zero led by a man who blamed America for 9/11, his top intelligence official preaches the true meaning of jihad, and his attorney general can’t even say the words ‘radical Islam,’” said Michael Goldfarb, then an adviser to Cheney’s group. “You start to worry they don’t understand who the enemy is, and so Republicans might understandably feel like they have to spell it out for them.” Goldfarb and the group had adopted a popular right-wing attack on Barack Obama: that he was soft on radical Islam. The line doubled as a useful dog whistle given birther claims that Obama was not American and was a secret Muslim. Though Cheney herself said she did not believe Obama was born in Kenya, as many right-wing activists once claimed, she did defend the racist birther movement in a 2009 interview with Larry King. “I’m saying that people are fundamentally uncomfortable, and I think increasingly uncomfortable, with an American president who seems to be afraid to defend America and stand up for what we believe in,” she said.

Trump, of course, was one such birther, going so far as to offer a reward for Obama’s “real” birth certificate, and Islamophobia would become a hallmark of his presidency, one that Cheney mostly supported. Elected the same year as Trump, she voted with the president over 92 percent of the time, as of the end of his term. She rose to be No. 3 in House Republican leadership before she was kicked out following her anti-Trump turn. Like her father before her, Cheney thrived within and contributed to the very atmosphere that nurtured Trump. When Trump tried to ban Muslims from entering the country, and lied about both the 2016 and 2020 elections, Cheney marched to his beat. If January 6 shocked her conscience, she barely deserves credit for common sense, forget courage.

How did we get here anyway? To a place where someone like Cheney can receive plaudits from liberals and Never Trumpers alike? To the Never Trumpers, Cheney is an understandably attractive figure; her political martyrdom is proof of the bravery they share. To liberals, her allure is more elusive but seems rooted in nostalgia for a past that never really was. Once upon a time, they tell themselves, the world worked. Progress was slow but assured, and the GOP was a friendly foe with which they could reason. The truth is contained in the career of Liz Cheney. The old world had faults deep in its foundation. Cheney merely pulled the house down with her. What’s left is wreckage and a world to rebuild without her.

Don’t Mourn for Liz Cheney