For years now, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has been one of the most influential Republicans in Washington. Scion of one of the most powerful families in conservative politics, she served in several positions in the Bush administration and was elected as the House representative from Wyoming in 2016 — the same seat her father held for many years. She then moved up to the third-ranking position in the House Republican caucus, and was widely assumed to have a bright future.
But now her political career is coming to an end. She faces a primary challenge from the extreme right, and an upcoming vote backed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to kick her out of her leadership position. She is expected to lose in both cases, but even if she doesn’t, it’s clear her upward trajectory in Republican politics is over. Completely unscrupulous will to power and toadying fealty to Donald Trump are now mandatory preconditions for participating in conservative politics.
It’s important to be clear up front that Cheney has had an exceptionally monstrous career thus far. Her domestic policy record is the usual Bush-era mix of social conservatism and total deference to the oligarch class, but her real passion is foreign policy. Just like her father, she is a bloodthirsty imperialist warmonger. After working in support of the Bush administration’s wars of aggression inside the administration, she founded a think tank to advocate for an invasion of Iran, and was constantly on conservative media stoking frenzied bigotry against Muslims.
In office she has advocated relentless violence — indeed, one of her few quarrels with Trump’ foreign policy was that he wasn’t belligerent enough, despite him hugely ramping up drone strikes (and attendant civilian casualties) and his illegal assassination of a top Iranian official. She has also been a passionate defender of torture. A toll of 800,000-plus dead in America’s bungling, pointless imperialist crusade in the Middle East is apparently not enough for her.
As John Nichols points out at The Nation, prior to January 6 Cheney was a bitter partisan, known for telling hysterical lies about Democrats; while campaigning for Trump in 2019, she said Democrats were “the party of anti-Semitism, the party of infanticide, the party of socialism.” She is more responsible than most for inflaming right-wing extremism.
That said, when Trump attempted to overthrow the government and install himself as president-for-life with a putsch, Cheney turned against him. She voted to impeach him afterwards, and continued attacking his lie that the election had been stolen. For a brief time after the putsch — when, let us remember, numerous GOP members of Congress and Vice President Pence were nearly lynched by the mob — that was an acceptable opinion for a Republican to have.
It is no longer. Trump has reasserted complete control over the Republican Party, demanding (and receiving) slavish obedience to his will. In this he has the backing of the vast majority of the Republican base, some 70 percent of whom believe his lie that Biden stole the election. Cheney’s stubborn refusal to submit to Trump is therefore heresy that must be stamped out.
Now as her career goes down in flames, Cheney has written an op-ed for The Washington Post urging her fellow Republicans not to abandon democracy. “Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law. No other American president has ever done this,” she writes. “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”
The effect of this argument on her fellow Republicans is a foregone conclusion. It will be angrily rejected — indeed, it likely increases the chances she will be purged from the party. One reason is that she is needed as a scapegoat to deflect from other Republicans’ betrayal of Trump after the putsch. As she notes, McCarthy himself said on January 13: “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.” What’s more, McCarthy is reportedly worried he would be called to testify before the proposed January 6 Commission about how he called Trump that day begging him to call off the mob. He would rather that episode be forgotten.
Another reason is the character of Republican elites. They are ruthless in their quest for total power, but they can also be counted on to be utter cowards when it comes to confronting Trump or the right’s other deranged media personalities. As one Republican official told The Washington Post in November after Trump refused to concede his loss, “What is the downside for humoring him for this little bit of time?” (Ask Capitol Police officer Mike Fanone about that.) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, after briefly criticizing Trump for the putsch, has thereafter clammed up about the former president to the point of studiously pretending not to hear Trump’s constant personal insults — he refused to comment Thursday on a Trump statement calling him “gutless and clueless.”
There was a moment, probably lasting no more than a few hours after the putsch, when Trump critics might have rounded up enough Republican votes in the Senate to convict Trump and prevent him from holding federal office ever again. This might have even been a smart political move — Cheney is likely calculating that given Trump’s abysmal approval rating, the GOP would be better off ditching him and pretending his whole presidency never happened, as they did with Richard Nixon. But almost all the critics (including Democrats) chose to dither and procrastinate, which allowed Republicans to dose themselves up with right-wing propaganda and get back on the low road.
Conservative media has gradually pivoted from downplaying or denying the Capitol putsch to outright defending it. The putschist strategy of winning at any cost, regardless of votes, has become the overt GOP plan for upcoming elections. As my colleague Joel Mathis writes, “The insurrectionists have taken over the Republican Party.”
So the choice Cheney outlines in her article has already been made. Republicans have chosen Trump over the Constitution, which they are plotting to overturn to set up one-party rule. If he runs in 2024, he almost certainly will get the nomination. Previous conservative policy dogma no longer matters in the slightest. As the conservative Club for Growth points out, Cheney’s probable successor, Elise Stefanik, has a much less orthodox voting record. But when it comes to licking Trump’s wingtips, her record (like Trump’s shoes) is spotless. Her political future, unlike Cheney’s, is bright.