I’m hardly a sucker for Liz Cheney. She and father Dick led the United States into a strategically disastrous war in the Middle East on the basis of lies and misrepresentations. It was one of the worst cons in American political history, and the results included the deaths of several thousand American soldiers and about 200,000 Iraqi civilians. And as my colleague Tim Murphy points out, Cheney was a pro-Trumper in 2016 and 2020 and an enthusiastic enabler of Donald Trump’s demagogic and fear-fueled movement until Trump tried to deny and overturn the 2020 election results. Yet it was hard not to be moved by her defiant concession speech on Tuesday night, when she overwhelmingly lost the GOP primary for her Wyoming House seat to a brazen opportunist who had condemned Trump in 2016 as a xenophobic “racist”and then ran as a devout member of the Trump cult.
Speaking at a ranch, Cheney declared, “This is not a game. Every one of us must be committed to the internal defense of this miraculous experiment called America. And at the heart of our democratic process are elections. They are the foundational principle of our Constitution.” She noted the obvious: She would have easily won reelection had she gone along with Trump’s Big Lie. But that would have “required that I enable his ongoing efforts to unravel our democratic system and attack the foundations of our republic. That was a path I could not and would not take.”
Cheney proclaimed that the first order of business for any democracy is to protect democracy: “Most of world history is a story of violent conflict. Of servitude and suffering. Most people in most places have not lived in freedom… It has been said that the long arc of history bends towards justice and freedom. That’s true, but only if we make it bend. Today, our highest duty is to bend the arc of history to preserve our nation and its blessings. To ensure that freedom will not perish. To protect the very foundations of this Constitutional Republic.” She insisted that the January 6 attack was a transformational event that rendered her own party a threat to the nation:
Like so many Americans, I assumed that the violence and the chaos of that day would have prompted a united response. A recognition that this was a line that must never be crossed. A tragic chapter in our nation’s history to be studied by historians to ensure that it can never happen again. But instead, major elements of my party still vehemently defend those who caused it. At the heart of the attack on January 6th is a willingness to embrace dangerous conspiracies that attack the very core premise of our nation… If we do not condemn the conspiracies and the lies, if we do not hold those responsible to account, we will be excusing this conduct and it will become a feature of all elections. America will never be the same.
This threat, she warned, was not abating: “There are Republican candidates for governor who deny the outcome of the 2020 election and who may refuse to certify future elections if they oppose the results. We have candidates for secretary of state who may refuse to report the actual results of the popular vote in future elections. And we have candidates for Congress, including here in Wyoming, who refuse to acknowledge that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and suggest that states decertify their results. Our nation is barreling, once again towards crisis, lawlessness, and violence. No American should support election deniers for any position of genuine responsibility where their refusal to follow the rule of law will corrupt our future.”
Cheney defended the work of the January 6 committee on which she serves and the FBI’s recent execution of the search warrant at Mar-a-Lago, noting that the Republican embrace of Trump’s baseless conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and the FBI raid could “provoke violence and threats of violence.” She added, “This happened on January 6th and it’s now happening again. It is entirely foreseeable that the violence will escalate further. Yet he and others continue, purposely, to feed the danger.”
Cheney nailed it. Trump endangers democracy, and the Republicans Party is supporting his assault on the republic. Unlike other GOP leaders, she has placed her devotion to the rule of law and her oath to defend the Constitution ahead of her political career. This is a rare act in American politics. In many other democracies, cabinet members, government officials, and legislators often resign when they disagree with the policies and actions of their party or government. That doesn’t happen much here. And in the Trump years, most GOP politicians have jettisoned principles and violated their oath to demonstrate their fealty to the Dear Leader.
So there is something thrilling in seeing Cheney—a Cheney?—taking this stand. (Her father released an ad for her calling Trump a liar. and a “coward.”) Not too long ago, Cheney would not have been the bettor’s choice to emerge as the most vigorous and effective anti-Trump Republican. Up until January 6, she was the leader of a party and a conservative movement that embraced a racist, lying, narcissistic autocrat wannabe, and she had supported the Republicans’ efforts to restrict voting and throttle democracy. Yet her transformation to defender of the republic appears genuine and based primarily, if not entirely, on her belief that Trump and his comrades (her ex-colleagues) pose an existential threat to American democracy and that her most important task as a patriotic American and elected leader is to counter that danger, even at risk to her own career.
That warrants a dollop of praise, a cheer, maybe even two. Yet how to reconcile this with Cheney’s past actions that helped cause the problem at hand and that led to the pointless deaths of many Americans and Iraqis? Perhaps we don’t have to.
The nation confronts a crisis. Tens of millions of its citizens accept Trump’s baseless claims about the 2020 election and other detached-from-reality conspiracy theories peddled by the right, including QAnon and the racist Great Replacement Theory According to a survey conducted by Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist, up to 25 million Americans believe the use of force would be justified to restore Trump to power. And one of the two major parties has been waging war on democracy, plotting to gain control of vote-counting to rig future elections. It fully supports a conniver with authoritarian impulses who appears eager to try to regain the White House.
In such perilous times, help from any quarters is welcomed. All hands on deck. The nation cannot engage in vigorous and productive political discourse and address its pressing challenges—economic inequality, climate change, health care—without a functioning constitutional system. Those who charge toward the battlements deserve encouragement. There is no need at the moment to render a full or final verdict on Cheney, while she is an ally in the fight against Trumpism. One can indeed be heartened, possibly inspired, by her words and actions on this front.
With Trump-crazy Republicans having defenestrated her, Cheney is setting up a political action committee that will allow her to continue her anti-Trump pursuits after she leaves the House in January. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) says Cheney will “chase Donald Trump to the gates of hell.” She is reportedly also considering a presidential bid. Pundits (including myself) have already started pondering whether such an effort would hurt Trump (by elevating her fierce criticisms of the former guy) or help him (by providing non-Trumpy independents another choice besides the Democratic nominee). For now, her work on the January 6 committee and her passionate opposition to Trump and her own party are critical components of the resistance to Trump and the GOP’s subversion of American democracy. There’s no need to feel conflicted about Cheney. If she and the rest of pro-democracy America succeed, there will be plenty of opportunity for progressives to engage in political fights with conservatives and to return to viewing the Cheneys as an obstacle to a fair and just world.