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How Liz Cheney helped create her own downfall

Cheney was an enthusiastic participant in the radical political style that helped bring about Trumpism.
Image: Liz Cheney
Liz Cheney addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), in Washington on Feb. 18, 2010.Cliff Owen / AP file

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming has been feted as a hero by prominent liberals and Never Trump Republicans alike for her refusal to cave in to 2020 election denialism, even though it cost her a seat in Congress. After her loss, she suggested that she too sees herself as walking among a pantheon of American heroes, explicitly linking herself to Abraham Lincoln in her concession speech and immediately launching a political action committee called "The Great Task,” a nod to Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address delivered during the Civil War.

In reality, Cheney is far from a hero. Yes, her work as vice chair of the House Jan. 6 committee has been honorable, and it is a sign of basic decency that she refused to equivocate on the 2020 election in order to cling to her seat. But what’s being overlooked is that she was part of the very problem that she decries.

Her current path isn’t courageous dissent as much as it is belatedly making amends for complicity in our crisis.

It’s not just that Cheney was a proud Trump ally until he attempted an insurrection, which in and of itself should temper calls to lionize her. It’s that she was an enthusiastic participant in the radical political style that helped bring about Trump’s authoritarian break from liberal democracy. If she helped start the fire and only tried putting it out after the whole house was aflame, then her current path isn’t courageous dissent as much as it is belatedly making amends for complicity in our crisis.

Cheney trafficked in Trumpian-style politics well before the Republican establishment felt obligated to. The best example of this was her sly defense of birtherism, the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. whose eventual foremost proponent was Trump. In a 2009 “Larry King Live” segment about birtherism, Cheney refused to condemn the conspiracy theory, and instead implied that it made sense because of the way Obama conducted himself.

“One of the reasons I think you see people so concerned about this issue is people are uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas,” Cheney said in a discussion about Obama’s citizenship.

To support her point about Obama’s alleged reluctance to defend America she cited the fact that Obama opted to ignore a polemical speech about U.S. imperialism by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega at the Summit of the Americas, where he was otherwise surprisingly well received by left-wing leaders of Latin American countries. Apparently the fact that Obama chose the strategy of ignoring critique from a small country was a sign that Obama was “afraid to stand up for what we believe in.” This was a silly deduction about Obama’s position on defending America. But more important, it had no bearing on whether Obama was a citizen or if his birth certificate was real.

Cheney was quietly suggesting that the birthers seemed to be on to something real, because Obama purportedly gave off a uniquely un-American air. Right there on the segment, Democratic strategist James Carville called her out on her strategy, saying, “She refuses to say this [issue of birtherism] is ludicrous, because she actually wants to encourage these people to believe this.” After an uproar, Cheney said in a statement to reporters that she did not question Obama’s citizenship. But still, she chose to use a high-profile platform to stoke racist paranoia about it and to profit from the innuendo.

Birtherism would eventually become Trump’s signature and most high-profile strategy for trying to undermine Obama, and arguably marks his advent onto the national political scene.

Cheney did not have a direct hand in organizing Trump's insurrection, but she was complicit in many of the norms that allowed Trump to feel entitled to attempt it.

Birtherism was a preview of Trumpism. It was a disinformation campaign; its insistence that Obama was not who he said he was despite evidence to the contrary was fueled by racism and nativism; it was not about policy but about identity; and it wasn’t an argument as much as it was a tool for delegitimizing not only the opposition but state institutions altogether (it’s not hard to see the line from not trusting birth certificates to not trusting ballots). Cheney did not see this as something to nip in the bud but to channel for political gain.

Cheney’s political commitment to hardcore neoconservatism — the ideology that defined her father's vice presidency — also helped set the stage for Trumpism. She defended torture and vilified the Justice Department under Obama as the "department of jihad" for employing lawyers who believed that accused terrorists should be accorded due process. The neoconservative project entailed dehumanizing the other, bending the law to dominate specific groups, and fostering a more socially acceptable nativism in mainstream conservative culture. In these respects it helped create the possibility of Trump-style extremism.

And while Cheney has been branded as a more restrained, independent Republican because of her conduct regarding Jan. 6, that brand does not accord with reality. During the Obama years she sought to portray him as at “war” with America, and described extremist obstructionism against him as patriotism. When she joined the House in the Trump era, she voted with Trump more than 90% of the time — even more than the congressman who would go on to become Trump’s chief of staff — and adopted Trump’s rhetorical style of putting down opponents. In a feud with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky in 2019, she called Paul a “big loser” and happily recalled Trump’s put-down of him. Her Trump-wing colleagues praised her way of engaging derisively with the media, and she was seen as a special weapon against one of Trump’s favorite groups in Congress to pick on — the Squad. She was a rising GOP star during this time, quickly ascending to a top leadership position in her caucus and did not find Trump's pathological lying objectionable until the election crisis.

Cheney did not have a direct hand in organizing Trump's insurrection, but she was complicit in many of the norms that allowed Trump to believe he was entitled to attempt it, and in helping to form the kind of party that refuses to hold him accountable for it. Her awakening after Jan. 6 is far better than the alternative of complete submission to the cult of Trump. But it doesn’t single-handedly absolve her of her contributions to the very crisis that she now claims she finds intolerable. When it mattered most, she did not work to avert it.