Like many other politicians who have tried to explain themselves and the country since 2015, Liz Cheney would like you to think that today’s Wyoming primary is about nothing more and nothing less than Donald Trump—in particular, his “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen.
There’s something to this, of course. Cheney has made Trump central to her own political identity, and thus to any attempt to unseat her. Her primary rival Harriet Hageman, for her part, has enjoyed the considerable benefit of Trump’s endorsement, and a blockbuster Trump/Hageman rally, in a state he won by huge margins in 2016 and 2020. Though she does not reduce herself to a Trump loyalist—in her signature “We’re fed up” speech, Trump is named only once, and only as the object of unwarranted persecution by Cheney and the January 6 Committee—she doesn’t shy away from his policies or phrases.
“I’m an America First candidate,” Hageman told me in a June interview, explaining why she would have voted against the $40 billion aid package to Ukraine that Cheney supported. Wyomingites, she says, care about border security, inflation, and protecting energy jobs. “I think about what Americans need. Liz Cheney thinks, What does Lockheed Martin need?”
But the showdown between Cheney and Hageman reveals more than the enduring influence of Trump. Cheney and Hageman represent rival elites offering rival accounts of what ails America.
In her policy preferences and the very pattern of her career, Liz Cheney embodies the GOP establishment of the last half-century. Meanwhile, much has been made of 2022’s political outsiders—class-traitor populares such as Blake Masters and J.D. Vance—who might coalesce as a “new right” counter elite.
Hageman is neither. Nor is she a fire-breathing MAGA populist in the mold of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, or Matt Gaetz. Hageman is a reemergence of an older and rarer type: a local elite, rooted in the provinces rather than the capital, in possession of its own long-standing reasons to fight both Washington and a Republican establishment that has made its peace with Washington.
One kind of elite is concerned above all with the arts of empire—“To rule mankind, and make the world obey, / Disposing peace and war by thy own majestic way; / To tame the proud, the fetter’d slave to free”—usually practiced on the barbarians at the frontiers but, if need be, applied to any recalcitrant communities in the provinces. The other kind of elite is concerned with protecting its homeland from the domestic manifestation of empire: the high-handed rule by an unaccountable bureaucracy and the harmful economic, environmental, and cultural policies that those in the capital visit upon the provincials.
“Our future depends on us getting control of the administrative state, on the legislature recovering legislative power from the executive branch’s administrative agencies,” Hageman told me. “I believe in our republic.”
Imagine, for a moment, Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of Noble Wyomingites.
Liz Cheney and Harriet Hageman, only a few years apart in age, exemplify two very different versions of American aristocracy. Both followed their fathers into politics, and their fathers’ political careers provided templates for their own.
After a childhood in Nebraska and Wyoming, Dick Cheney discovered his political vocation in 1966, during graduate studies in Wisconsin. He was soon climbing the ladder in the Nixon and Ford White Houses, before taking up Wyoming’s lone Congressional seat in 1978. After a decade representing the state, he returned to the capital full-time as Secretary of Defense and never looked back, with stints at the Council on Foreign Relations, American Enterprise Institute, Halliburton, and finally as vice president, where his forte was foreign policy, and his foreign policy was focused on irrigating Middle Eastern deserts with the waters of liberal democracy.
James Hageman’s career was considerably more modest than Dick Cheney’s—and entirely Wyoming. Born, raised, and educated in the state, Hageman was stationed in Germany during the Korean War, but immediately returned home to run a sheep ranch. He was active for decades in local and statewide civic and political organizations, from the county school board to the Wyoming Woolgrowers Association, and served 24 years in the Wyoming Legislature, at various points chairing the committees for agriculture and education, which is to say, trying to cultivate the land and the youth.
Liz Cheney’s career has been even more centered on Washington and its relationship with the wider world than her father’s. Her first jobs out of college were at the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. A law degree from University of Chicago enabled her to spend the immediate post-Cold War era as a World Bank consultant and a USAID officer in former Eastern Bloc capitals. Her Foggy Bottom stints in the 2000s focused on the softer side of the Bush/Cheney vision—promoting democracy, economic development, and education—though she dabbled in the harder side of American empire as head of the Iran Syria Policy and Operations Group. Cheney returned to Wyoming only in 2014, for a failed bid for Senate, before winning her father’s seat in 2016.
As with her prior career, so with her current priorities. When asked recently about the biggest challenge facing Wyoming, Cheney gives three answers. The first plays to her original brand as a foreign policy hawk: She refers to “threats” from an updated Axis of Evil, “Russia, North Korea, China, and Iran.” The second challenge is the battery of issues that ordinary Wyomingites actually care about: Biden’s economic, energy, and tax policies, which are “hurting our families and hurting our communities.” Cheney’s final answer is an appeal to her new brand: the “toxicity and vitriol […] tearing our country apart” and a lack of “serious leaders,” which is to say, Donald J. Trump, and all his works, and all his empty promises. Cheney doesn’t name Wyoming in her answer.
Harriet Hageman, by contrast, claims that Wyoming citizens are most concerned with “inflation, the open border/illegal immigration, and the protection of our fossil fuel industries.” She said that these issues are interrelated: “the government’s role in our lives is to secure our rights and interests,” but the federal government—not just the Biden Administration—has adopted policies that “increase the cost of food, housing and energy.” Which is to say, according to Hageman, “our challenge” is the fact that we’ve lost “the basic understanding that government is of, for, and by the people.”
There are many impressive names and hoary phrases one could invoke to call Americans back to republican self-government. Hageman consistently returns to one name. “Philip Hamburger is a brilliant legal mind,” she says. It’s a balmy Thursday evening in March—Saint Patrick’s Day, in fact—and Hageman has filled the town hall of Hudson, Wyoming (pop. 458), in what will be the first of three campaign visits to my county in five months. (To my knowledge, Cheney has not visited the county once in the four years I’ve lived here.) Fauci and Putin are the names on everyone’s lips, but her mention of Hamburger, a constitutional law professor at Columbia University, is more revealing. She names him again two months later, talking with a couple dozen voters at a coffee shop in Lander, and cites his 2014 Is Administrative Law Unlawful? (Hamburger’s answer, and Hageman’s, is an emphatic “Yes.”) Hageman sketches the argument for us: Administrative law is the inappropriate delegation of legislative authority away from elected officials to experts employed by the bureaucracy, a violation of the nondelegation clause of Article 1, Section 1 of the Constitution.
“Fighting the administrative state will be my signature issue,” Hageman told me in our interview. “I have fought regulators and bureaucrats in court; now I will do it in Congress.” It is certainly consistent with her last 25 years. While Liz Cheney was working for the World Bank in Central Europe, Harriet Hageman was taking Nebraska to the Supreme Court over Wyoming’s water rights in the North Platte River watershed. While Cheney was at the State Department promoting economic investment in the Middle East and dreaming of regime change in Iran, Hageman was defeating Clinton-era rules in the U.S. Forest Service and Obama-era regulations of the livestock industry. Cheney’s career has been defined by the Pax Americana and the military undergirding it. Hageman’s political identity is Sagebrush Rebellion, through and through.
“Harriet is wonderful,” Hamburger told me. “I met her years ago and was immediately impressed. So much so that I called my wife to tell her I had met exactly the sort of lawyer I wanted to hire at the New Civil Liberties Alliance,” a public interest pro bono law firm founded by Hamburger “to protect constitutional freedoms from violations by the Administrative State.” Hageman joined the NCLA in 2019 and is currently Senior Litigation Counselor. “She is a dedicated defender of constitutional rights,” Hamburger said.
What does that mean in 2022? Hamburger’s NCLA doesn’t mince words: “Although Americans still enjoy the shell of their Republic, there has developed within it a very different sort of government—a type, in fact, that the Constitution was designed to prevent.” This is not just deregulation for deregulation’s sake; it is a statement about the partially-accomplished transformation of our regime from a self-governing federal republic to an ungoverned centralized administrative state.
Hageman, for her part, offered a sober, lawyerly version of the Bannon battle cry to “Deconstruct the Administrative State.”
“I don’t just want deregulation; I want to reform the administrative state.” The Administrative Procedure Act must be updated and agencies must be compelled to make actual rules, rather than issuing “guidance documents” and “fact sheets” that lack the force of law but operate as a threat that compels obedience. She praised a slate of Trump executive orders designed to bring transparency to federal agencies, but argued that such policies must be enshrined in statute. Her own perspective, based on working with members of Congress, is that most politicians don’t have her experience “on the front lines” fighting regulatory agencies, and thus are unable to oppose the administrative state effectively. Asked at a campaign event whether red states should secede rather than fight federal overreach through legal and political channels, she calmly but firmly answered, “No. Because this is my country. I’m not going to surrender it.”
“We may now have entered a new era,” Peter Wallison wrote recently, reflecting hopefully on the implications of West Virginia v. EPA, “one where a conservative Supreme Court seems ready to take back from administrative agencies the power to define what Congress has or has not said in legislation.” If that restoration does come to pass, it will likely require not just the efforts of the judiciary, but a coordinated, full-court press of the three Constitutional branches of government against the fourth, un-Constitutional branch. President Trump’s October 2022 Schedule F executive order was a last-minute attempt by the executive to “bring the deep state to heel.”
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Should Trump, or a likeminded successor, win the White House in 2024, a fight with the bureaucracy will be even more urgent, open, and vicious than it was in 2016-20. Hageman’s long experience as an attorney, her connection to the legal figures most critical of “the administrative threat,” and her own view that fighting the administrative state will be her “signature issue” as a congresswoman suggest that, despite being a House newcomer, she could quickly become a leader in the legislative fight against the administrative state.
The Trump presidency revealed the extent to which the United States is governed by ungovernable elites, not only in the regulatory agencies but also in the military, national security, and federal law enforcement bureaucracies. Banner events from his presidency and post-presidency, from the stymied withdrawals from Syria and Afghanistan to the recent FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, have brought the latest manifestation of the military–industrial complex to the public’s attention. It is now obvious to some rising figures on the American right that the structures built to maintain the American Empire are rapidly eroding the remaining pillars of the American Republic.
Liz Cheney typifies that element within the Republican Party that is so enamored of the foreign-policy aspect of the empire that it can hardly distinguish the empire from the republic. Harriet Hageman has never been enamored with the grandeur of American foreign policy; she has been single-mindedly focused on the peculiar concerns of Wyoming and the relationship between Wyoming and Washington, D.C. But the time may be coming when the right recognizes that the centralized administrative state and the national security establishment are simply the inward- and outward-facing manifestations of the same imperial tendencies.