Shed No Tears for Liz Cheney
The mainstream press has a perpetual revision process in place for Republicans. It works like this: GOP presidents are inevitably denounced in their time as bloodthirsty extremists, simultaneously lacking in IQ and in possession of off-the-charts authoritarian cunning. Then, 10 to 15 years after they leave office, they suddenly undergo a transformation. As soon as there’s a new Republican in the White House, they’re recast as sober-minded statesmen who would never dream of going so far as the current guy does.
So it was that Ronald Reagan was compared unfavorably to the more genteel Gerald Ford, only to morph into a compromising tax hiker in the face of mad George W. Bush, who himself was reimagined as a paintbrush-wielding model of civility next to that boor Donald Trump. And so it will continue to go. No doubt a decade from now CNN will be observing that, though Trump admittedly sent some harsh tweets, he at least didn’t try to ban puberty blockers in vending machines like this President DeSantis character.
It’s a stupid game to play. Yet even by its cheap and hypocritical rules, the attempt to rehabilitate Liz Cheney has got to be some kind of thudding rock bottom. Cheney, as of press time, is about to be ejected from House Republican leadership because she denounced Donald Trump after the Capitol riot. From there, she’ll face a 2022 primary in Wyoming full of fang-baring Trumpists, which she’s likely to lose. Her political career is almost certainly over.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—i.e. 12 years ago—Cheney would have been portrayed in the media as a genocidal warlord. She’s an unreconstructed apologist for all the basest barbarisms of the Bush era. She’s defended waterboarding and the war on terror’s “enhanced interrogation” program. She’s opposed any serious attempt to reform FISA and rein in the government’s broad surveillance powers. Her PAC ran a comically fearmongering ad denouncing the Obama DOJ as the “Department of Jihad” because it employed lawyers who had dared to represent Guantanamo detainees. She’s railed against any attempt to withdraw American troops from anywhere, from Afghanistan to Syria to Germany. She’s continued to defend the Iraq war and even maintained that there was a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.
Yet lately she’s also expressed annoyance with Trump. And because the deafening churn of social media prevents anyone from remembering what happened more than two days ago, Cheney has been recast as a stovepipe-hatted, small-r republican moralist. Once upon a time, the mainstream press sighs, there was a more decent and virtuous conservatism that also occasionally tortured people in dungeons. This persuasion is exemplified by Cheney, yet now it’s is on its way out, overrun by the Trump cultists.
It is true that Cheney is being ousted because she criticized Trump. It’s also true that this is the wrong reason for this to happen. The problem appears to be, as Eliana Johnson has reported, less that Cheney finds Trump disagreeable—so do many other elected Republicans, however quietly—than that she insists on airing her contempt in public. January 6 is seen within the GOP caucus as an embarrassment and a liability, to be left in the rear-view in favor of attacking Joe Biden. And with some elected Republicans like Ted Cruz ditching corporate contributions in favor of smaller donations from the Trump-loving base, Cheney’s loathing threatens that which matters most in Washington: money.
That’s one view of Cheney, up on a pyre surrounded by murmuring MAGA cultists. Yet I have another narrative I’d like to propose. It goes like this: The conservative movement since the Bush administration has been in a state of upheaval. It understands instinctively that something went wrong during those years but it’s struggled to coalesce around an alternative. Hence the flirtation with Tea Party constitutionalism; hence the subsequent embrace of Trumpian populism. Yet at least on foreign policy, it’s managed largely to self-correct. The Bush Doctrine failed; Bush is no longer held in regard. Regime-change wars produced blood and misery; conservatives have since taken a more nationalist turn.
This is exactly what political movements are supposed to do: adjust to new circumstances, account for mistakes. It’s true that this reconsideration has come with an inflexible loyalty to Trump. But then what are we supposed to do? Defend Liz because, after decades of failure and destruction, she called Biden the duly elected president before most on the right? Whitewash everything else because she isn’t whitewashing January 6? Cheney’s defenders respond that the former is a mere policy disagreement while the latter is a matter of civic morality. Yet I wonder what could be more immoral than dripping water down prisoners’ noses and invading an impoverished country that posed no serious threat to us.
Doing her best Reagan imitation, Cheney recently declared in the Washington Post, “I am a conservative Republican, and the most conservative of conservative values is reverence for the rule of law.” Quite right. It’s for that reason that we ought to hold accountable those who shredded the Fourth Amendment, the Fifth Amendment, the Eighth Amendment; who mashed into pulp the 9/11 AUMF in order to prosecute pointless wars from Pakistan to Somalia; who tortured and eavesdropped and issued signing statements to ignore Congress; who distorted CIA intel and betrayed the public trust.
Cheney makes excuses for all of this. In which case, far be it from me to stand between her and the MAGA acolytes. I’m going out for a smoke.