Rep. Liz Cheney speaks to supporters

U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) speaks to supporters at an election night event in Jackson, Wyoming on August 16, 2022. (Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

Liz Cheney and Donald Trump--The Two Faces of American Totalitarianism

Cheney represents another branch of American totalitarianism, one built on institutions, elites, and stability. Hers is the slow totalitarianism of internal spying, voter suppression, dark money elections, and dynastic politics.

Liz Cheney's electoral defeat is not the fall of an American hero. She's not going anywhere, and she's no hero. The good she is doing on the January 6 Committee is almost certainly being done for less than admirable purposes. To ignore that fact is to overlook another front in the war on democracy.

"It wasn't that long ago that Cheney was one of Trump's fiercest defenders."

Cheney is one face of the creeping totalitarianism that has been eroding American democracy for decades (and it wasn't in great shape to start). Her bitter feud with Donald Trump is best understood as part of an internal battle currently raging within this country's anti-democratic forces.

Any doubt on that score should be alleviated by the television commercial her father made on her behalf, where the draft-dodging elder Cheney called Trump a "coward" and said his daughter was "standing up for the truth." Being lectured on bravery and truth by Dick Cheney is like getting sailing lessons from the captain of the Exxon Valdez.

Besides, what exactly did Liz Cheney sacrifice with this latest turn? Her congressional career was over the moment Trump turned against her--which was well before the January 6 Committee began.

The Authoritarian

As a senior staffer in the Bush/Cheney Administration, Liz Cheney served a president who succeeded in doing what Donald Trump failed to do: steal an election, albeit using the more genteel technique of judicial corruption. The Bush/Cheney body count and list of war crimes far exceeds Trump's (although that could certainly change should Trump return to power.)

The sins of the father should not be visited upon the daughter. But Liz actively helped that administration lie its way into war, an act of deception that undermine democracy's most essential building block: truth. (She was still pushing lies nine years later.) Cheney actively was part of a national security team that secretly and illegally spied on millions of American citizens and others around the world. Throughout her career, Liz Cheney has been a tireless advocate for war and a staunch opponent of any reduction in war activities (often at the expense of the truth).

As an added affront to the MSNBC crowd, which seems newly infatuated with the intelligence services, Cheney worked closely with her father as he overruled and at times intimidated career intelligence analysts. She attacked the FBI's agents at a time when entrepreneurs were selling votive candles featuring its former director, Robert Mueller.

Democracy? Until recently, Cheney helped lead a political party that has systematically undermined American democracy through voter suppression, gerrymandering, caging, and other illegal schemes. She actively participated in this Republican war on democracy by, for example, defending GOP laws aimed at voter suppression and voting against the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

Cheney also called upon Trump's Attorney General, William Barr, to have the Justice Department investigate environmental groups like the NRDC, Sea Change, and the Sierra Club, claiming that "their interests align with those of our adversaries" like Russia and China. And Cheney tried to deny due process to terrorism defendants by attacking their defense attorneys, potentially risking their lives with a campaign that called them "the Al Qaeda 7." (That earned her a scolding from Sen. Lindsey Graham and Clinton prosecutor Kenneth Starr, among other Republicans.)

The Liz Nobody Knows

The media's memory-holing of the anti-democracy, pro-Trump Liz Cheney is an erasure of Stalin-era efficiency. It wasn't that long ago that Cheney was one of Trump's fiercest defenders. She didn't hesitate to attack one of democracy's basic principles, equality before the law, on Trump's behalf, telling ABC News: "We had people that are at the highest levels of our law enforcement ... saying that they were going to stop a duly elected president of the United States. That sounds an awful lot like a coup and it could well be treason."

Coup? Treason? Sounds familiar. When she was on the other side during Trump's first impeachment, Cheney lashed out at the Democrats in rhetoric that has now become familiar:

"I think the Democrats have got to understand the danger that they're creating here and the damage they're doing to the Constitution and to the republic."
-- Rep. Liz Cheney, Fox News, December 2019

"... in the case of both the impeachment and their embrace of socialism, it's just a complete fraud ... they ignore their constitutional duty ..."

"I think the American people are going to hold the Democrats accountable for what they've done over the course of the last several months in terms of the real circus and their failure to uphold their oath to the Constitution."
-- Rep. Liz Cheney, Fox News Radio, February 2020

Once she turned on Trump, Cheney wrote that Republicans "must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution." (Emphasis mine.)

Liz Cheney's go-to move has always been to accuse her opponents of undermining the Constitution. The fact that it happens to be true in Trump's case is probably immaterial to Cheney. Then, as now, it's a means to an end.

The Canonization

"My dear," Maya Angelou reportedly said, "when people show you who they are, why don't you believe them?" That question could be posed to the liberal commentators who whitewash Cheney's record. Most of this commentary is witless hagiography. But the more self-aware liberal praise singers, like writer Rebecca Solnit, try to wrestle with the paradoxical nature of their enthusiasm.

Solnit wrote a Facebook post which begins,

"Apparently a lot of adults have trouble with the concept--and reality--that just as good people can do bad things, so bad people can do good things, and I give you Liz Cheney, who after what appears to be a lifetime of doing or at least supporting very bad things, including her war-crimes-profiteer father, is doing a good thing and paying for it."

Solnit, often a fine writer, chooses to adopt the all-too-common Democratic posture of lofty condescension toward those who disagree. Failure to share her opinion is presented as a kind of learning disability (without the sympathy and solidarity such a condition should inspire). After offering a list of historical bad people who did good things--I assume her opponents know such people exist--Solnit concludes that Cheney critics lack "the ability to cope with complexity."

That lack, she writes,

"helps people become manipulable, become cult followers who having once made the decision that the leader is right keep following into all sorts of dank places, become unable to perceive what's going on around them ...."

Solnit's mind, and presumably those of like-minded Democratic liberals, people who critically analyze Cheney's behavior are "cult followers," while those who praise her unquestioningly are able to "cope with complexity." Such is the intellectual rabbit hole that is modern center-left liberalism.

The Question

Instead of condescension, here's a question: What is the likeliest explanation for this sudden shift in behavior from a politician who has shown a lifelong antipathy, not only to the public interest, but specifically to democracy and civil liberties? Here are five possibilities:

  1. She suddenly realized the war on democracy that she, her party, and her family had waged for decades was morally wrong and decided to do the right thing, if only this one time.
  2. After voting with Trump 93 percent of the time in Congress, something she used to brag about, she and/or her family had a falling out with Trump. That process started her career on a new trajectory, one that meant the end of her House seat but brought new opportunities for fame and influence.
  3. Cheney is, understandably, very pissed that Trump told the January 6 rioters to 'get Liz Cheney' and wants to get even. (Trump's exact words as he urged the crowd on were, "We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren't any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world." Hey, I'd be pissed too, but it's not exactly a high-minded motive.)
  4. Once Trump turned on her, she realized she would never win another primary and decided to go out in a blaze of self-serving and vindictive glory.
  5. She, her father, and the many others who have labored behind the scenes to undermine democracy and civil liberties see Trump--both the man, and the cult of personality--as a threat to their long-term plans.

My best guess, for reasons I'm about to lay out, is some combination of numbers 3 and 4, with a little of the second option thrown in for good measure. But number 5? That's the big one.

Option number 1, which Cheney's liberal admirers have embraced, seems to be the least plausible of the five--by far. Maybe that's the product of a cognitive defect or an inclination to cultism, but to me it seems more like a good application of Occam's Razor.

The Endgame

The January 6th Committee is doing important work. It has made some critical discoveries, ones that should harden anyone's conviction that Trump--and an alarmingly large number of other people--are determined to overthrow democracy and replace it with a form of fascism. (It has failed to communicate many of those discoveries as well as it should have, but that's a discussion for another day.)

Cheney has proven extremely effective in the prosecutorial role. It takes nothing away from her skill, however, to acknowledge that she may have long-range goals that stand against everything her new fan base says it believes in.

"As is so often the case in history, there are no heroes in the Cheney/Trump conflict."

The problem, from the point of view of Cheney et al., isn't that the actions of Trump and his followers are unconstitutional. The problem is that they're conspicuous. They're obvious. And they're moving too fast. A midnight lock picker doesn't want another thief to show up with a blowtorch.

Trump's brand of fascism is hasty, unruly, and impulsive, a cult of personality that is built around an unstable and vain figure. Cheney represents another branch of American totalitarianism, one built on institutions, elites, and stability. Hers is the slow totalitarianism of internal spying, voter suppression, dark money elections, and dynastic politics.

Cheney's branch of American totalitarianism helped the military-national security establishment grow in power, forging ever-deepening ties with corporations, educational institutions, religious establishments, and political institutions at all levels--a hybrid form of government, lest we forget, that political scientists call 'fascism.'

She and her peers kept this complex humming for many years. Then, Trump and his minions triggered the hasty and unruly violence of 'the wrong people,' who came breaking glass and shouting ugly names. This intrusion of the hoi polloi is led by people who don't care about establishment figures like the Cheneys. They humiliate generals and intelligence officers, while acting outside the predictable range of bipartisan behaviors in Washington.

But with the threat has come an opportunity. As Republicans move ever closer to Trump's lowbrow totalitarianism, Democrats and liberal voters are increasingly embracing the intelligence and military establishment. They idealize the FBI and CIA, hang onto the televised words of generals, and elevate war criminals like George W. Bush and the Cheneys at the slightest prompting. (In Bush's case, apparently all it took was a piece of candy.)

Cheney and her colleagues are smart. If they have an endgame, and they almost certainly do, it is to build on this growing liberal support for elites--the same elites that have been eroding American democracy for decades. My suspicion is that Cheney's new organization, "the Great Task," will raise a great deal of money from Democrats in the name of opposing Trump and will use it to reinforce elite perceptions and institutions.

As is so often the case in history, there are no heroes in the Cheney/Trump conflict. One side is steadily eroding freedom at home while promoting wars abroad. The other side offers rage and chaos. That's not to say there isn't a fight underway to build genuine democracy in the United States. There is, and its outcome will shape the future. But if that's your fight, Liz Cheney is not your ally.

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