Rep. Liz Cheney, who was fired this week as chair of the House Republican Conference, is leading a fight in the GOP against former President Donald Trump. Many people on the left are cheering her on, while many on the right think she’s a sellout. But Cheney hasn’t changed a bit. Her case against Trump—articulated in a Washington Post op-ed last week, a House floor speech on Tuesday, and TV interviews on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday—is resolutely conservative.
Cheney sees Trump through the lens of foreign policy. He’s a character familiar in other countries: the ruthless demagogue and aspiring tyrant. In her op-ed and her speech, Cheney recalled her experiences with attacks on democracy in Kenya, Poland, and Russia. “I’ve worked in countries around the world that don’t have peaceful transitions of power, countries that have autocracies,” she told NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. “It can happen very, very quickly.”
There’s no magic force field around America that protects us from falling into anarchy or tyranny. What protects us—what makes us “exceptional,” in Cheney’s words—is a system of elections, laws, and courts, which in turn relies on enduring popular support for these institutions. Cheney understands how easily this consensus can be shaken. In the NBC interview, she recalled her awe in 2000 when Al Gore, who had won the popular vote but lost a razor-thin recount in Florida, conceded the presidential election. In that moment, the stability of the system rested on the honor of one man. This year, on Jan. 6, Cheney saw what a presidential loser with no honor could do. She told Guthrie that after the attack on the Capitol, she wondered whether her sons, like people in other countries, could no longer count on the peaceful transfer of power.
Cheney is a hawk. She believes in standing up to tyrants, and that includes the tyrant in our own country. On Tuesday, she addressed the Trump menace in the language of deterrence and appeasement, just as she has addressed foreign aggressors. “Ignoring the lie emboldens the liar,” she warned her colleagues. In the NBC interview, she spoke of threats from China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. But it was even more vital, she argued, to protect the country from a man who had perpetrated what none of these enemies had achieved: “an attack on the Capitol of the United States.”
That’s why Cheney rebuffs pleas from fellow Republicans to leave Jan. 6 in the past. She would never forget an attempted coup in another country. To forget one in her own country would be insane. Since Trump left office, she has closely followed his statements. She describes them with the precision of an intelligence analyst monitoring a foreign thug. He has become “more aggressive, more vocal,” she told Guthrie. “It’s a continuing threat.” Cheney noted that Trump, having witnessed the violence that followed his attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, continues to use the same incendiary language. His intent to incite can no longer be doubted.
But the threat goes deeper. Trump isn’t just courting violence. He’s trying, in Cheney’s words, to “delegitimize” the American system. “Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work—confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law,” she wrote in her op-ed. Like other Republicans, Cheney often accuses “unelected judges” of overstepping their authority. But if candidates and their supporters won’t accept judicial resolutions of election disputes, the country will collapse into anarchy. On Tuesday, she reminded her colleagues that more than 60 courts had rejected Trump’s arguments for overturning the election. “That is the rule of law,” she said. “Those who refuse to accept the rulings of our courts are at war with the Constitution.”
In this war, Cheney sees the GOP, under its present leadership, as the party of appeasement. In her op-ed and in the NBC interview, she recalled how Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, abandoned his initial criticism of Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 attack. Three weeks after the attack, McCarthy flew to Trump’s country club to beg for reconciliation. “Leader McCarthy’s visit to the former president at Mar-a-Lago was really stunning,” Cheney told Guthrie. “Leaders in my party have decided to embrace the former president who launched that attack.”
To turn Republicans against Trump, Cheney makes several points. One is political: Unlike President Ronald Reagan, who won reelection with 49 states, Trump “lost the House, the Senate, and the White House.” She also talks about Trump-appointed judges and Trump Justice Department officials who found no evidence of widespread fraud in the election. But her main pitch is philosophical. “The most conservative of conservative values is reverence for the rule of law,” she argues. What’s not conservative is a “cult of personality.” If Trump anoints a challenger to her in Wyoming, she told Guthrie, it’ll be a fight between a candidate who’s “loyal to Donald Trump” and a candidate who’s “loyal to the Constitution.”
Cheney doesn’t mince words about Trump’s treachery. She rebukes him, correctly, as a tool of foreign autocrats. His anti-American propaganda—that “our elections, and our legal and constitutional system, cannot be trusted to do the will of the people”—is a gift to “Communist China,” she wrote in her op-ed. In her speech, she pointed out that his lies “feed Communist propaganda that American democracy is a failure.” In the NBC interview, she again targeted his rhetorical alliance with “the Chinese Communist Party.”
These arguments aren’t aimed at Democrats, and Cheney isn’t counting on their support. But there is one thing Democrats can do to help her: Maintain a distinction between policy debates, on which we can disagree, and basic rules of democracy, on which we can’t. In the NBC interview, Guthrie connected Trump’s lies about massive voter fraud to Georgia’s new election law. Cheney acknowledged that the lies precipitated the law, but she distinguished the lies from the law’s provisions, which are complex and have been widely misrepresented. When Democrats insist that all Republicans are the same and that anyone who supports voter ID is buying into Trump’s conspiracy theories, they help Trump unite the GOP behind him.
Cheney is no progressive. She advocates military interventions, she voted with Trump 93 percent of the time—in fact, she voted to reelect him, though she says she regrets it—and she routinely caricatures the Democratic agenda as “socialism.” But she’s clear-eyed about the biggest threat we face. The foundation of our political system is under attack, and the leadership of her party has joined the enemy. In this fight, every liberal democrat—everyone, that is, who believes in democracy, liberty, and the rule of law—must stand together.
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