“Donald Trump is a 76-year-old man. He is not an impressionable child.” As soon as Liz Cheney uttered those lines during her opening remarks for the Jan. 6 committee’s seventh hearing on July 12, her words began bubbling up in my Twitter feed. She was being quoted by a host of unlikely fans—people who have until recently probably quite disliked Liz Cheney, but now find themselves tuning in partly to see what she’ll do next. And this? It was the quintessential Liz Cheney moment—the time when she sounded the most like Mom.
Sounding like Mom has usually been a problem for female politicians in America. Even voters who pride themselves on their rational grasp of the issues have been known to rely on their gut once they get to the booth—and their guts tell a lot of them that they don’t want to go back to being bossed around by a woman after all. Hence the well-known “just not that woman” phenomenon of people who insist that they’d have no problem voting for a female candidate in a presidential election, and yet find a deal-breaking flaw in every single woman who runs.
Somehow Cheney has managed to avoid tripping this wire, so much so that even some Democrats have said they’d like to see her run for national office, despite the fact that they disagree with her on every point of policy. Voters find her courageous, in part because she’s offered the spectacle of a politician jeopardizing her career—Cheney’s chances for reelection in Wyoming don’t look good—for the sake of principle, a rare thing in either party. But it’s not just what Cheney’s doing that’s earning her accolades, it’s the way she’s doing it, particularly her artful skirting of the booby traps that await women who publicly challenge powerful and popular men like Donald Trump.
The secret to Cheney’s impact in the hearings is that she never sounds angry or anxious. She doesn’t scold, let alone nag—a highly gendered behavior in which powerlessness is embedded. People (that is, women, many of them moms) nag when they don’t expect to get what they want and have no leverage to enforce their demands. They’re mad because they can’t get others to sincerely agree with them about what’s important and what ought to be done about it.
Cheney isn’t mad. She’s disappointed. Her demeanor is exactly that of a mom who has been called out of her office in the middle of a work day because her teenage kid is in the principal’s office for pulling some idiotic, illegal, and dangerous prank. She knows that he knows exactly how badly he’s fucked up, that the consequences will be serious and they are inevitable. She will entertain no excuses or evasions or any other form of trifling objection. She mostly wants him to acknowledge what he’s done, and promise not to do it again.
But you can only be disappointed in someone who’s capable of better behavior, and that gives Cheney’s reproaches a sting that’s been missing in the often much louder denunciations from Democrats who routinely dismiss Republicans as hopeless deplorables. For non-Republicans, it’s deeply comforting to see a GOP politician who wants to hold her party to a higher standard. (Plus, it’s a lot easier to witness Mom’s disappointment when she’s not disappointed in you.)
So it’s no wonder that some Jan. 6 hearing viewers who dislike Cheney’s politics have nevertheless found her conduct on the committee compelling. At a time when outrage and passion are cheap and abundant, she has something more powerful: authority. Whether that can be parlayed into a reinvigorated political career is another matter. A tough prosecutorial presence in congressional hearings doesn’t segue easily into the inspirational symbolism of the presidency: just ask Kamala Harris about that. But Cheney seems to be playing the long game, or maybe even no game at all. It’s this last bit that could be the most impressive.
With one more hearing to go—and this one again in prime-time—it will be interesting to see if Cheney can continue to pull this off without the counterweight of the committee’s chairman, Bennie Thompson, who recently tested positive for COVID and won’t appear Thursday night. Thompson and Cheney have a sedate chemistry that appeals to moderate voters’ stubborn, quaint belief that the two parties should find a way to work together in the nation’s best interests. He’s warm and grandfatherly to Cheney’s cool implacability. He’ll smile on occasion. She won’t.
The rub is that Cheney’s authority is strictly of the moral variety. The committee has to persuade the Department of Justice and ultimately the GOP itself to kick its Trump habit and make healthier choices. It’s pretty clear that even though Cheney also said last week that Trump “is responsible for his own actions and his own choices” just like “anyone else in this country,” she knows he’s never going to own up to them. He really is an overgrown child even if he shouldn’t be allowed to carry on like one. This conundrum has Cheney walking a fine line, portraying Trump’s supporters as deceived by the former president’s “scheme” to overturn the election and gullibly swallowing his fairy tale about his stolen victory, almost as if they were kids themselves—kids who have finally, unmistakably, landed in the principal’s office, waiting for Mom to show up.
At the very first Jan. 6 hearing, Cheney addressed her fellow Republican officials who remain in thrall to a cult of personality: “There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.” That term, “dishonor,” is positively antique, but damned if it didn’t have a ring to it. Whether Cheney believes her party can shake off Trumpism, or she’s content with the place she’s already secured in the history books, she’s achieved something remarkable. She’s found a way to tell Americans to grow up that hasn’t just made the tantruming worse.