If Liz Cheney proves the canary in the coal mine, then our nation is truly in trouble.
The morning after her landslide loss of Wyoming’s sole US House seat to a Donald Trump-backed challenger, it’s hard to view the matter differently.
On paper, Cheney should have been the ideal conservative messenger in the battle against Trump’s democracy-eroding lies. As a credentialed conservative from a stalwart Republican family, she couldn’t be credibly dismissed as a Republican In Name Only. Well-known and well-funded and with a matter-of-fact manner, she is a clear and effective communicator who conveys a deep seriousness of purpose.
And she got crushed in Tuesday’s Republican primary, rendering her the fourth of the 10 House members who voted for Trump’s impeachment to be ousted by GOP primary voters. Only two have prevailed; the others opted not to seek reelection.
Cheney’s loss should shame conservatism. It won’t. But amid a movement awash in false appropriations of patriotism, she demonstrated the real thing: She put country and Constitution not just over her party, but above her political future.
Conceding defeat on Tuesday night, Cheney spoke powerfully on those points.
She could have won renomination by embracing Trump’s big lie about a stolen election but that she refused to do.
“I am a conservative Republican,” Cheney said. “I believe deeply in the principles and the ideals on which my party was founded. I love its history and I love what our party has stood for. But I love my country more.”
Her loss shows just how far the Republican base has gone in the opposite direction, rallying around a man who tried to subvert our democratic norms to remain in power after losing the 2020 election.
In her cogent speech, Cheney tried again to call America back to its senses.
She used the tropes of American exceptionalism — a favorite theme of conservatives — to remind listeners of what is really on the line in the battle between truth and Trumpism.
She outlined some of the extraordinary things one must believe to credit Trump’s ridiculous claim of a stolen election, including that “dozens of federal and state courts who ruled against him, including many judges he appointed, were all corrupted and biased.”
She made clear that fighting for our democracy is a struggle that should engage the energies of all Americans. “Every one of us must be committed to the eternal defense of this miraculous experiment called America and at the heart of our democratic process — our elections,” she declared. “They are the foundational principle of our Constitution.”
And she offered a simple rule of action: “No American should support election deniers for any position of genuine responsibility, where their refusal to follow the rule of law will corrupt our future.”
Here, however, is the conundrum: If those arguments mattered to today’s conservatives, Cheney would have won. In a passage I found particularly resonant, she spoke to her surprise at the way her party had reacted to the Jan. 6 attack on the US Capitol.
“Like so many Americans, I assumed that the violence and the chaos of that day would have prompted a united response, a recognition that this was a line that must never be crossed, a tragic chapter in our nation’s history to be studied by historians to ensure that it can never happen again,” she recounted. “But instead, major elements of my party still vehemently defend those who caused it.”
She refused to moderate her rhetoric or lower her voice in the face of that. There too her example should, but won’t, shame those politicians who started in the same place, rightly blaming Trump for the storming of the Capitol, only to change their tune in the face of a backlash from his MAGA base.
If her clarion courage presents a striking contrast with the expediency of so many of her congressional colleagues, Cheney’s loss also casts into high relief the lamentable response of so many everyday Republicans to Trump’s assault on our democracy.
The sad reality here is that too many Americans lack either the inclination or the critical thinking capacities to reject obvious, evidence-free absurdities.
Some of that is attributable to the appeal a populist and nativist strongman has to a substantial part of America. Some of it traces to the pronounced American susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Some, though it’s impolitic to say, seems rooted in a certain deliberate and belligerent obtuseness.
Cheney’s story is not fully written. As she made clear on Tuesday, she will continue her mission to reveal Trump as the threat to American democracy he is. But history will treat her well, as a woman with the courage to speak her convictions, consequences be damned.
Yet her primary loss can’t help but underscore that for a significant subset of America, demagoguery trumps truth.