Liz Cheney Has Only Herself to Blame

The representative from Wyoming is taking a stand against an authoritarian streak in the Republican Party that she helped cultivate.

Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney
Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc /Getty

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

Liz Cheney, the representative of Wyoming, the daughter of a former vice president, and a lifelong conservative Republican, is facing a purge.

Cheney’s transgression? She has continued to insist, truthfully, that former President Donald Trump’s claims about the 2020 election are false, after having voted to impeach him in March for inciting a mob that stormed the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the result.

Yesterday, Steve Scalise, the No. 2 Republican in the House, publicly advocated for removing Cheney from her leadership post as the third-ranking House Republican, and replacing her with Elise Stefanik, who has obsequiously amplified Trump’s lies about voter fraud. “This is about whether the Republican Party is going to perpetuate lies about the 2020 election and attempt to whitewash what happened on January 6,” Cheney’s spokesperson, Jeremy Adler, told The New York Times. “Liz will not do that. That is the issue.”

The Times reported that Republican leadership, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, hoped that “after surviving [a] February vote of no confidence, Ms. Cheney, as an elected leader, would make like the rest of the party and simply move on.” This is a ridiculous claim; the Republican Party has not moved on at all. The falsehood that the 2020 election was rigged against Trump has become the justification for voter-suppression laws in Republican-controlled states across the country. A majority of Republicans voted against certifying the election even after the Capitol riot; fully 60 percent of Republicans believe that the election was stolen.

“I am a conservative Republican, and the most conservative of conservative values is reverence for the rule of law,” Cheney wrote in a Washington Post op-ed yesterday. “The Republican Party is at a turning point, and Republicans must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”

The conflict here does not stem from Cheney’s refusal to move on from the lies that sparked the Capitol riot, but from the fact that the Republican Party has embraced those lies as foundational to Republican identity in 2021. Trump has not moved on, and therefore the GOP base has not moved on, and therefore the legislators beholden to that base must repeat the lie as a condition of good standing in the party. Cheney’s fall will ensure that ambitious Republicans eschew the folly of respecting the outcome of elections that the GOP loses. They will all understand that the only acceptable outcome of political contests is Republican victory, and that any system that allows for the possibility of defeat is illegitimate.

As I have written in the past, the belief that the 2020 election was stolen, like the claim that former President Barack Obama was not born in America, is not amenable to fact-checking. The assertion of fraud is an ideological statement that political opposition to the Republican Party in general, and to Donald Trump in particular, is illegitimate. Even if Joe Biden got more votes, this logic holds, those votes should not count, because the people who cast them are not Real Americans the way Trump supporters are. To oppose Trump is to be The Enemy, and to be The Enemy is to surrender any claim to fundamental political rights.

Even a lifelong conservative Republican like Cheney becomes The Enemy if she is willing to uphold essential democratic rights—such as the opposition’s right to govern if it wins the most electoral votes—above the whims of King Trump. Cheney’s brave stand looks likely to cost her the leadership position she holds, and has left her isolated within the caucus, one of the few Republicans who have chosen their vow to the Constitution over their loyalty to the party. Yet the party’s rejection of the rule of law is also an extension of a political logic that Cheney herself has cultivated for years.

During the Obama administration, Cheney was a Fox News regular who, as was the fashion at the time, insisted that the president was secretly sympathetic to jihadists. She enthusiastically defended the use of torture, dismissed the constitutional right to due process as an inconvenience, and amplified the Obama-era campaign to portray American Muslims as a national-security threat.

Until the insurrection, she was a loyal Trumpist who frequently denounced the Democratic Party. “They’ve become the party of anti-Semitism; they’ve become the party of infanticide; they’ve become the party of socialism,” she said in 2019. Her critics now, such as Scalise and the buffoonish Representative Matt Gaetz, formerly gushed over her ability to bring, as the Times put it in 2019, “an edge to Republican messaging that was lacking.”

That “edge” was Cheney’s specialty from the moment she emerged as a rising star in the GOP. In 2010, Cheney launched a McCarthyite crusade against seven unnamed attorneys in the Obama-era Justice Department who had previously represented terrorism suspects held in the detention camp at Guantánamo Bay. The Bush administration’s assertions of imperial power in the War on Terror violated the Constitution many times over—the conservative majority on the Supreme Court agreed—and the lawyers who represented detainees were defending the fundamental constitutional right to counsel. They were affirming the integrity of the American legal system; Cheney smeared them as terrorist sympathizers, as The Enemy.

“While embracing or ignoring Trump’s statements might seem attractive to some for fundraising and political purposes, that approach will do profound long-term damage to our party and our country,” Cheney lamented in her Washington Post op-ed. But her colleagues are merely following her example.

“Americans have a right to know the identity of the Al-Qaeda Seven,” a 2010 ad from Cheney’s group, Keep America Safe, intoned ominously, as if it were referring to the actual 9/11 hijackers and not the attorneys who had represented Gitmo detainees in court.* “Whose values do they share?" The Enemy has no rights, and anyone who imagines otherwise, let alone seeks to uphold them, is also The Enemy.

This is the logic of the War on Terror, and also the logic of the party of Trump. As George W. Bush famously put it, “You are either with us or with the terrorists.” You are Real Americans or The Enemy. And if you are The Enemy, you have no rights. As Spencer Ackerman writes in his forthcoming book, Reign of Terror, the politics of endless war inevitably gives way to this authoritarian logic. Cheney now finds herself on the wrong side of a line she spent much of her political career enforcing. Her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney, infamously announced that America might have to employ “the dark side” in its fight against al-Qaeda, forgetting the entire point of Star Wars, which is that the dark side ultimately consumes its adherents. Not until the mob ransacked the Capitol in January, it seems, did she begin to understand that millions of Americans believe the things their leaders tell them.

Cheney’s McCarthyite campaign against the Justice Department lawyers was blunted when a group of former Republican officials, including Ken Starr and Theodore Olson, released a letter chastising Cheney. Starr described the attorneys’ work as being “in the finest tradition of the profession.” John Adams, the second president of the United States, the letter pointed out, had famously represented the British soldiers in the Boston Massacre. In effect, those Justice Department officials did what Cheney is attempting to do now—defend fundamental democratic rights from the cynical authoritarianism of shortsighted political partisans.

Unfortunately, Cheney and her allies won their earlier fight for the soul of the party. During the Obama era, the Republican Party became ever more hostile to the fundamental rights of religious and ethnic minorities, and ultimately chose Donald Trump, a man who attacked those rights as an existential threat to the nation, as its leader. Cheney’s courageous stand against the party of Trump is a stand against a party she helped build, a monster she helped create. The tragedy is not that she might suffer for her folly, but that American democracy will. Her latter-day epiphany is welcome, but it also comes far too late.


* This article has been updated to clarify the identity of the detainees represented by the lawyers.