When I began researching a biography of Dick Cheney some years ago, I became fascinated by his association as a young political climber with Richard Nixon. Cheney cut his political teeth as a staff assistant in the Nixon White House of the early 1970s, where it appears he learned all the wrong lessons and none of the right ones. Nixon, a complex—if conflicted—political figure, who thought long and hard about what government might accomplish, was dragged down by desperate paranoia and a willingness to abandon principles to maintain power. Cheney, at a very early stage in his long political career, dispensed with the complexity and simply embraced the paranoia and abandonment of principle, becoming a cruder and more casually dishonest political calculator than Nixon.
What is striking to me at this point, however, is that another Cheney, Wyoming Republican Representative Liz Cheney, appears to be determined to make Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney look like amateurs when it comes to cruel and unusual politics.
Liz Cheney, the chair of the House Republican Conference, is determined to make a fast name for herself in Congress. Though she was only elected in 2016, her tenure has been one long power grab. This week, for instance, she’s wrestling with the question of whether to keep climbing the ladder in the House—where she had been elbowing aside other Republicans in order to position herself to become the Speaker—or to make a run for the Wyoming Senate seat that she has coveted for years.
Cheney seeks to advance herself politically by remaining in constant attack mode, and her attacks of late have been aimed at Democratic Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Cheney’s not alone in going after the first two Muslim women ever elected to the House, but her targeting of Tlaib and Omar stands out: It is in the Nixonian tradition of her party, but with the distinct Cheney edge.
Tlaib and Omar are among the most notable faces of a changing Congress, where new members from diverse backgrounds are demanding deeper debates about economic, social, and racial justice, preservation of the planet, and peace. They have objected to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, bigotry, and bias at home and abroad. Their advocacy has stirred debate and controversy. In response, President Trump and his allies have aimed outrageous attacks at both Tlaib and Omar. There has been little subtlety in the targeting of these congresswomen, which has often taken on a visceral win-at-any-cost tone.
James Zogby, the founder of the Arab American Institute, suggests in a tweet to Cheney that her “obsession” with targeting Tlaib and Omar “smacks either of a deep-seated anti-Arab/Muslim bigotry or crass politics designed to prey on the bigotry of your ‘base.’ In either case it’s disgraceful. Your party’s been playing this game for a decade.”
That obsession has been on full display in recent days. Republicans have gone to extremes this week, attacking Tlaib after the Palestinian-American congresswoman spoke movingly in an interview about “the horrific persecution of Jews across the world” and said that she wants “a safe haven for Jews.” Despite her concerns about the treatment of Palestinians, Tlaib said, she was calmed by the recognition that a safe haven was created “post–the Holocaust, post–the tragedy and the horrific persecution of Jews across the world at that time.”
Republicans immediately mischaracterized Tlaib’s words, with Trump claiming that her comments demonstrated a “tremendous hatred of Israel and the Jewish people.” And as she often does, Cheney went even further, tweeting, “Surely now @SpeakerPelosi & @LeaderHoyer will finally take action against vile anti-Semitism in their ranks. This must cross the line, even for them. Rashida Tlaib says thinking of the Holocaust provides her a ‘calming feeling.’” That comment drew immediate rebukes from House Democratic leaders, including Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD), who observed, “If you read Rep. @RashidaTlaib’s comments, it is clear that President Trump and Congressional Republicans are taking them out of context. They must stop, and they owe her an apology.”
No apology was forthcoming; rather, Cheney doubled down on the dishonesty, announcing, “I am deeply sorry for our nation that the House Democratic leadership continues to enable the anti-Semitism in their ranks.”
As Cheney kept on attacking this week, Omar finally intervened with a message directed at the congresswoman from Wyoming: “Give it up, we all know you never met a Muslim you didn’t want to vilify! Your deep seeded hate and Islamophobia might be a tool to rally your base, but won’t get rid [of] your colleagues. You just have to deal.”
Omar is not alone in this view. Last month, when Cheney and her fellow Republicans were attacking the Minnesotan, the advocacy group J Street observed, “This campaign of hate against Representative Omar is just the latest escalation in the long-running right-wing effort to scapegoat and stigmatize Muslim Americans in a transparent ploy to score political points, rally xenophobic voters and distract from the real challenges and threats facing our country. It is an attack on democracy itself and on the values of freedom and equality that our nation is meant to uphold.”
Cheney has been the steadiest, and arguably the most aggressive, of the top Republicans who have gone after Omar. Cheney was not the only DC politician to criticize Omar’s observations regarding AIPAC’s influence on American politics. But Cheney has refused to let up, and she has displayed a level of vitriol that sets her apart. She dismisses Omar’s statements as “vile” and “nauseating.” She has demanded that Democrats remove the Minnesotan from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She was one of just 23 House Republicans who voted against a resolution condemning “anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, racism and other forms of bigotry” because, she complained, it might shield Omar from criticism—or, as Vox has described it, from “a push from Republican leaders to label Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib…as anti-Semitic over their views on Israel policy.”
Cheney was at it again this week when her colleague offered a plea for Middle East peace after tensions between Israel and Palestinians flared over a violent weekend that saw at least 20 Palestinians and four Israelis killed. “How many more protesters must be shot, rockets must be fired, and little kids must be killed until the endless cycle of violence ends?” asked Omar, who argued that “The status quo of occupation and humanitarian crisis in Gaza is unsustainable. Only real justice can bring about security and lasting peace.” Cheney’s response was a tweet that claimed Omar was defending the Palestinian group Hamas. She concluded: “Real question is how many times will @IlhanMN rush to the defense of terrorists?”
Omar, however, did not rush to defend Hamas or terrorism of any kind. Her tweet criticized Hamas for firing rockets. That wasn’t hard to figure out. Donald Trump’s former US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, understood. Haley disagrees with Omar on a host of issues, but her response to what the congresswoman tweeted about breaking “the endless cycle of violence” was: “Agreed @IlhanMN so what should be done about Hamas?”
Why didn’t Liz Cheney understand? The answer, by all evidence, is that she was not trying to understand. She was trying to marginalize and silence Ilhan Omar. Unlike Haley, who proposed a challenge that could be addressed in honest debate, Cheney simply accused Omar of rushing to the defense of terrorists. Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor for the Forward, observed that it was “very interesting” that “unlike most everyone else on the right,” Haley “understood that the rockets in (Omar’s) tweet are Hamas rockets, not Israeli rockets.” Ungar-Sargon suggested that Haley was “breaking through the all too human tendency to misread opponents in the most uncharitable way possible.”
My fear is that Liz Cheney’s deliberate misreading of her Muslim colleagues is both uncharitable and strategic. There is always a desire on the part of the more cynical people in politics to sideline or diminish those who hold out the prospect of a new politics that sheds the cynicism and seeks to address complex and neglected issues with fresh perspectives.
This is what Omar and Tlaib are trying to do. Their focus is far broader than most media coverage has recognized, and their approach is far more conciliatory and collaborative than critics like Cheney care to admit. Omar speaks frequently about human-rights issues in multiple countries and on multiple continents, doing so with a global perspective that is rooted in her own experience and in her district—a multiracial, multi-ethnic melting pot with a rich history of engagement with the world.
Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib are both willing to explore and engage with complex global issues, and they do so with a courage and consistency that is rare in American politics. Apparently, this unsettles Liz Cheney and other Republicans who are ill at ease with a global view that starts from the premise that another world is possible.