Representative Liz Cheney’s defeat on Tuesday in her primary battle against Donald Trump–backed candidate Harriet Hageman proves again that the biggest problem facing this country is white conservative voters. It’s not Trump or Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his quest to be Trump-with-reasoning-skills. It’s not Fox News or Alex Jones or the other purveyors of white-wing media. These characters and organizations are merely opportunists: flies that fatten themselves on a deeper rot. Nobody from Trump to Tucker would be able to threaten American democracy without the willingness of white conservative voters to trash everything to keep themselves in power.
Cheney herself was a beneficiary of the white conservative lust for power before she was a victim of it. The congresswoman, who is functionally a Virginian, is the representative from Wyoming because of her family name. Her father, Dick Cheney, was the state’s lone representative in the House for 10 years, but he is better known as George H.W. Bush’s secretary of defense and George W. Bush’s vice president.
Much has been written about the evil career of Dick Cheney, but he is popular with a certain kind of white person for his brutal projection of white American hegemony across the globe. Cheney père is the former CEO of defense contractor Halliburton, was one of the main drivers of the Iraq War, and supports torture. In a decent country, men like this must use their power from the shadows for fear of being rejected by popular majorities. In our country, Cheney won multiple elections to various public offices. He’s not telegenic or charismatic: He’s just cruel, and that cruelty was enough for his people.
Liz Cheney rode the wave of that legacy of cruelty to public office. She went to law school and worked at the State Department. She has focused most of her career on foreign policy, parroting the same Cheney-family tripe about how liberals are “weak” and America needs to be “strong” and somehow that means starting wars and violating international human rights. After some time in the Fox News echo-sphere and a failed run for Senate in 2014, Cheney was elected as Wyoming’s sole representative in 2016, at the same time as Trump won the presidency election. In Congress, she voted with the Trump administration 93 percent of the time, including during his first impeachment, which is odd because, with her foreign policy bona fides, one might have expected Cheney to do precisely the opposite. (Trump, after all, was accused of trying to bribe a foreign government to start an investigation into a political rival.) But no matter. She broke with her party for the second Trump impeachment, when she decided that attacking the Capitol was wrong, and despite her years of loyal service to the Trump machine, she was drummed out of her party.
Cheney’s political problem is that her white conservative base doesn’t think attacking the Capitol is wrong, so long as it is in service of continued white supremacy and dominance over the rest of the country. The same forces that propelled her into office based on her family’s willingness to hurt the “right” people are now aligned against her because she’s no longer willing to hurt the people her voters think should be hung from a gibbet outside of Congress. Her voters haven’t changed from the grievance-fueled cabal of white insurrectionist sympathizers that first put her into office six years ago. Trump didn’t make these people this way; he simply gave them what they wanted. Cheney did too. She just balked when what they wanted was the blood of white vice presidents instead of brown foreign children.
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Which does make Liz Cheney courageous, after a fashion. It does take courage to stand up to a monster, even if you helped make the monster. It does take courage to anger the very people who voted for you, even if you’ve spent a lot of time feeding into their anger.
But if Cheney wants to run for public office again, perhaps even the highest public office, as she’s hinted she’s hoping to do, she’s going to have to show the Democratic and independent voters of this country something more than the courage to stand up to the white conservative voters she used to coddle. She’s going to have to show that she’s learned something about the dangers of playing the ethno-nationalist game that Republicans use to get to these voters. She’s going to have to offer something more than cruelty and smash-and-grab capitalism. If Cheney wants moderates or independents to vote for her, she’s going to have to give them something white conservatives don’t value: a positive policy agenda.
Nobody expects Cheney to turn into Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and nobody is even asking Cheney to turn into a conservative Democrat or whatever Joe Manchin is calling himself these days. But if she wants to win public office again, anywhere, she’s going to have to appeal to more than the Republican base. She’s going to have to offer moderate and independent voters something more than standing up to Trump, because, newsflash, standing up to Trump is not all that special to people outside the confines of Beltway media. Indeed, the majority of Americans stand up to Trump and his wrong and dishonest MAGA hordes all of the time.
Liz Cheney’s public excommunication from the Republican Party is but a pale mirror of what moderate voters in redder parts of the country risk every day when they go about their private lives refusing to bash immigrants or gay people or whomever their neighbors feel like threatening at halftime. She’s only special when graded on the remedial curve set by other Republican politicians. When compared to average people, Cheney’s stance against Trump is barely noteworthy. Saying “no” to whatever bit of violent insanity is spewing forth from white conservatives is just something the rest of us do as a matter of course, without recognition or plaudits. If Cheney wants to win over the silent majority of people of all races who have rejected structural white supremacy, she’s going to have to give them something. Simply disagreeing with Republicans who are solely motivated by cultural grievance is not all that special among the larger electorate.
So far, when it comes to policies, Cheney’s rejection of Trumpism runs only skin-deep. She voted against the Protecting Our Kids Act, the bill that would ban “ghost” guns and raise the legal purchase age of certain firearms to 21. She voted against the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act, which mandated better reporting and information-sharing about white domestic terrorist threats. She voted against the Freedom to Vote Act, which would have restored portions of the Voting Rights Act struck down by the Supreme Court. None of these bills needed to be partisan fights. None of them would have involved Cheney raising taxes or being nice to homeless people. Cheney wants to get the support of people who put country over party, but she won’t put her country first when it comes to white domestic violence or even the very right to vote.
That’s not the voting profile of a person who has learned and internalized difficult lessons about the state of the modern Republican Party—that’s the profile of a person who hopes to go back to feeding into the worst instincts of the Republican voter, just as soon as this Donald Trump mess is handled.
The electoral problem for Liz Cheney is not that she is a moderate Republican whose party left her. She’s not a moderate; she’s a hardcore conservative who consistently votes with the Republican establishment. Her electoral problem is that conservative voters only value power and are willing to support violence to keep it that way. Moderates will support a conservative candidate (if that is the lesser of all available evils), but they will not, and should not, support one who merely wants to go back to quietly suborning the white ethno-state Trump loudly embodies.
In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, tinkering scientist Victor Frankenstein did not simply try to kill the monster he made; he renounced monster-making. Cheney is trying to put an end to Trump’s political career, but she still embraces the antidemocratic and violent policies that made that career possible. Cheney didn’t lose because Republican voters have changed since her father’s days; she lost because those people have remained exactly the same.