The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Liz Cheney and the sad face of the Republican Party

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) said during a speech on the House floor on May 11 that "remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar." (Video: The Washington Post)

The state of the Republican Party is written in the resting expression of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). In recent weeks, her gently furrowed brow, the flat line of her mouth, her distracted glances and her intense stares have been like an emotional Rorschach test reflecting a party in dire upheaval.

Cheney is a conservative congresswoman who mostly supported former president Donald Trump’s agenda on matters such as trade, immigration and the environment, and who voted against his impeachment in 2019. She empathized with the concerns of the “birthers.” But she has been at odds with her party, which is to say Trump himself, ever since Republican members and leadership started to deny the truth about the 2020 presidential election, the truth about the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the truth about the former president’s culpability in the ongoing attempt by his supporters to undermine our democracy.

Cheney isn’t at odds with her Republican colleagues over policy positions, but over her refusal to parrot falsehoods — or at least speak around them like an obfuscating child. For this, they feel compelled to take her down a peg and remove her from her perch as a leader in a party that cannot seem to clear the low bar of acknowledging the reality of a fair election, and doing so without hedging.

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Cheney’s expression reads as sad because the situation is one worth mourning. In recent pictures, she’s a study in old-fashioned, fact-based Washington civility that’s been beaten down with falsehoods and prideful entitlement. She stands in Congress and in news conferences dressed in the classic style of the federal government with her vaguely boxy jacket and modest necklines, her simple jewelry and practical heels. She always looks professional and competent — reassuringly boring — in the way that Washington and its leaders are expected to. But instead of words and gestures that speak of can-do optimism, she looks and sounds as though she is standing sentinel at democracy’s door trying to keep the grim reaper at bay.

“We Republicans need to stand for genuinely conservative principles, and steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality,” Cheney wrote in a Washington Post essay. “History is watching. Our children are watching. We must be brave enough to defend the basic principles that underpin and protect our freedom and our democratic process. I am committed to doing that, no matter what the short-term political consequences might be.”

Understand, Cheney is not a saint or a savior. She is a politician from a political family. But she has never been a backslapper who walks through life with a perma-smile and who can deliver an entire speech with the glow of a toothy grin glinting under the spotlights. But neither has she been as regularly dour as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who has announced that his current life’s goal is to thwart the Biden administration’s agenda, which is a follow-up to his previous goal of derailing Barack Obama’s. She has appeared pleasant and jocular, serious and focused.

But now, Cheney’s somber expression doesn’t speak of heavyweight policy debates, the stresses of late-night bipartisan dealmaking or even the mental exhaustion that comes from thinking big thoughts. In this moment, under these circumstances, her downward glances, her shouldering away from her colleagues, simply make one grieve that a chunk of our democratic system seems to be breaking away from the whole.

It’s hard to forget that televised moment that feels like a million years ago when she bumped fists with President Biden as he entered the House chamber for his first address to a joint session of Congress. Cheney didn’t greet him with particular gusto, but politeness. She responded to his hello. She was wearing a mask as she reached into the aisle to greet him and for that she was taken to task by her antagonists.

“When the President reaches out to greet me in the chamber of the US House of Representatives, I will always respond in a civil, respectful & dignified way,” she wrote on Twitter in response. “We’re different political parties. We’re not sworn enemies. We’re Americans.” It was exhausting just reading her explanation for something that should not have to be explained.

It’s tiring laying eyes on Cheney. Honesty has become a grueling and heavy lift. Leadership has been defined by Republicans as walking your colleagues off the cliff because that’s where they’re determined to go instead of pulling them back from the edge.

And yet, no matter how much her colleagues flail and scream, determined to leap into the abyss, Cheney insists on warning them about the calamity awaiting. Not because she’s a martyr, but because even if they survive the fall, there will still be plenty of reasons to grieve.