The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why would Liz Cheney choose this fight if she didn’t believe in it?

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) leaves after hearing Cassidy Hutchinson, former aide to Trump White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, testify at a hearing before the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on June 28 in Washington, D.C. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The odds are good that in two months, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) will be a lame duck. The idea that Cheney — a member of Congress and of a family with deep ties in American politics — might be ousted by Republican voters in a primary to retain her seat would have seemed wildly unlikely at this point in 2020.

Then the presidential election happened. Coming into Election Day, Cheney was supportive of Donald Trump — she was critical, but she voted for him. This despite how obvious the warning signs were about what was to come next: his false insistences about the election being subject to rampant fraud, his refusal to say that he’d recede gracefully should he lose.

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During his speech on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, Trump delineated Cheney as an enemy, even though she’d voted with him 93 percent of the time. She was one of the “weak congresspeople,” Trump said, one of those who “aren’t any good.” Why? Because the day before, she’d had the temerity to point out that Congress didn’t have the authority to reject certified and submitted electoral college votes, which of course it didn’t — despite what Trump was claiming in that speech.

After the riot, Cheney broke with her pattern of passive support. When the House voted to impeach Trump for his role in fomenting the violence that day, Cheney was one of 10 Republicans who joined the majority.

“Much more will become clear in coming days and weeks, but what we know now is enough. The President of the United States summoned this mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame of this attack,” Cheney said in a statement shortly before the vote. “Everything that followed was his doing. None of this would have happened without the President. The President could have immediately and forcefully intervened to stop the violence. He did not. There has never been a greater betrayal by a President of the United States of his office and his oath to the Constitution.”

At the time, this was not a particularly contentious position. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) gave a speech from the House floor in which he attributed the attack to Trump’s efforts. He was the party’s highest-ranking member at the time and Cheney the third-highest. Cheney’s language was starker and her vote a more forceful rebuke, but the two were at least pointed in the same direction.

But this was a pivotal moment, as it turned out. Approaching the rapids, McCarthy and Cheney made different decisions about how to move forward. McCarthy decided to give himself over to the current, siding with the Republican base and its support for Trump. Cheney decided to fight against it.

In a speech at the Reagan Presidential Library on Wednesday, Cheney rebuked those in her party who, like McCarthy, simply decided to go along with Trump and his loyal base.

“Some in my party are embracing former president Trump,” she said. “And even after all we’ve seen, they’re enabling his lies. Many others are urging that we not confront Donald Trump, that we look away. And that is certainly the easier path.” The “all we’ve seen,” of course, referred to the work she’d helped guide as vice chair of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack. Her comment from January 2021 about things “becoming clear in coming days and weeks” was prescient — although she also helped manifest it.

Her speech Wednesday mirrored the structure and tone of one she gave in May 2021 when her colleagues were on the brink of ousting her from her leadership position. She began with a delineation of her experiences of witnessing the emergence of democracy in foreign countries, establishing a foundation for her belief that democracy must be defended forcefully in the United States.

“Millions of Americans have been misled by the former president,” she said a year ago. “They have heard only his words, but not the truth, as he continues to undermine our democratic process, sowing seeds of doubt about whether democracy really works at all.” She later added that “every one of us who has sworn the oath must act to prevent the unraveling of our democracy. This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans. Remaining silent, and ignoring the lie, emboldens the liar.”

“I will not participate in that,” she added. A few days later, she would be one of a few Republicans to support the formation of the committee that would investigate the threat Trump posed — and, the committee argues, poses — to American democracy.

She was already on the path to being ousted from office. Trump lashed out at her, decrying her in a statement as “a major Democrat talking point, a warmonger, and a person with absolutely no personality or heart.” He endorsed a primary opponent in Cheney’s race in September, preferring Harriet Hageman to “a warmonger and disloyal Republican.” Many Republicans, including in Wyoming, have gone along with Trump: Cheney had to go.

But why? Even for critics, it’s worth stepping back and considering what Cheney has done. She’s been critical of others in her party, certainly, but in service of her argument that Trump’s actions and the support those actions have received are a threat to American democracy.

If the idea is that Cheney is somehow being insincere, that’s hard to defend. It is very much in keeping with her track record and her lineage to view the United States as something to be fervently defended — against enemies foreign and domestic, as the oath has it. She is likely to pay a significant political cost for doing so; she has already paid some political cost for it. She and Rep. Adam Kinziger (R-Ill.) are pariahs within the party, acting with the freedom of lame ducks in a way that helped ensure that they would be. (Kinzinger decided against running for reelection.)

That leaves the idea that Cheney is simply wrong, that she’s overstating what Trump did and the threat it poses. This, it seems, is the default position of many in her party, that Trump pushed boundaries but that the system worked it out. That it’s just politics. That the focus on the aftermath of the election is something Democrats see as useful and therefore something to be rejected.

In her speech at the Reagan Library, Cheney addressed that.

“As the full picture is coming into view with the January 6th committee, it has become clear that the efforts Donald Trump oversaw and engaged in were even more chilling and more threatening than we could have imagined,” she said. “As we have shown, Donald Trump attempted to overturn the presidential election. He attempted to stay in office and to prevent the transfer of presidential power. He summoned a mob to Washington. He knew they were armed on January 6th. He knew they were angry. And he directed the violent mob to march on the Capitol in order to delay or prevent completely the counting of electoral votes.” She noted that Trump didn’t try to halt the riot but tried instead to join the rioters.

“It’s undeniable. It’s also painful for Republicans to accept,” she continued. “And I think we all have to recognize and understand what it means to say those words, and what it means that those things happened. But the reality that we face today as Republicans, as we think about the choice in front of us — we have to choose. Because Republicans cannot both be loyal to Donald Trump and loyal to the Constitution.”

She quoted both Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy in speaking about the importance of defending democracy. The House select committee has regularly framed its work in that way: that it is an effort to understand how Trump tried to subvert the system, both to prevent it from happening again and to ensure that Americans understand what Trump wanted to do. The committee’s work was summarized, in a sense, by the deliberate words of conservative jurist J. Michael Luttig: “Today, almost two years after that fateful day in January 2021 … Donald Trump and his allies and supporters are a clear and present danger to American democracy.”

Trump frames Cheney’s rhetoric as her and Kinzinger having “no idea what our Party stands for,” words he meant as a pejorative but which resonate with unintentional honesty. If Cheney has been hoodwinked into seeing as a threat both Trump and the ongoing effort to bolster a system that could overturn the results of an election, so have many others in that same party. State officials who testified before the committee. Rank-and-file legislators who rejected Trump’s efforts to retain power. Republican voters who’ve rejected candidates focused on making it easier to defy election results in the future. But it is certainly the “easier path,” as Cheney put it, for public officials simply to decline to challenge Trump, as so many have done for so long.

We land at something akin to Pascal’s Wager. The philosopher Blaise Pascal suggested that those who didn’t believe in God should be religious anyway, since the upside (there is an afterlife) was much bigger than the downside (there isn’t). Here, there’s a nonzero chance that Cheney is right: that Trump’s actions and those of his supporters pose a real, existential threat to American democracy. That letting his actions go unchallenged risks seeing them repeated, perhaps successfully. Republicans can blithely ignore that risk to avoid short-term backlash from a still-largely-muted Trump or from Republican voters. Or they can make the wager Cheney’s asking them to make, and prepare for the possibility that the worst case is still possible.