by Neil H. Buchanan
Congresswoman Liz Cheney is mirroring her former colleagues who started the Lincoln Project by breaking with Donald Trump. The Lincoln Project's founders did come to be heavily criticized for setting up what amounted to a grift -- even before the group was rocked by some internal scandals -- but the question most pertinent to their political work was whether they were actually having any impact. There is no definitive way to confirm or deny any electoral impact that they might have had, but I have serious doubts that they were doing anything more than preaching to the choir.
One thing that they did do, however, was to expand their attacks beyond Trump himself, arguing strongly that voters needed to cast out Republicans in order to force a reckoning within a party that had already become a cult of personality. Again, we do not know whether that mattered at the ballot box (especially given that Republicans picked up House seats and saved some wobbly Senate seats), but as a matter of clear-eyed political strategy, the Lincoln Project was at least aware that they could not say, "We hate Trump, but we're Republicans, so you should vote against Trump while voting for the people who indulge his every dictatorial whim."
What about Cheney? Does she get it, and is she willing to follow through? Not so much.
During Cheney's recent free media orgy, as she was lauded by people who (still) have every reason to hate her, her claim to fame was that she would not bend to Trump's Big Lie. She said clearly, emphatically, and repeatedly that he legitimately lost the 2020 election and that he was responsible for the January 6 insurrection. Sure, she had been a complete Trump toady until after the election, including mocking the first impeachment, but better late than never, right? Even if a person does not see "I want you to do us a favor, though" as a smoking gun, she can at least be against violent rejections of election results.
In the second of my two recent columns discussing Cheney's then-pending excommunication from her party, I asked whether she would be willing to fight against her former teammates. That question is merely an update of the key issue that I raised many times during the 2020 primary and general election campaigns. When NeverTrumpers like The Washington Post's Jennifer Rubin would say that beating Trump was the only important goal for 2020, they would often sprinkle in a bit of cuteness that boiled down to, "... as long as the Democrats don't nominate Bernie." But of course, that merely meant that they were willing to tolerate the end of democracy in order to avoid Sanders's progressive policies -- not truly a principled stand against Trumpism, to say the least.
Applying similar logic to Cheney's case, I responded to a piece from The Washington Monthly that claimed that she was engaged in a long game that would result in her swooping in to save the party after Trump destroys it. This theory, as I put it, "necessarily and crucially assumes -- as applied to the current moment -- that Republicans will lose future elections." But Cheney had already made it clear that she was not willing to do what was necessary -- "whatever it takes," in her words -- for Trumpist Republicans to lose.
To be clear, Cheney would have to be willing not only to campaign for Joe Manchin types. She would have to support every Democratic candidate, including "squad" members Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Again, either this is an all-hands-on-deck moment, where partisans put aside their differences and grudges in order to preserve something larger than their partisan power, or it is not. Cheney made it rather clear, even as she basked in the glow of supposedly being a woman of great principle, that she would allow the Republicans who rejected her to win future elections, because Cheney cannot stand the idea of Democrats winning anything.
In the sentence just above, I qualified my assertion by saying that it was "rather clear" that Cheney was not willing to be do what needs to be done. She had not made a direct statement on that subject, at least as far as I know. Still, she had been notably vague about what it is that she would be willing to do.
Now, however, we have further evidence of her thinking, and it is not good. Jonathan Swan, the Axios reporter whose looks of incredulity during an interview with Trump last Summer earned him immediate fame, sat down recently to interview Cheney, and the results were deflating, to put it mildly.
It was not surprising, of course, to hear her piously claim that "the ideas and the substance and the policy are on our side." Laughable, yes. Gag-inducing, definitely. Surprising, no. But here is the key exchange that revealed just how little Cheney truly cares about democracy:
Swan: How much culpability do Republican elites have for fertilizing the soil for the Big Lie?Cheney: That is, that's not at all how I think about it, you won't be surprised to hear. I think that when you look at things like voter fraud, it certainly exists. I will never understand the resistance, for example, to voter ID. I think you ought to have to show ID to go vote. But there's a big difference between that and a President of the United States, who loses an election after he tried to steal the election, and refuses to concede and then continues to say the election was stolen, suggesting that our democratic process is insufficient of conveying the will of the people.Swan: You don't see any linkage between Donald Trump saying the election was stolen and then Republicans in these state legislatures rushing to put in place these restrictive voter laws?Cheney: Well, I think you have to look at the specifics of each one of those efforts. I think if you look at the Georgia law, for example, there's been a lot that's been said nationally about the Georgia voter law that turns out not to be true.Swan: But even the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Georgia, Jeff Duncan, said that ... when this bill started to pick up momentum was when Rudy Giuliani was testifying that the Georgia election was a sham. I don't think anyone doubts that the reason 400-some voting bills have been introduced, 90 percent by Republicans [and] supported by the Republican National Committee, I don't think it's a coincidence after the election that this happened.Cheney: But I think everyone should want a situation and a system where people who ought to be able to vote and have the right to vote, can vote, and people who ... don't, shouldn't. And again, I come back to things like ...Swan: But what are they solving for? What are all these states doing?Cheney: No, I ... Well, each state is different.Swan: What was the big problem in Georgia that needed to be solved by a new law? What was the big problem in Texas? What was the big problem in Florida? What was the ... These laws are coming all around the States, and what were they solving for?Cheney: I think you've gotta look at each individual state law, but I think what we can all agree on ...Swan: You can't divorce it from the context! Come on.Cheney: Well, yeah, but what I think we can agree on is that what is happening right now is really dangerous.
That was pathetic, and it was even worse to watch the tape. Voter fraud "certainly exists," Cheney assures us, and the only way to solve that problem is to impose voter ID laws, laws that just happen to burden the right to vote for poorer people. In fact, however, voter fraud "exists" only in the sense that there are not literally zero examples of it, not in the sense that the handful of cases (out of billions of votes cast) has ever come close to mattering.
Meanwhile, "each state is different," but Cheney does not even try to explain which differences matter, why the states are all doing essentially the same thing, or how any of it would stop the voter fraud that bothers her so much.
I am even less clear about Cheney's motivations now than I was before watching that interview. As Swan said later in an appearance on MSNBC, Cheney tried to put Trump and January 6 "in a silo," separate from everything else that her party is doing. For someone whose long-term viability depends crucially on Republicans losing elections, she certainly missed the chance to back up her high-minded talk about democracy and all that.
Beyond Cheney's own confusion about what she is doing, however, the larger issue is that she usefully reminded us that her only disagreement with Trump is in how to end democracy, not whether to do so. She has never had even the slightest problem with any of the anti-democratic strategies that her party has used to set itself up with permanent minoritarian power. Her only objection is that they must make it look like they won elections, and she is willing to wait two years (and kick Trump to the curb) before locking things down.
Interestingly, Cheney faults Trump for "suggesting that our democratic process is insufficient of conveying the will of the people." In that, he is right (not in the way that he thinks, of course), and Cheney has been all too willing to make sure that it becomes ever more true. She does not want to register the will of the people. She wants to count the votes, but only after making sure that her preferred voters will deliver the outcome that she wants.
We can, then, banish any thought that Cheney will, even for strategic purposes, soon make moves against the agenda of disenfranchisement that she and her cohorts have been carrying out. None of the Republicans are interested in actually winning fair elections. Trump would have engaged in a quick decapitation of our system, had he had the ability to do so. Cheney is happy simply to watch while Republicans open up a few more veins and let the system at long last bleed out.