Yesterday marked one year since pro-Trump fanatics stormed the US Capitol under the belief that they could halt the counting of electoral votes and install the loser of an election as president. Democrats marked the occasion by remembering the breaching of the Capitol as an attack on democracy (featuring a bizarre musical interlude from the cast of Hamilton); Republicans were less eager to do so. During the official congressional ceremony, only two Republicans chose to attend. One was Liz Cheney, currently a US representative for Wyoming; the other was her father, Dick Cheney (as a former member of Congress, Cheney has lifetime congressional floor privileges). Numerous Democrats reportedly walked over to Cheney to shake his hand.
I find it difficult to put into words how shameful venerating Cheney like this is by anyone, much less the country’s supposed left-wing party — and it’s particularly jarring given that Cheney has dedicated his career to attacking democracy, the very thing the ceremony was supposedly in opposition to.
It’s necessary to remember a bit of history here. Cheney was the most powerful vice president in US history. He is most remembered for his role in promoting the Iraq War, an illegal war of aggression predicated on lies, as well as pushing the nation to the “dark side” after 9/11, which included torture, detention without trial (including of US citizens), warrantless surveillance, and other egregious departures from liberal norms of democracy.
All this was predicated on a shocking legal theory that gave the president sweeping wartime powers that neither Congress nor the courts could check. As they were fighting a global war with no borders, this meant that not even US citizens in the United States were safe from the wartime president’s rampages. This was illustrated by the case of José Padilla, who was arrested at the Chicago airport, declared an enemy combatant by George W. Bush, and held in a military prison for three and half years.
These are not the actions of a “defender of democracy” but of someone who constantly attacked and undermined and disregarded it. And while Cheney’s worst abuses came during the “war on terror,” they were the culminations of decades of his scheming against American democracy. Cheney’s long political career has been devoted to skirting and ignoring democratic norms however he sees fit.
Fighting for the Imperial Presidency
Cheney first began his career in government during the disgraced presidency of Richard Nixon, staying on into the Gerald Ford administration. While Nixon’s name is synonymous with the abuses of power of the imperial presidency, Cheney believed Nixon had gotten a raw deal. More importantly, he believed the power of the presidency had been too greatly diminished. He resented congressional attempts to put restrictions on the intelligence agencies, rein in the president’s ability to wage war without congressional consent, and make the executive branch more transparent.
Cheney’s zeal for the executive and contempt for the legislature continued during his time in Congress. When he was not opposing freedom for Nelson Mandela or voting against sanctions on apartheid South Africa, he was using his spot on the congressional committee investigating the Iran-Contra affair to advance his theories of expansive presidential warmaking. Cheney spearheaded the minority report for the investigation.
At the time, Democrats rightfully described Iran-Contra as a constitutional crisis and an attack on the rule of law and democracy itself. Yet to Cheney, the abuse of power came not from the executive branch but from the legislative branch, which had usurped the powers of the president.
The roots of Iran-Contra lie in 1979, when the Sandinista Revolution toppled the corrupt US-backed Somoza dictatorship and ushered in a new socialist government. At the same time, US policymakers feared that the brutal military governments in El Salvador and Guatemala that the United States was backing could also be defeated by leftist forces.
In 1981, the newly elected Ronald Reagan directed the CIA to support the Contras (short for “counterrevolutionaries”) in their military actions against Nicaragua’s socialist government. The Contras were, by any definition, a terrorist organization. Believing their leftist opponents’ legitimacy lay in part on their ability to improve the lives of the Nicaraguan people, the Contras deliberately attacked daycare centers, health clinics, health workers, and adult literacy centers. In addition to deliberately attacking civilian infrastructure, the Contras executed and kidnapped civilians and used rape and torture as weapons of war. To aid the Contras’ crimes, the CIA mined the harbors of Nicaragua.
Congress, concerned over Contra atrocities — as well as the fact that, in mining the harbors, the CIA literally carried out an act of war against a sovereign nation — put restrictions on US monetary support for the Contra efforts to overthrow the Nicaraguan government (while simultaneously giving the Contras “humanitarian aid”). The Iran-Contra scandal erupted when it was revealed that officials in the Reagan administration had sold arms to Iran, an official US enemy, and used the proceeds to buy arms for the Contras. There was no question that such a move broke the law; the only question was how high the criminal conspiracy went.
Yet, according to Cheney’s minority report about the scandal, the president merely made mistakes, but he did not break the law. (One mistake the report criticized Reagan for: waiving executive privilege in order to cooperate with Congress’s investigation.) The president, not Congress, has the power to execute foreign policy. Covert actions like the ones the CIA had engaged in in Nicaragua, according to Cheney, were inherent powers given to the president by the Constitution. Congress could not usurp these powers.
Thus the abuse of power, in Cheney’s mind, came not from the Reagan administration’s deliberate lawbreaking but from Congress’s attempts to limit his undeclared, covert war on the Nicaraguan government. Needless to say, these are not the actions of a defender of American democracy.
The Dark Side
Years later, George W. Bush tasked Cheney with selecting his vice-presidential running mate. Cheney selected himself. Cheney was only able to assume power after an absurd Supreme Court decision that halted a recount of the Florida elections on spurious grounds, thus handing the presidency to Bush. Whereas Donald Trump may have dreamed of stealing an election, Bush and Cheney actually did.
After the Septemeber 11 terror attacks stunned the nation, Cheney saw an opportunity to finally enact his decades-long agenda of restoring the imperial presidency. As documented by Jane Mayer, Cheney was instrumental to the cabal within the Bush administration that pushed the limits of executive power and spawned some of the worst human rights abuses in US history. One of the most dramatic moves by Cheney and his acolytes was to invent a new category of prisoners called “enemy combatants,” arguing that the Geneva Conventions, which govern the law of war, did not apply to them.
Cheney’s theory of government was echoed by the legal defenses of Bush’s warrantless surveillance program, which Cheney enthusiastically defended as legal. The Bush administration authorized the National Security Agency (NSA) to warrantlessly intercept the overseas phone calls of American citizens. Such a move not only violates the Fourth Amendment — it expressly violates the text of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a compromise measure passed in response to the Cold War surveillance abuses exposed during the 1970s.
The Bush administration argued that the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed by Congress overrode those statutory prohibitions, granting Bush the right to spy on Americans. More disturbingly, the Bush administration argued that such warrantless surveillance was based on an inherent power of the executive branch. Thus, it was not the president’s warrantless surveillance of Americans that was unconstitutional but rather Congress’s attempt to prohibit it that ran afoul of the Constitution.
This logic, of course, mirrors Cheney’s minority report about Iran-Contra. Critics called the Bush-era legal arguments the revival of “the Nixon doctrine.” Of course, reviving the Nixon doctrine was Cheney’s lifelong mission.
Contempt for Democracy
No one should downplay the crimes of Donald Trump. His erratic and demagogic behavior during the COVID-19 crisis and George Floyd uprisings, his greenlighting of police terror and white-supremacist violence, and his love of callousness and cruelty, even to migrant children, made him a real threat.
Yet compared to Dick Cheney’s crimes against democracy, Trump is an amateur. Cheney reduced nations to rubble, shredded the Bill of Rights, and enacted programs of surveillance, abduction, detention, and torture more in line with the state terrorism of military dictatorships than the norms of liberal democracy.
To venerate Cheney, as Democrats in Congress did yesterday, is to show complete contempt for democracy.