In the words of various liberal commentators and political figures over the years, Wyoming representative Liz Cheney is “racist,” a “lowlife” with an “utter lack of shame” who practices “McCarthyism” and is an “unabashed supporter of Trump.” So how is it that Cheney is emerging from last night’s primary as a liberal darling and stalwart Trump foe, raking in piles of cash from Democratic donors while riding a reputation as a defender of liberal values?
“She isn’t really fighting to keep her seat in Congress,” we’re told. “She’s fighting Donald Trump.” She showed “what it means to stand up for truth and democracy.” She’s “the Obi-Wan to Trump’s Darth Vader.” Even former labor secretary Robert Reich at one point seriously suggested she should be president. “If Liz Cheney loses her House seat, as seems likely, I hope she doesn’t disappear from public life,” he wrote two days ago.
Anyone who cares about liberal values should earnestly hope the opposite. Like every other hard-right Republican who’s enjoyed a sudden Trump-era rehabilitation, Cheney has capitalized on the goldfish-like memory of the US liberal establishment, coupled with its relentless fixation on finding the next one, good, reasonable conservative.
But just the barest of glances at Cheney’s record shows what a menacing and unprincipled figure she is: from her determination to rain endless destruction on every corner of the globe and her excursions into racist dog-whistling to her nasty, McCarthyite political style and willingness to shape-shift in whatever way will benefit her politically. Cheney may have lost her primary, but her political career isn’t over — and that should trouble all of us.
The Two Cheneys
Cheney’s own sister has described her as, ideologically, a carbon copy of her disastrous father, former vice-president Dick Cheney. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find any daylight at all between Liz’s and my father’s views,” she famously said. And there’s no reason to doubt it. As far back as her college senior thesis, Cheney was arguing that the president has virtually unlimited power to start and wage wars regardless of what Congress thinks, and that “the president’s duty to protect national security sometimes comes before his responsibility to keep Congress informed.”
Cheney’s status today as a fierce defender of the sanctity of elections might surprise observers from the new millennium. Her dad’s theft of the 2000 election clearly didn’t bother the then-thirty-two-year-old Cheney enough to decline to serve in his administration, nor, later, did it stop her Lockheed Martin–lobbyist husband from taking a spot in the Department of Homeland Security. Both appointments naturally prompted charges of nepotism.
With the new president, George W. Bush — appointed, as tradition and the US constitution famously demand, by five Supreme Court justices — unhappy with the Palestinians’ choice of Yasser Arafat as their president, Cheney in her new post was tasked with advancing Bush’s goal of securing his ouster. It wasn’t the last time Cheney would express her disappointment in the Palestinian people for exercising their right to vote.
“The United States was fundamentally mistaken to push for those Palestinian elections in Gaza,” Cheney said six years later, after Palestinians in Gaza overwhelmingly voted for the militant Hamas party. Just like Trump, Cheney is all for the “sanctity of the electoral process” as long as the people vote the way she wants them to.
Later, with regime change against one Middle East dictatorship already going so well in Iraq, Cheney, as the administration’s “democracy czar,” was tasked with trying several more rounds of it. She convened a meeting in 2005 with various US officials and exiled Syrian dissidents, including the Syria Reform Party, a US-based group that drew comparisons to Ahmed Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress, since neither had any real base of support in the country itself — and, more ominously, because Chalabi had supplied a patina of popular legitimacy to Bush’s invasion of Iraq. The effort was part of the Bush administration’s plan to covertly encourage unrest in the country.
A year later, Cheney was doing the same thing in Iran, overseeing a program of anti-regime propaganda designed by her father. “They don’t call it ‘regime change,’ but that is obviously what it is,” one Asian diplomat said at the time. And in fact, a State Department official had told the Post a year earlier that the administration was embarking on a more aggressive campaign for political change in the country. The ongoing debacle in Iraq, it seems, wasn’t a damper for anyone in the administration, including Cheney.
The Attack Dog
Speaking of Iraq, Cheney was in on the ground floor of that epochal disaster. As part of the war’s notorious mismanagement, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz decided to name not career specialists at the State Department to plan the occupation, but political appointees — including Cheney. As criminal as the war was, Washington’s bungling of the post-war landscape made an already terrible situation even worse. The Cheney-made disaster would wind up killing somewhere in the ballpark of 300,000 people, including 4,500 US troops, and costing the US public nearly $2 trillion.
Nevertheless, for the rest of her life, the younger Cheney joined her father in insisting the war must go on. In a 2007 op-ed titled “Retreat Isn’t An Option,” she insisted that the only solution to Islamic terrorism was “to fight these terrorists to the death somewhere, sometime,” that withdrawing from Iraq would scare away US allies, and that “quitting helps the terrorists.” The latter proved a core feature of Cheney’s rhetorical style, proving herself even more shameless than her father in accusing critics of US wars of doing the bidding of, or even being in cahoots with, terrorists and other official enemies.
For the rest of her career, Cheney’s foreign policy pronouncements stuck to pretty much the same script: the United States must stay the course in Iraq, Afghanistan, and any other quagmire it had gotten itself into; any compromise between the Israelis and Palestinians was misguided and dangerous; the United States had a duty to stick by Israel no matter what; and diplomacy with Iran was doomed — Munich-esque appeasement that made war more likely, actually — so Washington might as well start revving up the fighter jets. Of course, as possibilities for more killing came up, as in Libya and Syria, Cheney would eagerly add those countries to her to-bomb list.
These are some of Liz Cheney’s real-life, openly stated views. She believes that “we are in a generational civilizational war” when it comes to terrorism, and that “we have to increase what we’re doing today, and we need more boots on the ground than we have today.” She wanted then–Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele to resign for saying, accurately, that Afghanistan was a “lost cause.” She wants a war with Iran, but also wants the United States to go to war with China over Taiwan. She thinks even a 10 percent cut to a US military budget bigger than those of the next nine countries combined would be a “grave mistake.”
What makes liberals’ worship of Cheney today particularly incongruous is that for the better part of a decade, she was best known for relentlessly attacking their favorite president, Barack Obama, often using the most scurrilous dog whistles. He was “the most radical man to ever occupy the Oval Office,” Cheney wrote in 2013, and “an American president who seems to be afraid to defend America.” No president had done more to “delegitimize and destabilize the state of Israel in recent history,” she charged, while on the home front he was pushing the United States “to pre-emptively disarm,” steps one would only take “if you believe that America — not her enemies — is the threat.” Oh, and of course, he’d been “endorsed” by Vladimir Putin.
To that end, in 2009 Cheney co-founded Keep America Safe with another of today’s liberal darlings, neoconservative war cheerleader Bill Kristol. Similar to Kristol’s current Lincoln Project — except with the aim of attacking Obama’s foreign policy from the right, rather than endearing liberals to the neocon project — it ran ads assailing the Democratic president, usually as weak and making the country less safe, as well as feeding the racist frenzy over the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” Fittingly, it was funded by a Florida strip mall developer whose chain of drug rehab clinics had a history of abuse eerily similar to that suffered by “war on terror” suspects — of which Cheney was a vocal defender.
The organization hit a notable low point when it labeled a set of Justice Department appointees who had, at the military’s request, earlier represented Guantanamo Bay detainees the “Al Qaeda Seven,” asking, “Whose values do they share?” The ad was so beyond the pale, it drew condemnation across the political spectrum, including from ultra-hawk Lindsey Graham. “There’s something truly bizarre about this,” said Cheney’s law professor, the Federalist Society’s Richard A. Epstein. “I don’t know what moves her on this thing.”
But arguably Cheney’s lowest point came early on in 2009, when she refused to full-throatedly deny the racist “birther” conspiracy theory, which charged Obama had no US birth certificate and so was not eligible to be president — a more bigoted prototype of the “Stop the Steal” delusion Cheney now grandstands on opposing. Twice, in a segment with the exceedingly non-confrontational Larry King, Cheney demurred on acknowledging the absurdity of the lie, instead pivoting to how it allegedly reflected public discomfort with “a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas.”
She Loves Him, She Loves Him Not
Cheney’s first attempt to win office in 2013 didn’t go well, when her flip-flop on marriage equality sparked a public feud with her gay sister. Four years earlier, Cheney had unapologetically opposed Bush’s idea of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, asserting that “freedom means freedom for everybody” and that it was “wrong to discriminate in those relationships based on somebody’s sexual preference.” But now that the view threatened her chance at a political career, Cheney was suddenly “not pro-gay marriage” and for letting states decide the issue, leading her sister and sister-in-law to publicly denounce her.
Running for Wyoming’s lone House seat in 2016, Cheney attached herself like a barnacle to Trump, establishing a pattern of loyalty to the future president that would last until right around the time he looked headed for defeat four years later. “Right now there is no question that Trump is the better choice,” she said, as she labeled Trump’s opponent, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, a “felon.”
Cheney was particularly excited by Trump’s pledge to bring back torture, of which she was maybe the country’s most vocal and ardent defender. “Waterboarding isn’t torture,” she once said, and this message was a frequent refrain for Cheney, who raged at the idea that Bush administration officials — her father among them — might be prosecuted for approving the practice. “They kept this nation safe,” she insisted.
Years later, when Kentucky senator Rand Paul objected to Trump’s nomination of Gina Haspel for Central Intelligence Agency chief over her participation in the crime, Cheney accused Paul of “defending and sympathizing with terrorists.” Just as no absence of evidence stopped her from continuing to lie about a Saddam Hussein/ al-Qaeda connection as late as 2014, Cheney continued to insist for years on the debunked claim that torture led to the discovery of Osama bin Laden.
Winning the election didn’t change her attachment to Trump. “Best. Termination. Letter. Ever.,” Cheney wrote in a since-deleted tweet after Trump fired Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director James Comey. She and Paul jockeyed online to prove who more slavishly did Trump’s bidding, while she gushed about attending the World Series with the president. She accused Comey and the FBI agents who testified against Trump of carrying out “treason” and even a “coup,” and called Trump’s impeachment-triggering attempt to trade foreign aid for a Ukrainian investigation of Joe Biden a “political set-up.” She happily benefited from Trump’s fundraising, and she and her dad in turn raised money for him.
When Trump was widely criticized for plainly racist tweets telling the “Squad” to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” Cheney came to his defense, saying the GOP’s criticisms of the four lawmakers had “absolutely nothing to do with race or gender or religion.” She would say that: Cheney seemed to take particular relish in accusing Muslim representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) of antisemitism, in the latter’s case flagrantly twisting Tlaib’s words in a story about solidarity with Holocaust survivors to make it appear she was praising the Nazis’ genocide. At one point, she gleefully called Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” Trump’s offensive insult for the then-presidential candidate.
No surprise, then, that Cheney had voted with Trump 93 percent of the time by the time he left office, backing everything from his attempts to repeal Obamacare and kick nearly 30 million people off their health insurance, to his hard-right Supreme Court picks who this year gutted abortion rights. In fact, Cheney was one of two hundred Republicans who had urged Trump’s Supreme Court to do that very thing two years ago, celebrating its devastating decision to do so this past June.
Cheney got a lot out of this symbiotic relationship, namely Trump’s slashing of federal environmental protections to benefit her corporate donors, which she attempted to make even more extreme via bills to, for instance, remove grizzly bears and gray wolves from the endangered species list, or take away any consequences for corporates that kill birds.
Of course, as many commentators would note, Cheney also had a habit of opposing Trump on certain issues. For instance:
- His increasing the United States’ enormous, more-than-half-a-trillion-dollar military budget by a mere 3 percent.
- His half-hearted attempts to end US involvement in Afghanistan and Syria.
- His last-minute decision not to start a war with Iran.
- His choice to waive some sanctions on the country, even as he was economically suffocating it and after he had ripped up the Iran deal.
You might be able to notice a pattern in where Cheney chooses to draw the line.
As Dangerous As Trump
So after all this, how did Cheney end up a liberal darling associated with anti-Trumpism? Because as numerous insiders told the press at the time, by 2020, with a Trump election loss looking like a distinct possibility, Cheney began subtly positioning herself for leadership in a post-Trump GOP, where she could point to her extremely narrow criticism of the president to prove she had resisted him while in power. She was by no means the first to try this strategy, nor was she the only one maneuvering to fill the post-Trump vacuum.
Of course, we know what ended up happening. Trump’s loss didn’t shake his hold over the GOP, nor did his lies about election fraud or his disgraceful attempts to steal the election after the fact. But with Cheney having bet too many chips on Trump’s banishment from Republican politics and souring herself on the GOP base, she’s been forced to go all-in on a strategy of aligning herself with the Democratic establishment, and setting herself up as the principled, anti-Trump conservative that she never was — something she’s been able to get away with despite backing the GOP voting restrictions that are directly spun off of Trump’s election lies.
It could well still pay off: Cheney may have lost the primary, but with numerous Democrats crossing party lines to vote for or financially back her, there’s already talk of Cheney channeling her defeat into a future campaign as “the face of an anti-Trump movement that has cost her old alliances but left her with new supporters, clamoring for a next act more nationally focused.” No doubt she has a bright future closing a multi-million-dollar book deal, serving as a talking head on MSNBC clamoring for more war, running for president, or — horrifyingly — being appointed secretary of state.
But liberals shouldn’t be gulled into thinking that clearing the basement-level bar of not endorsing Trump’s election fantasies makes Cheney some kind of liberal savior. The evidence in her record shows Cheney to be a deeply unprincipled, shrewd, and dangerous figure in US political life, whose extreme and fringe views on everything from abortion and environmental protections to voting rights and, especially, the use of US military power, make her just as dangerous as Trump. And bringing her back anywhere close to power out of misplaced goodwill for the past year’s grandstanding would be a terrible, terrible mistake.