Liz Cheney is an enemy of democracy — just as much as the Trumpers

After her House speech and her Post op-ed, Cheney has positioned herself as a hero of democracy. Don't buy into it

By Chauncey DeVega
Published May 12, 2021 6:10AM (EDT)
Liz Cheney | January 6th riot at the US Capitol (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Liz Cheney | January 6th riot at the US Capitol (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

By the time you read this, in all likelihood the American news media and its professional hope peddlers will have canonized Rep. Liz Cheney as an iconic defender of democracy, a role model for all time and a heroic example of someone willing to stand up for her political principles no matter the personal cost.

In a speech on the House floor Tuesday, Cheney remained defiant ahead of a near-certain vote to strip her of her position in the Republican leadership, saying, "Remaining silent and ignoring the lie emboldens the liar," and reiterating that she would not join Donald Trump's "crusade to undermine our democracy." Her recent Washington Post op-ed continues to be heaped with praise. When she is voted out of the GOP House leadership, most likely on Wednesday, her elevation to civic sainthood will be all but complete.

This praise is frankly not warranted. As I have written earlier, Cheney helped create the monster of Trumpism and American neofascism. She voted in support of Donald Trump's policies 93 percent of the time.

America's news media remains desperate for "normalcy." To that end it endlessly reinforces a narrative about "traditional" and "reasonable" Republicans, such as Cheney and Sen. Mitt Romney, who will somehow "save" the Republican Party (and by implication the entire country) from Trumpism. In reality, "reasonable, respectable Republican" became an oxymoron — or impossibly opposed forces, like matter and antimatter — with the birth of the Age of Trump and the devolution of the Jim Crow Republican Party.

Amid all the fawning over Cheney's Washington Post op-ed, one of its most important passages has been largely ignored. She wrote: "There is much at stake now, including the ridiculous wokeness of our political rivals." To complain about "wokeness" in this moment is more than a right-wing racist dog whistle. It is an air raid siren.

Republicans and the far right are using "wokeness," the New York Times' "1619 Project," Black Lives Matter and "critical race theory" as empty dogmatic signifiers, onto which they project their own distorted and fundamentally dishonest meanings.

The vast majority of the bloviators, propagandists and white-grievance mongers of TrumpWorld and the MAGAverse could not possibly explain these concepts, ways of thinking or practices with any kind of clarity. But that, of course, is not the point: These buzzwords are summoned up in place of more obvious racial slurs to use against Black and brown people (and sometimes their white allies). In a previous era, Black Lives Matter activists would be slurred as "Mau Maus" or "Negro agitators." Practitioners of "critical race theory" would be demonized as communists or anti-American traitors.

Attempting to untangle the attacks on critical race theory, David Theo Goldberg writes in the Boston Review:

What do all these attacks add up to? The exact targets of CRT's [critical race theory] critics vary wildly, but it is obvious that most critics simply do not know what they are talking about. Instead, CRT functions for the right today primarily as an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all, a catch-all specter lumping together "multiculturalism," "wokeism," "anti-racism," and "identity politics" — or indeed any suggestion that racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society. They are simply against any talk, discussion, mention, analysis, or intimation of race — except to say we shouldn't talk about it. …

If we are to learn one thing from this highly orchestrated assault on CRT, it is that this alternative narrative is not a sincere expression of hope: it is a cynical ploy to keep power and privilege in the hands of those who have always held it. Meanwhile, the outcome remains what Marvin Gaye sang — to brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers — a half century ago: "there are far too many of you dying."

With her attack on "ridiculous wokeness," Liz Cheney makes clear that she is not in fact separating herself from today's Republican Party, which in totality is a white identity organization. For decades it has cultivated and used racism, white supremacy and racial resentment to win elections and maintain power. Now those forces have taken it over entirely.

With that power, the Republican Party has shaped public policy to advance and protect white privilege and forms of unearned advantages for white people — especially if they are also rich. In response to the country's changing demographics, and in fear that it can never again win free and fair elections, the Republican Party and its supporters on the white right more generally are trying to impose a new form of Jim Crow apartheid across the United States. Liz Cheney supports such policies.

In this context, Cheney's attack on the Democratic Party for "ridiculous wokeness" reveals her hypocrisy. Yes, she is condemning Trump's coup attempt and his followers' attack on the Capitol. But what motivated that attack in the first place? 

What happened on Jan. 6 is best understood as an explosion of white rage directed at America's multiracial democracy. Consider the Confederate flags, the Nazi and Klan regalia, the logos of numerous racist paramilitary organizations, the Christian nationalist symbols and the racial slurs directed at Black police officers. Nothing about that was a race-neutral performance. Trump's goons were signaling their commitment to white power and their contempt for a country where nonwhite people have the same constitutional rights as white people. Liz Cheney rejects using violence to overthrow multiracial democracy, and that is of course preferable. But through her extensive history of support for Trump and the Republican Party's policies, Cheney expresses full agreement with the overall goal of ending multiracial democracy.

As with the other "reasonable Republicans," Liz Cheney's differences with Donald Trump and the neofascist faction are issues of style, and not substance.

In a new essay for the Nation, John Nichols elaborates this theme:

Liz Cheney is not some moderate maverick Republican who is breaking with her party on policy. She is a right-wing warmonger whose crude attacks on people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and progressives carry the same venom as those of the most extreme members of her caucus — and of the 45th president, whose election in 2016 and reelection in 2020 she enthusiastically supported. …

In the run-up to the 2020 presidential campaign, when she was campaigning for Trump, Cheney decried the Democrats as "the party of anti-Semitism, the party of infanticide, the party of socialism" during a March 2019 appearance on Meet the Press, where she also claimed Democrats had "passed legislation that's violated the First Amendment, the Second Amendment."

After the 2020 Democratic National Convention, she announced that socialists had "a chokehold on the Democratic platform, on Joe Biden's policies going forward."

In a recent essay for Salon, David Masciotra echoes those observations:

[A]nyone curious to learn how that party could have become such a severe threat to the American democracy need look no further than Cheney herself, or watch any of the recent banal and servile TV interviews of George W. Bush. …

As the media and even some Democrats praise Liz Cheney for showing minimal fidelity to law and democracy, it is crucial to keep in mind that while Cheney does not represent the personality cult of Trump's deadly narcissism, she represents the party of the Southern Strategy, the party of Iran-Contra, the party of disenfranchising Black voters, and the party of "suck on this." 

Liz Cheney is a political snake. Americans who believe in multiracial democracy and a humane society should not trust her. When the snake turns and bites them — whether by running for president herself or pursuing power by other means — those who are praising her now will have no one to blame but themselves.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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Capitol Riot Commentary Democracy Donald Trump Fascism Liz Cheney Racism Republicans