Cheney's Cold War Nostalgia Is No Alternative to Trumpism

The GOP's embrace of racist authoritarianism is catastrophic but Trump's foes keep offering a pallid and hoary alternative.

One reason I started this newsletter was I wanted a forum to work out my uncertainty and to argue with myself about conflicting ideas and emotions. Most journalistic genres demand a show of certitude or conclusiveness, but blogging, I’ve found, is conducive to thinking in public, to grappling in an open fashion with what puzzles us.

Liz Cheney’s emergence as the face of resistance to GOP Trumpification is something that I’m deeply ambivalent about. On the one hand, the rise of racist and xenophobic authoritarianism is one of the major problems of our time. This is true not just in the United States but around the world. There are some erstwhile leftists, notably Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi, who dismiss this problem as a form of liberal bedwetting. I think they are profoundly wrong.

Trump is not the first authoritarian in American history and he emerged from deep roots in the right-wing of the Republican Party. But there is no question that Trump has, at least in terms of the modern era, endangered democracy in a new way with his strongman presidency, his incitement of the attack on the Capitol Building on January 6, his ongoing efforts to delegitimize the Biden presidency, and his calls for a rollback of voting rights.

Given the dangers that Trumpism poses, there’s logic in welcoming Republican dissidents who break with the former president. But it’s a tragedy that the small anti-Trumpist faction is dominated by the Cheney wing of the GOP. (Aside from Liz Cheney, many associates of the former vice president are active in the Never Trump movement). As a result of the George W. Bush presidency, the Cheney name is synonymous with warmongering, lies and torture.

The good cause of anti-Trumpism deserves better advocates. A Lisa Murkowski or an Adam Kinzinger would, if they took up this mantle, present an anti-Trumpism that could appeal to those Republicans, who I think are a majority of the party, who have no nostalgia for the Bush/Cheney era. One factor in Trump’s rise is that an earlier cohort of GOP leadership had been discredited by the Iraq War and the 2008 crisis. Evoking that failed presidency by elevating Liz Cheney as the leader of anti-Trumpism is a good way to ensure continued Trump dominance.

Liz Cheney have a short speech on Tuesday night which highlighted both what is admirable about her anti-Trumpism and why it is a political dead end.

Cheney’s rebuke of Trump was eloquent and, to my mind, unanswerable:

Today we face a threat America has never seen before. A former president, who provoked a violent attack on this Capitol in an effort to steal the election, has resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him. He risks inciting further violence.

Millions of Americans have been misled by the former President. 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.

I am a conservative Republican and the most conservative of conservative principles is reverence for the rule of law. The Electoral College has voted. More than sixty state and federal courts, including multiple judges he appointed, have rejected the former president's claims. The Department of Justice in his administration investigated the former president's claims of widespread fraud and found no evidence to support them. The election is over. That is the rule of law. That is our constitutional process.

Yet Cheney’s speech was also steeped in a Cold War nostalgia that undercut its message. The logic of evoking Reagan and the struggles against the USSR are clear: the Cold War was the one period in American history were the political right grudgingly accepted democracy, both domestically and abroad, as a worthy goal. This was often done hypocritically (the United States supported many anti-communist tyrants) but it’s still the case that during the Cold War the value of democracy shared bipartisan support.

In the long arc of American history, the Cold War stands as a period of rare elite consensus. Cheney is not the only political leader that yearns for a return to a period where bipartisan agreement about a foreign threat helped unify a fractious nation.

Cheney was trying to revive that spirit. Here are a few of the places she conjured up the Cold War in her speech:

In 1992, I sat across a table from a young mayor in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia and listened to him talk of his dream of liberating his nation from communism. Years later, for his dedication to the cause of freedom, Boris Nemtsov would be assassinated by Vladimir Putin's thugs.

In Warsaw, in 1990, I listened to a young Polish woman tell me that her greatest fear was that people would forget what it was like to live under communist domination, that they would forget the price of freedom.

Three men -- an immigrant who escaped Castro's totalitarian regime; a young man who grew up behind the iron curtain and became his country's minister of defense; and a dissident who spent years in the Soviet gulag have all told me it was the miracle of America captured in the words of President Ronald Reagan that inspired them to seek freedom.

Crucially, Cheney suggested that Trump needed to be opposed because he was undermining the unity needed to fight a new Cold War with China:

As the party of Reagan, Republicans championed democracy, won the Cold War, and defeated the Soviet Communists. As we speak, America is on the cusp of another Cold War -- this time with communist China. Attacks against our democratic process and the rule of law empower our adversaries and feed Communist propaganda that American democracy is a failure.

The question is: does this warmed over red baiting have any power to convince? One problem is that the Cold War ended more than 30 years ago, so is hardly an urgent memory.

To the extent anti-communism excites contemporary Republicans, it takes the form of a China-bashing that plays into Trump’s hand (he can claim to be ahead of the curve in warning about China). Beyond that, the real anti-communism that truly energizes the GOP base (and some centrist liberals) is domestic: the bugaboo scare-mongering over BLM, Critical Race Theory, Cultural Marxism, AOC, and Bernie Sanders. Here again, Trump is strengthened, not weakened, by Cheney’s rhetoric.

Further, as Daniel Radosh observes, Cheney’s critique of authoritarianism is narrowly focused on Trump’s actions and doesn’t extend to supporting actual legislative efforts to shore up democracy:

If the anti-Trump forces inside the GOP want to have a positive influence, they need a newer message and newer messengers.