Liz Cheney and the Never Trump Fantasy

Centrists continue to dream that the GOP establishment can defeat Trump and Trumpism. This is an absurd and dangerous delusion.

Drew Angerer / Staff (Getty)

Liz Cheney’s fall from grace in the Republican Party has been swift and instructive. Just days before the last presidential election, on November 1, 2010, Politico published a lengthy profile of Cheney which asked whether she could “become the face of the party as soon as next year?” The article traced her ascent into the leadership of the congressional Republicans, noted that she had carefully threaded her opposition to Donald Trump on a few issues while shoring up Trumpist support. Politico speculated that Cheney could soon be “the first Republican woman to be speaker of the House.”

Throwing in a few comparisons to Margaret Thatcher, Politico even suggested that a Cheney presidency was possible. Former Wyoming Senator Allen Simpson is quoted as saying of Cheney’s presidential prospects, “She could be a great one. Nothing to prevent her from being one of the great ones, if that's her choice.”

A little over six months after Politico predicted that the sky was the limit for Cheney, the once quickly ascending congresswoman has been kicked to the curb by her party. As The New York Times reports, “Top Republicans moved swiftly on Wednesday to purge Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming from their leadership ranks for vocally rejecting Donald J. Trump’s election lies, laying the groundwork to install a replacement who has embraced his false claims of voting fraud.”

Cheney deserves commendation for her clear-sighted and unequivocal denunciation of Trump’s incitement of an attack on the Capitol Building. As she wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on the same day she was purged from her leadership post in the congressional GOP:

In public statements again this week, former president Donald Trump has repeated his claims that the 2020 election was a fraud and was stolen. His message: I am still the rightful president, and President Biden is illegitimate. Trump repeats these words now with full knowledge that exactly this type of language provoked violence on Jan. 6. And, as the Justice Department and multiple federal judges have suggested, there is good reason to believe that Trump’s language can provoke violence again. Trump is seeking to unravel critical elements of our constitutional structure that make democracy work — confidence in the result of elections and the rule of law.

This strong anti-Trump stance has earned Cheney much praise from centrists and even some liberals.

These hosannas aren’t completely misplaced. Cheney is taking a brave and politically costly stance. Yet is also has to be recognized that her political project, like all earlier Never Trump efforts to reclaim the GOP from the orange usurper, is doomed to failure.

Ever since Trump started is political ascent in 2015, centrists and many Democrats have consistently yearned for establishment Republicans to thwart the buffoonish Reality TV demagogue. The history of the last few years is a story of Republican Gods That Failed, stalwart politicians and public officials who were supposed to swat down Trump but usually got sucker-punched by him: Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, National Review, Reince Priebus, Evan McMullin, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, James Comey, Robert Mueller, the Lincoln Project et cetera ad infinitum.

All of these were seen as politicians or institutional forces that could restrain Trump, temper Trump or sometimes (as in the wilder fantasies of Resistance liberals) jail Trump. All failed miserable and some of them, such as Graham, ended up as particularly pathetic Trump lap dogs.

All the time wasted in hoping that some Republican somewhere would stop Trump was a distraction from the real work of political organizing.

The simple political truth is that most Republican voters like Trump and they instinctively recoil from any Republican who crosses Trump. This sets a hard limit on the effectiveness of any anti-Trump resistance inside the GOP. But among centrists and some liberals, the dream of an effective anti-Trump Republican movement dies hard. On Tuesday, Jonathan Chait wrote in New York, “In the few days after January 6, it appeared the Republican establishment that had tolerated four years of naked corruption and frequently undisguised racism had finally lost its patience with Donald Trump.” In other words, as of a few months ago, Chait still believe a Never Trump establishment could assert itself despite all the evidence of the last few years.

Liz Cheney’s political profile shows why the Never Trump project is doomed to failure. Last July she boasted on Fox News that she voted with Trump “something like 97 percent of the time.” The other 3 per cent of the time when she disagrees with Trump, it’s usually on issues on which she is to Trump’s right, as in her unreconstructed Bush-Cheney hawkishness (inherited from her father, the former vice president).

As Politico notes, “Cheney herself hasn’t been shy about pushing back against Trump’s foreign policy. She has promoted amendments to slow down or outright stop the withdrawal from Afghanistan.” The news site added, “This summer, she voted to try to block Trump’s troop drawdown in Germany.”

Even in her anti-Trump manifesto, she insisted on including the usual hard right codswallop, claiming, “The Black Lives Matter and antifa violence of last summer was illegal and reprehensible.” (In fact, almost all that violence was spontaneous, as is the norm when riots break out after police violence.)

Cheney is crafting a politics that is basically in almost total agreement with Trump aside from being more attached to Bush-Cheney interventionism and objecting to Trump’s authoritarianism. This isn’t a politics that will appeal to very many people, aside from the pitiful small coterie of neoconservative pundits and think tankers who make up the Never Trump ranks.

Liz Cheney is a tireless defender of her father’s legacy and her political career has been descried by those who know her as an attempt to vindicate Dick Cheney’s career. This highlights how crimped and toothless her anti-Trumpism is. After all what is Trumpism but the flowering of the worst tendencies of the Bush-Cheney presidency: the demagoguery, the nationalism, the unilateralist foreign policy contemptuous of allies, the scorn for professionals and experts, the polarizing us-versus-them mentality, the embrace of torture and war crimes, and much else. Gina Haspel ran a torture site for the CIA under Bush-Cheney and was made CIA director under Trump. The continuity is strong.

This is not to deny the significance of Liz Cheney’s critique of Trump, but to not its circumscribed nature. Criticizing Trump without inquiring into the causes of Trumpism will always produce a quack remedy, not a cure.

Cheney is the alternative to Trump the way Burger King is the alternative to McDonald’s, not the way a good restaurant is an alternative to both.

Politics in a two-party system is a binary choice. If you agree with Trump on 97 per cent of issues and are even farther from Democrats on most of the remaining 3 per cent, you’ll usually find a way to support Trump. It might involve some motivated reasoning (Biden is a socialist!) or some outright delusion (Trump won the election! The January 6 violence was antifa!). But if there is anything we know about humans, it’s that they are quick to cotton up to narratives that suit their prior partisan allegiance.

Centrists and liberals have their own motivated reasoning. Against all evidence, many have clung to the Never Trump fantasy, because it provides a comfortable myth of national reconciliation. The delusion goes like this: “The grown up Republicans will save the day! Democratic Mommy and Republican Daddy will get back together and everything will be civil and unified like the old days!”

In truth, Trump is the warlord who commands the loyalty of almost all Republicans. This is likely to remain true until he dies. Even after his death, his memory will shape the GOP. The only way to defeat Trumpism is to continue to organize a political coalition large enough to defeat Republicans in elections. That’s the hard, unglamorous, tiring and necessary work that needs to continue. Indulging in fantasies that Liz Cheney and other Never Trump Republicans will reconquer the GOP is a waste of time. It distracts from the real political tasks that need doing.