Liz Cheney reminds us of the stakes

By Washington Post Columnist, December 7, 2023.

No wonder MAGA Republicans hate Liz Cheney. No Republican is as articulate, persuasive and passionate as the former Wyoming congresswoman in describing the threat four-time-indicted former president Donald Trump and her own party as currently constituted pose to the future of American democracy and international security.

Her new book “Oath and Honor” has plenty of bombshells  the congressman who derided Trump as “orange Jesus”; Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s pathetic excuse that he had to visit Trump at Mar-a-Lago because the former president was depressed and not eating. But the jaw-dropping tidbits should not distract from her overarching message, one that Republicans and the media alike need to embrace.

In her characteristically blunt, unvarnished way, she told CBS’s John Dickerson in an interview aired Sunday: “He’s told us what he will do. It’s very easy to see the steps that he will take. … People who say ‘Well, if he’s elected, it’s not that dangerous because we have all of these checks and balances’ don’t fully understand the extent to which the Republicans in Congress today have been co-opted.” She stressed, “One of the things that we see happening today is a sort of a sleepwalking into dictatorship in the United States.”

Without citing No Labels directly, she cautioned that in facing an existential crisis, we cannot have “a situation where the election that might be thrown into the House of Representatives is overseen by a Republican majority.” (No Labels has let on that throwing the election to the House rather than achieving an outright victory for its candidate might be its desired scheme.)

Moreover, she made no bones about the unfitness of her own party to hold power in Congress. “If you look at what Donald Trump is trying to do, he can’t do it by himself. He has to have collaborators,” she said. “And the story of [House Speaker] Mike Johnson is a story of a collaborator and of someone who knew then — and knows now — that what he’s doing and saying is wrong, but he’s willing to do it in an effort to please Donald Trump. And that’s what makes it dangerous.”

Asked directly whether we would be better off with a Democratic House majority, she did not mince words. “I believe very strongly in those principles and ideals that have defined the Republican Party, but the Republican Party of today has made a choice and they haven’t chosen the Constitution,” she said. “And so I do think it presents a threat if the Republicans are in the majority in January 2025.”

In a subsequent interview with Rachel Maddow, Cheney added another caution. Trump “would take those people who are the most radical, the most dangerous, who had the proposals that were the most dangerous, and he will put them in positions of supreme power,” she said. “That’s a risk that we simply can’t take.” In a second term, the sort of adults in the room from the first term would be absent, removing any restraints he might have previously had.

Her remarkable interviews and ongoing campaign to prevent the United States from “sleepwalking into dictatorship” should be a wake-up call to the remaining anti-MAGA Republican still deluding themselves that a second Trump term wouldn’t be all that bad. (As she told Maddow, “When you have a president who is willing to go to war with the rule of law, to ignore the rulings of the courts if he doesn’t agree with them, that has the potential to unravel everything.”)

Though Cheney does not carry weight with Trump’s hardcore base, her message might resonate with “soft” Republicans, independents and even left-wing Democrats in a snit about President Biden’s handling of the Israel-Gaza war and who vow not to support Biden.

How she will make her case in 2024 remains to be seen. Though she has not ruled out a third-party run, she might carry far more weight if she and pro-democracy Republicans such as Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and former congressman Adam Kinzinger of Illinois endorse Biden and warn voters against enabling Trump by voting for one of the other candidates. As we learned in 2020, it is important to set up a “permission structures” that encourage Republicans to put fidelity to the Constitution and democracy above partisanship.

Cheney can also play another critical role: keeping the media focused on “not the odds, but the stakes” as media critic Jay Rosen put it. It has not been easy to get mainstream media to emphasize the stakes — the survival of our democracy — rather the horserace and premature, meaningless polls. Fortunately, mainstream outlets have started paying greater attention to Trump’s fascist vision, totalitarian plans, intention to destroy NATO and plans to turn the executive branch into his personal, partisan weapon.

It is not enough to run a story once every month or so. Unless the campaign is covered as a battle between democracy and authoritarianism, the real threat Trump poses will be concealed. Given Cheney’s extraordinary communications skills and ratings draw, her constant presence in print, online and TV coverage — and her willingness to dismiss efforts to normalize Trump and to assign Biden artificial demerits — might prove invaluable.

Cheney, long an ardent critic of Democrats, can provide one more service. After years of criticizing Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats, she worked with them on the Jan. 6 committee, attesting to Pelosi’s willingness to put aside past barbs and Cheney’s fellow committee members’ fidelity to the Constitution. Cheney is a valuable character witness to debunk the demonization of Democrats that has driven Republicans to favor the grotesquely unfit Trump over a center-left, competent Democratic president.

No single voice can determine the outcome of the election. But few have as powerful or effective a voice as Cheney. If she wields her influence adroitly, she will earn her share of the credit for beating back the most serious threat to democracy in our history.

Image Credits: Matt McClain for The Washington Post