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Liz Cheney’s electoral defeat is not the fall of an American hero. The good she has done on the January 6th Committee is almost certainly being done for less than admirable purposes. To ignore that fact is to overlook another front in the war on democracy.

Cheney is one face of the creeping totalitarianism that has been eroding American democracy for decades (and it wasn’t in great shape to start). Her bitter feud with Donald Trump is best understood as part of an internal battle currently raging within this country’s anti-democratic forces.

Any doubt on that score should be allayed by the television commercial her father made on her behalf, where the draft-dodging elder Cheney called Trump a “coward” and said his daughter was “standing up for the truth.” Being lectured on bravery and truth by Dick Cheney is like getting sailing lessons from the captain of the Exxon Valdez.

Besides, what exactly did Liz Cheney sacrifice with this latest turn? Her congressional career was over the moment Trump turned against her – which was well before the committee’s work began.

The Authoritarian

As a senior staffer in the Bush/Cheney administration, Liz Cheney served a president who did what Donald Trump could not: steal an election, albeit using the more genteel technique of judicial corruption. That administration’s body count and list of war crimes far exceeds Trump’s (although that could certainly change should Trump return to power.)

The sins of the father should not be visited upon the daughter. But Cheney the younger actively helped that administration lie its way into war, an act of deception that undermines one of democracy’s most essential building blocks: truth. (She was still pushing lies nine years later.) She was part of a national security team that secretly and illegally spied on millions of American citizens and others around the world. Throughout her career, Liz Cheney has been a tireless advocate for war and has staunchly opposed reductions in military aggression (often at the expense of the truth).

As an added affront to the MSNBC crowd, which seems newly infatuated with the intelligence services, Cheney worked closely with her father as he overruled and intimidated career intelligence analysts. And she attacked the FBI’s agents at a time when entrepreneurs were selling votive candles featuring its former director, Robert Mueller.

Democracy? Until recently, Cheney helped lead a political party that systematically undermined American democracy through voter suppression, gerrymandering, caging, and other illegal schemes. She actively participated in this war on democracy by, for example, opposing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and defending GOP laws that would obstruct poor and minority voting.

Cheney also called upon Trump’s Attorney General, William Barr, to have the Justice Department investigate environmental groups like the NRDC, Sea Change, and the Sierra Club for lawful speech, claiming that “their interests align with those of our adversaries” like Russia and China.

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The Liz Nobody Knows

The media’s memory-holing of the anti-democracy, pro-Trump Liz Cheney is an erasure of Stalin-era efficiency. It wasn’t that long ago that Cheney was one of Trump’s fiercest defenders. She didn’t hesitate to attack one of democracy’s basic principles, equality before the law, on Trump’s behalf, telling ABC News: “We had people that are at the highest levels of our law enforcement … saying that they were going to stop a duly elected president of the United States. That sounds an awful lot like a coup and it could well be treason.”

Coup? Treason? Sounds familiar. When she was on the other side during Trump’s first impeachment, Cheney lashed out at the Democrats in language that has since become familiar:

“I think the Democrats have got to understand the danger that they’re creating here and the damage they’re doing to the Constitution and to the republic.” – Rep. Liz Cheney, Fox News, December 2019

“... in the case of both the impeachment and their embrace of socialism, it’s just a complete fraud ... they ignore their constitutional duty ...”

“I think the American people are going to hold the Democrats accountable for what they’ve done over the course of the last several months in terms of the real circus and their failure to uphold their oath to the Constitution.” – Rep. Liz Cheney, Fox News Radio, February 2020'

Once she turned on Trump, Cheney wrote that Republicans “must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”

Liz Cheney’s go-to move has always been to accuse her opponents of undermining the Constitution. The fact that it happens to be true in Trump’s case is probably immaterial to her. Then, as now, it’s a means to an end.

The Canonization

“My dear,” Maya Angelou reportedly once said, “when people show you who they are, why don't you believe them?” That question should be posed to the liberal commentators who whitewash Cheney’s record. Most of this commentary is witless hagiography. But the more self-aware liberal praise singers, like writer Rebecca Solnit, try to wrestle with the paradoxical nature of their enthusiasm.

Solnit wrote a Facebook post which begins,

“Apparently a lot of adults have trouble with the concept–and reality–that just as good people can do bad things, so bad people can do good things, and I give you Liz Cheney, who after what appears to be a lifetime of doing or at least supporting very bad things, including her war-crimes-profiteer father, is doing a good thing and paying for it.”

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Solnit, often a fine writer, chooses to adopt the all-too-common Democratic posture of lofty condescension toward those who disagree with her. Failure to share her opinion is presented as a kind of learning disability (without the sympathy and solidarity such a condition should inspire). After offering a list of bad people from history who did good things – I assume most Cheney detractors know such people exist – Solnit concludes that Cheney’s critics lack “the ability to cope with complexity.” That lack, she writes,

“helps people become manipulable, become cult followers who having once made the decision that the leader is right keep following into all sorts of dank places, become unable to perceive what's going on around them ....”

In Solnit’s mind, and presumably those of like-minded Democratic liberals, people who critically analyze Cheney’s behavior are “cult followers,” while those who praise her unquestioningly are able to “cope with complexity.” Such is the intellectual rabbit hole that is modern center-left liberalism.

The Question

Instead of condescension in return, here’s a question: What is the likeliest explanation for this sudden shift in behavior from a politician who has shown a lifelong antipathy, not only to the public interest, but specifically to democracy and civil liberties? Here are four possibilities:

  • She suddenly realized the war on democracy that she, her party, and her family had waged for decades was wrong and decided to do the right thing, if only this once.
  • Cheney is, understandably, very angry that Trump told the January 6 rioters to ‘get Liz Cheney’ and wants to get even. (Trump’s exact words as he urged the crowd on were, “We got to get rid of the weak congresspeople, the ones that aren’t any good, the Liz Cheneys of the world.”) Hey, I’d be pissed too, but it’s not exactly a high-minded motive.
  • Once Trump turned on her, she realized she would never win another primary and decided to go out in a blaze of self-serving and vindictive glory.
  • She, her father, and the many others who have labored behind the scenes to undermine democracy and civil liberties see Trump – both the man, and the cult of personality – as a threat to their own long-term plans.

I’m almost certain that the explanation for Cheney’s behavior lies in some combination of the second, third, and fourth explanations — and probably involves all of them. Option number 1, which Cheney’s liberal admirers have embraced, seems to be the least plausible of the four – by far. Maybe that’s the product of a cognitive defect or an inclination to cultism, but to me it seems more like a good application of Occam’s Razor.

The Endgame

The January 6th Committee is doing important work. It has made some critical discoveries, ones that should harden anyone’s conviction that Trump – and an alarmingly large number of other people – are determined to overthrow democracy and replace it with a form of fascism. (It has failed to communicate many of those discoveries as well as it should have, but that’s a discussion for another day.)

Cheney has proven effective in a prosecutorial role. The Josh Hawley clip alone was a well-executed political takedown. It takes nothing from her skill, however, to suggest that she may have goals that stand against everything her new fan base says it believes in.

The problem, from the point of view of Cheney et al., isn’t that the actions of Trump and his followers are unconstitutional. The problem is that they’re conspicuous. The Trump crowd is moving too fast, being too unsubtle. A midnight lock picker doesn’t want another thief showing up with a blowtorch.

Trump’s brand of fascism is hasty, unruly, and impulsive, a cult of personality built around an unstable and unpredictable figure. Cheney represents another branch of American totalitarianism, one built on institutions, elites, and stability. Hers is the slow totalitarianism of internal spying, voter suppression, dark money elections, and dynastic politics.

Cheney’s branch of American totalitarianism helped the military-national security establishment grow in power, forging ever-deepening ties with corporations, educational institutions, religious establishments, and political centers of power at all levels – a hybrid form of government, lest we forget, that political scientists call ‘fascism.’

She and her peers kept this multi-faceted complex humming for many years. Then Trump and his minions triggered the hasty and unruly violence of ‘the wrong people,’ who came in breaking glass and shouting ugly names. This intrusion of the hoi polloi was led by people who don’t care about establishment figures like the Cheneys. Their leader humiliated generals and intelligence officers while acting outside the otherwise-predictable range of bipartisan military behavior in Washington.

But this threat to Cheney and her crowd also offers them an opportunity. As Republicans fall in line behind Trump’s lowbrow totalitarianism, Democrats and liberal voters are increasingly embracing the high-tech, lexically sophisticated authoritarianism of the intelligence and military establishments. They idealize the FBI and CIA, hang onto the televised words of generals, and elevate war criminals like George W. Bush and Dick Cheney at the slightest prompting. (In Bush’s case, apparently all it took was a piece of candy.)

Cheney and her colleagues are smart. If they have an endgame, and they almost certainly do, it is to build on this growing liberal support for elites – the same elites that have been eroding American democracy for decades. My suspicion is that Cheney’s new organization, “the Great Task,” will raise a great deal of money from Democrats in the name of opposing Trump and will use it to reinforce elite perceptions, institutions, and power.

As is so often the case in history, there are no heroes in the Cheney/Trump conflict. One side has been steadily and successfully eroding freedom at home while pursuing mass death abroad. The other side offers a future of chaos and primal rage, in an atavistic America forged from perpetual war against the strangers in the forest. Both roads would bring suffering, and both could lead to nuclear annihilation.

Reposted from DemocracySOS