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Liz Cheney a martyr to resistance as Republican party picks cult of Trump

·7-min read
<span>Photograph: Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Getty Images

She is a champion of the hawkish foreign policy espoused by her father, a former US vice-president dubbed “Darth Vader”. She is a hardline conservative whose opposition to gay marriage pained her lesbian sister.

Related: Trump asserts power over Republicans as Liz Cheney faces ousting

Now Republican congresswoman Liz Cheney finds herself a likely martyr of the resistance to ex-president Donald Trump, earning plaudits from party moderates and even some Democrats for swearing allegiance to truth rather than lies.

Cheney appears all but certain next week to lose her status as the sole woman in Republican leadership in the House of Representatives. Members have been lining up to express a lack of confidence in her and instead tout Elise Stefanik, a pro-Trump congresswoman, as her successor.

Cheney’s cardinal sin is to reject Trump’s “big lie” that last year’s election was stolen from him, increasingly the definitive loyalty test within the party. On the contrary, she has spoken out in public, tweeted that the false claim is “poisoning our democratic system” and even published a newspaper column urging colleagues to spurn the “Trump cult of personality”.

The former president has fired back, branding her a “warmonger” and throwing his weight behind Stefanik. Future historians may regard it as a fork in the road for Republicans: a choice between a conspiratorial demagogue and a return to conservatism, institutionalism and fact-based reality. It seems clear that Cheney will lose, much to the despair of admiring “Never Trumpers”.

“I think that there should be a line of Republicans around the block standing up to defend her,” Michael Wood, who won just 3% of the vote in a Republican primary in Texas earlier this month, told the MSNBC network. “This is probably the bravest woman in the western hemisphere.

“She’s a modern-day Margaret Thatcher, an iron lady, and she’s being stabbed in the back not over policy differences; she’s being stabbed in the back because she won’t lie. It’s horrible what’s happening and I don’t know if I want to be in a party that doesn’t want somebody in it who’s speaking the truth.”

Cheney, 54, is now the face of a Republican establishment that became a target of Trump’s wrecking ball populism but also has few friends on the left. She served at the state department, practised law at the International Finance Corporation and co-wrote a book with her father Dick Cheney, entitled Exceptional: Why the World Needs a Powerful America, that defended the George W Bush administration’s approval of the use of torture.

In 2013, running for the US Senate in Wyoming, Cheney told Fox News that she believed “in the traditional definition of marriage” and disagreed on the issue with her sister, Mary, who is married to a woman. Mary responded on Facebook: “Liz – this isn’t just an issue on which we disagree – you’re just wrong – and on the wrong side of history.”

In 2016 Cheney won election to Congress, serving as Wyoming’s lone member in the House, and soon became chair of the House Republican Conference, making her the No 3 Republican in the chamber. She survived an initial challenge earlier this year after she was among just 10 House Republicans to back Trump’s impeachment for inciting supporters to storm the US Capitol on 6 January.

But this time she has few public backers for a vote that could come as early as Wednesday. She has decided instead to go down with all guns blazing. In an opinion column in the Washington Post this week, Cheney insisted that she would defend basic principles irrespective of the short-term political price.

She wrote: “I am a conservative Republican, and the most conservative of conservative values is reverence for the rule of law. The question before us now is whether we will join Trump’s crusade to delegitimize and undo the legal outcome of the 2020 election, with all the consequences that might have.”

Her stand has coincided with a recent book tour by her father’s old boss, Bush, in which he warned that the Trump-era Republican party has become “isolationist, protectionist and, to a certain extent, nativist”. Dick Cheney himself, now 80, has kept a relatively low profile since leaving office but is likely to be proud of his daughter’s position.

An anti-Cheney rally by pro-Trump supporters in Wyoming, Cheney&#x002019;s home state, in January.
An anti-Cheney rally by pro-Trump supporters in Wyoming, Cheney’s home state, in January. Photograph: Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

Jake Bernstein, co-author of the book Vice: Dick Cheney and the Hijacking of the American Presidency, said: “I think part of the reason for why Liz Cheney is doing what she’s doing is directly the result of her father in the sense that her father was the very embodiment of the Republican establishment for decades.

“Whether you agreed or disagreed, they did have principles and an ideology and I think they are probably appalled that the Republican party has become a cult of Donald Trump. I assume that she’s in constant contact with her father and that she would stand up for that Republican party that’s been swept away in the age of Trump.”

It is rare for Liz Cheney and liberals to find themselves on the same side of any argument, Bernstein acknowledged. “She’s still very conservative. She would never see eye to eye with Democrats on anything else but a belief in the institution of Congress and the democratic process. To believe that she is in any way a moderate politically says more about what Donald Trump has done to the Republican party than it does about her.”

The author and journalist added: “One of the biggest recalibrations that is needed in American political discourse is that most of these Republicans are not conservatives: they don’t want to maintain conservative traditions, they don’t have a conservative ideology. They’re radical in their approach and to call them conservative is a misnomer. Liz Cheney is a true conservative in every sense of the word and she’s only a moderate in relation to the radicalism that has seized the Republican party.”

The effort to purge Cheney is seen by critics as one of the most striking examples yet of Republicans’ shift away from focusing on a program of government in favor of dancing to Trump’s tune. Instead of policy, loyalty to Trump and “culture wars” are now the glue that hold the party together.

Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the University of Minnesota, said: “The thing that’s hard to remember is Cheney is an arch-conservative. She’s a hard-edged, small government, lower taxes figure and a leading voice on national defense but the Republican party is no longer organized along the axis of ideology; it’s organized along the axis of cult of personality.

“This is a low point for the Republican party. It’s embarrassing and really gives you a sense of how unmoored it is from the issues facing the country.”

Cheney appears to be a victim of Republicans’ strategy for winning back the House in next year’s midterm elections, which often hinge on a party’s most fervent supporters. Trump is still hugely popular with the grassroots and is seen as critical for both mobilizing voter enthusiasm and fundraising. The House minority leader, Kevin McCarthy, appears to be betting on Trump to win him the speakership, even if it means legitimizing “the big lie”.

In such a context, Cheney might have felt that she had nothing to lose by nailing her colors to the mast now. Tim Miller, writer-at-large at the Bulwark website and former political director of Republican Voters Against Trump, said: “Say what you want about the Cheneys, I think that she has a deep, genuine respect for our democratic system and is genuinely outraged by the president’s actions after the election.”

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