The unflappable Liz Cheney: Why Trump Republicans have struggled to crush her
Congresswoman Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) is the latest in a long line of bona fide conservatives to publicly challenge the doctrine of the modern-day Republican Party. The third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House joined nine GOP colleagues to impeach outgoing President Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection. In the aftermath, Trump urged his party to “get rid of her” and promised to endorse a primary challenger, the Wyoming Republican Party censured her, and party colleagues tried to strip her of her leadership role.
Given the increasingly hostile war of words between Cheney and GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), as well as Rep. Elise Stefanik’s (R-N.Y.) reported effort to replace Cheney as the party’s Conference Chair as early as next week, it’s fair to wonder if Cheney’s political peak has passed.
Because ever since Trump took over the Republican Party, the MAGA script has been fairly consistent:
Step 1 – A leading conservative speaks out against Trump.
Step 2 – Trump verbally obliterates his newly identified adversary.
Step 3 – The adversary, outnumbered and outgunned, stops fighting and fades into political oblivion.
We watched this scenario play out in the 2015-2016 Republican primaries with Jeb Bush and Carly Fiorina, both of whom Trump attacked mercilessly. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) opted to retire from the Senate after finishing on the losing end of Trump battles. In nearly every instance, party members largely have watched from the sidelines, fearing what would happen if Trump turned on them, too.
Some Republicans who attacked Trump — like senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) — eventually calculated that their political careers were more important than their beliefs; they avoided Step 3 by pivoting quickly from adversary to accomplice, thereby embracing MAGA so as not to be crushed by it.
Yet Cheney’s case seems to be different.
Maybe it’s because Trump lost the power to control the news cycle with a tweet or a White House press briefing. Maybe it’s because McCarthy lacks the experience and/or acumen to subdue subordinates. Or maybe it’s because she’s a Cheney.
We watched Jeb Bush get flustered during the 2016 campaign. Trump repeatedly rattled him, and the early-on frontrunner never recovered. But Cheneys are not known to get flustered. They are seemingly immune to criticism. They believe in their rightness as much as Trump believes in his — probably more so.
Cheney’s case might be different because unlike her failed predecessors, she doesn’t seem to care what anyone thinks of her. And according to the latest reports, she doesn’t care about keeping her leadership post if Republicans continue to revere the “Big Lie” more than fact-based governing. Such disdain for customary Washington power-mongering makes her far more dangerous and represents a seismic shift in her approach to politics. For example, in her first run for elected office, she made the seemingly audacious decision to briefly challenge popular three-term Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) in the 2014 primary. Soon after joining the U.S. House, she was already being viewed as a potential future Speaker. Cheney’s fearless ambition sets her apart. Because she so firmly believes in herself, she won’t be diminished without a fight.
She could have fled, like so many of Trump’s vanquished foes. Or she could have accepted defeat, bowed down to MAGA, and lived a political life unaligned with her beliefs.
Instead, with her career at a tipping point, Cheney is doubling down with one card in her back pocket: She received 70 percent support in February’s House GOP secret ballot on whether to remove her as Conference Chair.
Publicly this remains Trump’s party. But privately, there might be a different calculus at play. In the last four years Republicans lost the presidency, the House, and the Senate. Perhaps they’re still not ready to demote one of the only conservatives who insists their party deserves better than Trump.
B.J. Rudell is a longtime political strategist, former associate director for Duke University’s Center for Politics, and recent North Carolina Democratic Party operative. In a career encompassing stints on Capitol Hill, on presidential campaigns, in a newsroom, in classrooms, and for a consulting firm, he has authored three books and has shared political insights across all media platforms, including for CNN and Fox News.