By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg*
During his presidency, Donald Trump did not find time to visit the state of Wyoming. After all, this large mass of land has the smallest population among the 50 states that comprise the US — fewer than 600,000 people who habitually vote overwhelmingly for Republican candidates. Hardly a battleground state.
Yet the people of Casper, Wyoming, will have the privilege of hosting the former president when he addresses a “Save America Rally” there this month. Most people, even those who have visited Wyoming, will be more familiar with other places in the state, such as Yellowstone National Park, Jackson Hole, where the rich and famous live, or, thanks to Steven Spielberg, Devils Tower National Monument, which was immortalized in the director’s 1977 movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
So what brings Trump to Casper? The answer is Liz Cheney, the most maligned politician within the Republican Party. In the specific case of Trump, the animosity he displays toward her is of the particularly bitter and immature type that he marshals so well.
Because of the relatively small population of the state, Cheney is Wyoming’s sole member in the House of Representatives and Trump is determined to unseat her. In one rambling attack, he described her as “a bitter, horrible human being (that) has no personality or anything good having to do with politics or our country.”
Trump is visiting Wyoming in support of Harriet Hageman, Cheney’s rival in the state primaries. According to the New York Times, Hageman once described Trump as “racist” and “xenophobic” but now, like so many Republicans, views him as the kingmaker whose blessing will be crucial if she is to win the party’s nomination.
Cheney’s mortal sin is being one of only nine Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 insurrection on Capitol Hill last year. Worse than that, from the point of view of Trump and his supporters, she and Rep. Adam Kinzinger from Illinois were the only two Republicans who agreed to serve on the House of Representatives’ select committee tasked with investigating the violent uprising, which was an attack on the seat of government that, if not instigated directly by Trump, was clearly inspired by his relentless repetition of the utter falsehood that the presidential election had been rigged in favor of Joe Biden.
One might dismiss Trump’s vile personal attacks on Cheney as part of a sore-loser former president’s tour of feeling sorry for himself and refusing to accept that someone else won the election. Yet the undignified spat has become an allegory for what has become of US politics generally, and the Republican Party in particular.
Evidently, contemporary US politics is polarized. But where in the past legitimate ideological differences were marked by a more constructive approach leading, in most cases, to some form of workable compromise, now the sides are entrenched and the political arena has become mainly a tool with which to goad rivals, not a forum where issues are discussed with the good of the country in mind.
US politics has been hijacked by populism and no one is better at cynically exploiting this space, where emotions and fears have overtaken facts and reality, than Trump. Sadly, he has cast a spell on the Republican Party and its supporters, and it is one that most of the party’s elected representatives are either reluctant to challenge or have been cowed into accepting.
Only last week, J.D. Vance won the Senate Republican primary in Ohio, securing victory in a close race after receiving Trump’s endorsement. Not that long ago Vance was scathing about Trump, labeling him an “idiot,” “reprehensible” and “noxious.” He has changed his tune now that the embittered former president’s blessing is regarded by aspiring Republicans as political gold dust.
Nothing could be further from the truth than Trump’s accusation that Cheney “is a talking point for Democrats.” Do not get me wrong, I am no fan of her politics. But not only is she the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who also served for decades as the representative for Wyoming, which somewhat makes her political “royalty” within the party and in the state, she is in fact a very conservative politician.
She opposes gun control, abortion and the Affordable Care Act, and has claimed that waterboarding is not torture. In the past she has opposed gay marriage, although more recently she abandoned this position.
In principle, with these credentials Liz Cheney should be viewed by Republicans as walking on water. Instead, the third-highest-ranking Republican in the House has been censured by her own party, locally and nationally.
Trump is not the issue nor the problem, as such. Rather, it is the tragic manifestation of a fragmentation in US society and politics that is reaching breaking point. Contemporary America is split over issues such as race, gender, immigration and the nation’s extreme version of unregulated capitalism.
These cleavages in society are amplified by a highly partisan media and exploited by unscrupulous politicians of Trump’s ilk. Left unresolved, such divisions have led to a culture war.
The authentic expression of these rifts through movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo has highlighted some of the underlying issues that divide the US. The Jan. 6 riot was a scary reminder of the fear and anger that exists mainly among working-class, white men who feel marginalized and disenfranchised. In the neoliberal, globalized discourse that has dominated the US for most of the post-Cold War era, as many of them watched employment migrate overseas they swallowed the fallacies that immigrants are taking their jobs, that the free market in its purest version will be their salvation, and that their conservative family values are under attack.
In rural, small-town America, the cosmopolitan values of the big cities feel alien and threatening, which is something the progressive forces fail to see and the populists exploit.
Liz Cheney’s politics are certainly not to everyone’s taste but she deserves much credit for standing up for the values that until 2016 most residents of Wyoming, and Republicans across the country, would have been proud to support — primarily the supremacy of the rule of law and the US Constitution.
It is inconceivable that many Republicans would not want a thorough investigation into who was behind the Jan. 6 insurrection, and that they would continue to spread baseless lies about the “rigged” 2020 presidential election.
To viciously attack Cheney is to viciously attack the democratic system, the constitution and the truth, at a time when the US desperately needs a conciliatory, healing-based dialogue more than it has for a very long time.
- Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He is a regular contributor to the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg