Liz Cheney's Flight 93 Election
Are dueling "existential threat" narratives really what we want to see play out in 2024?
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In the past month or so, most of my writing has been hovering around my continued disapprobation of Donald Trump and his enablers, my frustration with what appears to be a very poorly run campaign by Ron DeSantis, and my much-needed forays into the political theory where my true passion resides.
In recent weeks, however, there’s been a new focal point in my writing both here at the Freemen News-Letter and on social media: the cries of unavoidable dictatorship if Trump were to be elected again, chiefly represented by former Representative Liz Cheney.
First, Liz Cheney asserted that if Trump were re-elected in 2024, it “may mean the last election that you ever get to vote in.” In response to criticism of this view, such as that offered by myself that for how bad things could get under a second Trump term, the ongoing strength of the American constitutional order disallows the rise of a true dictator, Cheney replied that the checks and balances of the Constitution would be ineffective in the face of Donald Trump regaining the White House.
So today, I thought I would discuss some of my concerns with what this rhetoric broadly signifies has happened to much of the “Never Trump” effort and whether Liz Cheney’s Flight 93 Election argument is responsible or even effective.
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Liz Cheney’s Flight 93 Election, or, The “Fighting” Problem
I’m a sucker for cinematic depictions of pivotal moments in American history. I’m brought to tears by such portrayals as when the HBO mini-series John Adams depicts George Washington wearing a black armband of mourning in solidarity with Boston when he attends the Second Continental Congress, when Glory depicts the brave but doomed charge of the 54th Massachusetts, or when Pearl Harbor depicts Franklin D. Roosevelt (who I don’t have much else good to say about typically) defiantly locking his braces and standing before his advisors while demanding an immediate and requisite response to Japan’s aggression, declaring, “Don’t tell me it can’t be done!”
If I were to name a movie with the most such depictions, I would probably have to say Gettysburg. Three of my fondest role models for clear-minded leadership, deliberate and decisive action, and pure grit have their pivotal roles in that momentous battle depicted within the film.
There’s Colonel Chamberlain’s defiant bayonet charge that won the fight for Little Round Top and saved the Union line from collapsing (and arguably saved the Union itself). There’s General Hancock boldly standing tall in his saddle as one of the most extensive cannon bombardments of the war rained down around him and his men, who, to his aides, fearing for his life, calmly said, “There are times when a Corps commander’s life does not count.”
But the moment that I think is most relevant to the subject at hand, and the present political moment, is the leadership demonstrated in the early stages of the battle by General Buford, portrayed in the film by Sam Elliot. Some call Sam Elliot’s brief but stirring performance in the film “Buford’s Speech”:
“Meade will come in slowly, cautiously, new to command. They'll be on his back from Washington. Wires hot with messages. Attack! Attack!
“So he will set up a ring around these hills. And when Lee's army is nicely entrenched behind fat rocks on the high ground...Meade will finally attack, if he can coordinate the army.
“Straight up the hillside, out in the open...in that gorgeous field of fire. We will charge valiantly and be butchered valiantly. And afterward, men in tall hats and gold watch fobs will thump their chest... and say what a brave charge it was.”
-Buford’s Speech from Gettysburg
In my time as a student of politics, I’ve come across more than a few attempts to define just what politics is. The most common theme among these definitions has been that politics is, at its most basic, a contest for power. But what kind of a contest is it? Is it a boxing match? Is it ritual combat? Is it two men (or women) standing toe to toe to see who comes out on top? Perhaps, at times, politics can be boiled down into such a conflict, but rarely does such a view of politics play out in reality. Just as war, which is itself a contest for power, has almost never come down to just two people duking it out, politics is more often than not an ebb and flow of advantage offered and advantage taken.
Politics is an ever-changing animal that requires the use of various strategies, of tactics, and of weighing risk against reward. It’s no coincidence that the kind of people who are drawn to the political contest, to the contest for power, are those willing to bide their time and do what they have to do to achieve power. For every Ned Stark that runs for office, there are dozens of Little Fingers.
Politics has been and very much always will be a Game of Thrones, and while we need not adopt the nihilism of those who say, “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground,” we nevertheless must look at the game with a healthy dose of realism. If you give an inch to another’s advantage, you will lose a mile, whether your intentions are just and pure or not. Those of us who have good intent and wish to assert true principles and values must be “harmless as doves” but “wise as serpents.”
Since 2016, many Republicans and conservatives have developed a strong and abiding conviction that Donald Trump is a great leader and should be followed at all costs. This reality has led many Republican politicians to be afraid of questioning his dominance. In the past, I’ve written about the perpetuation of this view in the GOP, the New McCarthyism, as I once called it. One of the singular aspects of this Trumpism has become a serial worship of “fighting.” Trump is no longer President, the Republican Party lost control of Congress, and the culture of America is largely swinging away from traditional conservative values and governing principles. But that doesn’t matter to many Republicans and conservatives. Trump “fights” for them, and for that, they give him fealty.
But I’ve discovered that this phenomenon is not unique to the Trumpist right. In no small measure, the anti-Trump Right has also come to content itself with self-declared pyrrhic victories and with the thrill of histrionic rhetoric. The latter provides an inebriating catharsis that numbs the despondency of the Trump era but fails to convince anyone that Trump is a concern who isn’t already convinced.
The need for the cathartic effects of “fighting” leads the anti-Trump camp to hold up as its heroes those tragic figures who stood valiantly and fell valiantly. And their enemies are those who refuse to wrap themselves in political self-immolation and who “acquiesce” to Trump’s dominance of the Party by shrinking away from placing their careers on the anti-Trump pyre. Whether or not any of this effectively counters Trump’s dominance of the Republican Party, at least they are “fighting,” and they eschew as cowards anyone who doesn’t place “fighting” Trump and Trumpism as their chief concern.
But in pure political calculation, a loss is a loss, and a win is a win. In terms of raw power, it doesn’t matter whose side truth is on. It matters whose side has risen to power. What has the anti-Trump contingent of conservatives accomplished since Trump descended the golden escalator other than the ability to thump their chest at how noble their stand has been while ultimately handing Trump a list of victories and a collection of scalps?
Now, I know that there are many in the Never Trump column who characterize their efforts as a victory because Trump is no longer President. But, apparently, it wasn’t much of a victory at all, given that Trump is still so popular in the Republican Party that he appears to be very close to making the Republican Primary a coronation and that, according to Liz Cheney, he could destroy the American Republic if returned to power.
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This brings me back to the “fighting” problem that exists in the ranks of various brands of conservatism, a problem that has only gotten worse in recent years, even though Trump is no longer President. A big part of the “fighting” impulse is the “cult of defeat.” You see, the virtue inherent in the “fight” increases the more consequential a defeat or the threat of defeat becomes.
This is reflected on the pro-Trump side by the rampant election denialism perpetrated by Trump and his enablers. The stolen election narrative allows Trump to continue to be cast as a “fighter” rather than the man who lost an election to “barely conscious” Joe Biden. And because far too many rank-and-file conservatives have bought into this lie and continue to hold Trump aloft as their champion, the vast majority of Republican officeholders, who know Trump’s continued popularity is built on a serial lie, nevertheless acquiesce to the “fight.” Even though the GOP squandered its 2022 advantages, its 2023 advantages, and is looking poised to do so again in 2024, the party continues to refuse to wrest itself free from the clutches of an angry, unhinged man who can only shout, “Attack! Attack!”
But here’s the kicker: the efforts of Liz Cheney, from her self-immolation in the House to her use of Flight 93 Election rhetoric in the past few weeks, showcase the same “fighting” problem on the anti-Trump side of the coin.
Now, I’m not going to lie. I was among the strongest and loudest people making an effort to support Liz Cheney while she was still in the House and push back against the efforts I characterized as “cancel culture on the Right.” In making a break from Trumpism, I tried to show her she was not alone and that I and others had her back. When she made her stand, I was tweeting out #StandWithLiz in the most aggressive ways.
Yet, I try to stay privy to various perspectives and to seek out as much nuance as possible. And, as Cheney’s efforts have progressed, it’s become evident that she picked a fight she couldn’t win and is now feeding a “fighting” narrative that seems more calculated to rile up anxiety among those who already view Trump as a concern rather than convince anyone who hasn’t already reached that conclusion that Trump is bad news. At the end of the day, she fought an initially noble fight that accomplished very little, and now she’s trying to extend that noble fight by using apocalyptic rhetoric that gets her in the headlines. All so she and other leaders of anti-Trump conservatism can thump their chests and say what a noble “fight” they’ve led. What is being accomplished by any of this?
What is the goal? If the goal is, as has been my goal, to assert conservative principles over the distraction that Donald Trump continues to be, then Cheney’s efforts have been and continue to be a failure. She says she stood nobly for truth, and many of us cheered her for doing so, but all she effectively accomplished was to give Trump another scalp, another symbol of his dominance of the party, and she surrendered her position of leadership to someone who has not demonstrated her conservative principles. She then went on to lose her seat in Congress entirely, further isolating the shrinking non-Trump faction of Republicans in Congress.
If the goal is, as has been my goal, to wean people off of Trumpism and reassert a more principled conservative vision, then Cheney’s efforts have been and continue to be a failure. Many Republicans believe Trump is a greater good; many more view him as a lesser evil. Are any of them moved by arguments that Trump will be a dictator or effectively end the Republic? Of course not. Time and time again, we have observed that overstating the case of the dangers of Trump enables Republicans to overlook the real and substantive concerns about Trump’s character, goals, and mindset. The headlines become the reaction to Trump rather than what Trump said or did. Why do we have to keep replaying this scenario? Why do we have to aid and abet Trump’s continued popularity by overstating the case?
But it’s easier, and far more satisfying, to set aside real and tangible goals and just “fight.” And as we have seen with the pro-Trump faction, it seems all the anti-Trump effort really wants is the “fight.” They’re looking for their cathartic exercise, the noble thrill of charging a dragon, even if the dragon is actually a windmill. They would rather cover themselves in the virtue of standing up to a would-be dictator than look to find realistic ways to reassert conservative principles and values in the Republican Party’s vision, the conservative movement’s vision, or into, heaven forbid, actual policy.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying Liz Cheney or any other Republican who understands the reality that the party cannot maintain its toxic relationship with Trump and have a future should lie, should kowtow to Trump along with the rest, or should hide away their thoughts and values for another day. I’m simply saying there’s value in taking the smart and prudent path and that the solution is avoiding the pitfalls of the “fight” that has already consumed so many conservatives.
I am an advocate for considering strategy with an eye to what the actual goal is and am not content with “fighting” or with upping the rhetorical ante so that “fighting” can appear even more noble. I especially haven’t endured the wilderness of a non-Trump conservative just to become the inverse of what I initially stood up to oppose in 2016.
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Take as another example the day after the election in 2016, when many Republicans who remained Trump-skeptical nevertheless celebrated a victory over Hillary Clinton and had begun developing a fondness for the guy they didn’t much care for but who gave them a victory none of them had expected. Was that moment a good moment, an effective moment for Evan McMullin to call for an exodus from the GOP? Was that good ground to fight on, to try and drive home the issue at a time when the argument was at its weakest? How much more effective might such an effort have been if, say, McMullin had kept his powder dry until the Charlottesville protests, attempting to peel voters away from Trump at his low water mark rather than at his high water mark?
Or what about the initial post-2106 world? Did the various Republican politicians who continued the Never Trump fight post-2016, who refused to make an effort to govern as part of an uncomfortable coalition, and who made their politics one of pure anti-Trumpism? Did they accomplish anything in their efforts? They stood boldly and valiantly, and yet, one by one, they fell to the political winds and were removed from the equation. While they engaged in the “fight,” they ultimately only increased Trump’s power as he displayed his captured scalps and further isolated his opponents within the GOP.
So, circling back to Liz Cheney, what have her efforts accomplished? Let’s not pretend that her initial fight in the House was wholly thrust upon her. She knew Trump had it out for her, and yet she courted the “fight.” It wasn’t really about a demand that she lie for Trump. I don’t think whether or not she was willing to lie was ever the question.
She had made her stance clear. She had voted for impeachment. Republicans in the House knew where she stood and knew she refused to apologize for her stance, and yet they still initially voted to keep her in leadership. The issue that brought on further drama was that she continued to acquiesce to the reporters who were looking for red meat, who were looking for a conflict. There’s nothing wrong with pushing back when you’re pushed, but Cheney purposefully went looking for the “fight.” She did everything she could to confront Trump in a toe-to-toe battle.
And what came of it? Trump got to hang another scalp on his wall. By courting a contest that ended up demonstrating Trump’s strength, she accomplished the exact opposite of what she set out to do. She fought valiantly, she lost valiantly, and the anti-Trump Right got to thump its chest and talk about what a “fight” it was. But it amounted to nothing.
And again, this histrionic language she’s chosen to embrace is nothing more than a perpetuation of the “fight.” What does it accomplish beyond stoking apocalyptic fear in voters who are already going to vote against Trump? Again, this rhetoric convinces nobody to abandon Trump who has even a cursory possibility of voting for Trump. I mean, if Jan. 6 didn’t convince half of America to stop considering Trump as a legitimate consideration for President, Liz Cheney’s Flight 93 Election argument isn’t going to be what changes their mind.
I opened with a cinematic quote, one that depicts a pivotal moment as forces began moving into place in what would become the Battle of Gettysburg. General Buford looked at the terrain he’d been given, and he realized things were set against him and the Union Army if he didn’t play the hand he’d been dealt in just the right way.
General Buford changed the course of that brewing battle, and ultimately the course of the war, by making his focus something different than simply fighting and dying nobly. He directed his cavalry troopers to fight like the devil to hold the high ground. He took the image of defeat and butchery he saw in his mind’s eye, of Meade answering the call to “attack, attack!” and sending Union soldiers up a hill in a doomed effort to displace the Rebel army, and he turned it back on the Confederates. He held the high ground so that when the bulk of each army arrived on the scene, it was the Confederates who fought valiantly, charging into the Union lines to be butchered valiantly.
It’s become my opinion that for too long, far too much of the anti-Trump effort has fought on Trump’s terms, ultimately losing on a field of battle of his choosing. Time and again, anti-Trump efforts have made Trump himself the sole consideration. They have, one by one, set down every other principle and value they claim to hold, and breached every bound of rhetorical propriety that Trump himself first breached, in an increasingly maniacal and doggish resistance to him.
The Flight 93 Election argument is not good ground. It isn’t the high ground. It isn’t the ground of our own choosing but the ground of Trump’s choosing. And if you choose to fight him on that ground, he will win. He and his enablers have cultivated their tactics in that field of battle for nearly a decade. We’ve already seen how committed the most unhinged actors on the right are to such a narrative in what happened on Jan. 6. Is this a dueling narrative we really want to see play out in 2024?
Prudence, First of All Virtues by Scott Howard: “Prudence has forever been the guiding star of conservative thinkers, and for good reason. Proper conservation requires the stewards of today to prepare for tomorrow.”
To See the World Anew, by Kenly Stewart: “Lincoln’s Second Inaugural embodies the moral imagination at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. He possessed the immense power of a victorious leader, and had the freedom to lay out any vision he wanted. Lincoln revealed a vision of compassion, justice, and forgiveness, using his freedom to issue a call to care for the most vulnerable and promote a message of reconciliation.”
Burkean Prescription Should Inform Us, Not Rule Us, by Me: “The application of reason moderates the principle of prescription by making us conscious conservatives who can defend the valuable aspects of a given status quo while also helping us avoid becoming blind defenders of broken, problematic aspects of the status quo that, if left unconsidered and unaddressed, provide powerful rhetorical ammunition to those who would destroy tradition and the provisions of prescription altogether.”
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Stay Free My Friends,
Justin Stapley received his Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science from Utah Valley University, with emphases in political philosophy, public law, American history, and constitutional studies. He is the Founding and Executive Director of the Freemen Foundation as well as Editor in Chief of the Freemen News-Letter. @JustinWStapley
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