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Standing With Liz
Is #StandWithLiz a short-lived viral hashtag or the beginning of a movement?
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 locks his braces and stands before his advisors while demanding an immediate and requisite response to Japan’s aggression and declares, “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 aids, fearing for his life, calmly said, “There are times when a Corp 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.”
Lately, my thoughts have been dwelling on this moment in the early stages of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was a pivotal moment, one where General Buford had calmly surveyed the realities of the terrain before him and 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.
He found a way to play it well. He 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.
General Buford 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 and were repulsed, retreating back into Virginia.
What does this have to do with anything? While I am no fan of the “political equivalent of war” I am also not blind to the similarities between war and politics. Both are, at their most basic, contests for power. And, just like war, politics seldom comes down to just two people duking it out. Both are, more often than not, an ebb and flow of advantage offered and advantage taken.
Politics, specifically, is an ever-changing animal that requires various strategies, tactics, and weighing risk against reward. It’s no coincidence that the kind of people 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. While we need not adopt the nihilism of those that 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 intentions and wish to assert true principles and values must be “harmless as doves” but “wise as serpents.”
In the last five years, there has arisen a strong and abiding conviction that Donald Trump is a great leader and should be followed at all costs. This conviction has arisen in enough of the Republican Party that many politicians are afraid to question his dominance.
One of the singular aspects of this dominance is a serial worship of “fighting.” Trump is no longer President. The Republican Party has lost both Houses 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 is this phenomenon unique to Trumpism? In no small measure, many of the various camps of “non-Trump” or “anti-Trump” conservatism have also come to content themselves with bold, brash, but ultimately quixotic efforts.
Their heroes are those who stood valiantly and fell valiantly. Their enemies are those who refuse to wrap themselves in political self-immolation. They despise those who “acquiesce” to Trump’s dominance of the Republican Party by shrinking away from placing their careers on the anti-Trump pyre. In other words, whether or not this resistance has effectively countered Trump’s dominance of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, at least they are “fighting.” 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. 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 over the six-year span since Trump descended the golden escalator other than the ability to thump their chests at how noble their stand was while ultimately handing Trump a list of victories and a collection of scalps?
Now, I know that many in the #NeverTrump column characterize their efforts as a victory because Trump is no longer President. But, to be perfectly honest, this is a shifting of the goalposts that many of us who stood athwart Trumpism and tried to holler “stop!” did not sign up for.
I and many others who once went under the #NeverTrump moniker did so because we believed his candidacy was contrary to conservative values. And, we remained Trump-skeptical and opposed his dominance of the GOP because he governed and behaved in ways that were contrary to conservative values. I may only speak for myself, but my efforts were always focused on maintaining the efficacy of a conservative vision for this country.
From that perspective, unified control of government by a Democratic Party kowtowing to a radical vision of their own, while the GOP remains under Trump’s thumb can, indeed, only be seen as victory by a band of self-declared noble knights charging bravely at windmills.
After six long years of watching this pro-Trump vs. anti-Trump drama play out, my conclusion can only be that the “fighting” problem has encompassed both camps to an extensive and debilitating degree. This brings me to the recent drama in the House of Representatives over Liz Cheney.
Many Republicans are continuing to latch on to Trump’s “Big Lie” narrative. They are afraid to speak out and assert what is eminently true: that Trump lost the election. Trump remains the “fighter” to whom far too many rank-and-file conservatives hold aloft as their champion. If anyone dares assert reality, there is hell to pay from Mar-a-Lago.
Despite all data evidence to the contrary, evidence that is well-known even to those making their pro-Trump calculations, what has come to matter is simply continuing the “fight.” The Republican Party may very well squander its 2022 advantages because it refuses to wrest itself free from the clutches of a man who perpetually shouts, “Attack! Attack!”
But I’ve also seen a mirror reflection of this dogged determination to twist reality towards a narrative from many of those who claimed to support Liz Cheney. Liz Cheney, after all, has made clear why she’s doing what she’s doing.
In an Op-Ed published by the Washington Post earlier this week, Liz Cheney asserted that “The Republican Party is at a turning point.” She said it must decide whether it will “choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution” or whether it “will join Trump’s crusade to delegitimize and undo the legal outcome of the 2020 election.”
Many observers and even many of those who have taken to Twitter to declare that they #StandWithLiz have come to view this turning point as represented in the vote taken to remove Liz Cheney from her position of leadership in the Republican House Conference. The turning point, in their view, has happened. Liz Cheney fought valiantly and lost valiantly, and now the battle for the GOP is over.
But that narrative does not hold when considering Liz Cheney’s words and actions. She knew she couldn’t win. She courted this fight. She didn’t even whip for votes, suggesting she had no delusions about how things would play out. The turning point that Liz Cheney spoke of could not be the vote that she knew she couldn’t win. She wasn’t placing all her chips in this moment. For her, this wasn’t a do-or-die “fight.” She wasn’t positing that the vote she herself courted was a point of no return, after which the battle she was choosing to wage was lost.
In the same Op-Ed referenced above, Liz Cheney speaks of the “profound long-term damage” that embracing the Big Lie would do to “our party.” Our party. Liz Cheney is no shrinking violet in the sun of Trump dominance. She wasn’t signaling an abandonment of the GOP to forces that had overwhelmed it and rendered it irredeemable. She was defiantly asserting that the Republican Party, its four-year dalliance with nationalist populism notwithstanding, is still America’s conservative party and rightfully belongs to conservatives. It is our party.
In the aftermath of the vote to remove her from House leadership, Cheney made her intentions clear: “I intend to be the leader, one of the leaders, in a fight to help to restore our party, in a fight to bring our party back to substance and principle.” She characterized the skirmish over her former leadership role as an “opening salvo in that battle.”
Liz Cheney is seeking the high ground in the early moments of a battle she is only beginning to fight. Her effort isn’t some quixotic affair where she can thump her chest and say she fought valiantly and lost valiantly before retreating into exile. She’s maneuvering for advantage, she’s playing the long game, and she has no intention of retreating.
But to far too significant a portion of the anti-Trump Right, Liz Cheney has served her purpose. Despite their erstwhile Tweets of support, they have no intention of standing with her in her broader battle. They weren’t looking for victory. They were just looking for a “fight.” While Liz Cheney’s stand held their attention, while they swooned in excited ecstasy in the belief that someone was going toe-to-toe with Donald Trump in a live-or-die political Charge of the Light Brigade, they cheered in the rapt glory of what they perceived as the “fight.”
But now, for them, the fight is over. Their tweets and #hashtag brigades ring hollow as they wrest Liz Cheney’s stand into their own narratives. Like the Rebel Alliance first facing the awful reality of the Death Star, their instinct is to “run, hide, scatter your forces.” They wish to take empty comfort in believing that another mass exodus from the Republican Party will somehow turn the tide instead of listening to the leader they only recently said they would stand with. They stood with Liz while she was symbolic of their desire to “fight” but now ignore her message that the real fight for the soul of the Republican Party is only beginning.
I, for one, will not be contented by “fighting” in the way that Trumpism has contented itself. I’m not interested in charging windmills. I’m not interested in retreat.
For too long, non-Trump conservatives have fought valiantly on Trump’s terms and have lost valiantly 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 have held in an increasingly maniacal and doggish resistance to him. In many ways, Trump has successfully maneuvered those who oppose him into becoming exactly what he and his enablers claim non-Trump conservatives were from the start.
Many leaders in the anti-Trump Right are thumping their chests over having taken down the Trump presidency. They’re thumping their chests and celebrating Biden, far from opposing his Leftist agenda. They’re staking out a position that’s not only #NeverTrump but increasingly #NeverGOP and even, to a certain startling extent, #NeverConservative.
What is their goal? What is the point of all of this? For me, it was always more than just about defeating Trump. It was about championing principles and standing for what I believed in. It was about finding a way to offer the country a truly conservative vision and to transfer conservative principles of governance into actual policy and a real path forward for the nation.
Liz Cheney is not a #NeverTrump Republican. Her political journey has not been one of maniacal and singular opposition to Donald Trump. She attempted to find her place in an uncomfortable coalition where she could put her principles first and foremost. But Trump pushed and pushed until he crossed the line. Now, she’s making her stand, not because she’s become consumed by Trump Derangement Syndrome but because her party has been consumed by it. She’s staking out a different path for the GOP because she knows there can be no platform for her conservative vision for America without a conservative party that respects and honors the rule of law and holds Constitutional values up as its first loyalty.
Liz Cheney, however much so many anti-Trump voices try, does not fit neatly into their narrative of doom, despair, and defeatism. She’s offering a counter-vision to the various anti-Trump efforts who’ve become little more than the mirror image of the Trumpism they claim to oppose. Liz Cheney is doing far more than just “fighting.” She’s not mindlessly and reflexively thrashing against Trump in a way that’s absent any overall realistic or strategic consideration for holding to principles and values above other considerations. She’s fighting for the high ground and plans on holding the high ground.
The Liz Cheney moment offers a choice to non-Trump conservatives. They can continue to follow the voices who see every movement on the field of conflict as a singular, defining moment, where every step forward by the toxic forces that have invaded the GOP must be met with a hasty retreat and another clarion call to abandon the Republican Party.
Or, they can move beyond the hashtags and actually stand with Liz. They can refuse to play into the hands of Trump and his enablers. They can refuse to so easily surrender the institution, the platform where the values of conservative governance, even in these dark times, still has the best opportunity to hold sway and make its way into the halls of government.
As for me, I choose to play the long game alongside Liz Cheney. I’ll make the play for the high ground and work towards that day when Trump and his cohorts mount their final doomed effort against us. When they charge us on the high ground. When all they can do is fight and lose. When nationalist populism retreats into obscurity and the Republican Party will once again be a bastion for conservative principles and values, able to offer a truly conservative vision to the American people.