Surely, God has a sense of humor in arranging these occasions for a three-day jag.
The day after marking America’s last fully won war, the Taliban celebrated their ouster of us—the U.S.—from Kabul. Twenty-four hours later, the lawmaker who most personifies American foreign policy’s inglorious slippage loses her congressional seat by a whopping and WOW-ing 36 points.
Despite the question being asked and answered in every media organ from sea to sea, I’ll ask it anyway: why did Liz Cheney lose to her Trump-endorsed opponent, Harriet Hageman? Of course, to bait any readers, I’ll have to title this disquisition something like “The Meaning of Liz Cheney’s Loss” or “What Liz Cheney’s Loss Means.” *Knock, knock.* Hey, Mr. Editor, that’s your cue for the headline. Columns like these need to mean something these days, functioning as epistemological utilon for all those poor readers who think they’re seeking meaning but only want the next distraction on their Facebook scroll.
But I digress. Back to our failed imperial heiress.
Wyoming is the smallest state, to a head wise, in the union. Yet the race for its sole congressional seat attracted national attention—not national attention that small towns lure when they elect a border collie as mayor, but sustained, countrywide focus. Last spring, many DC news sites ran breathless headline after breathless headline about Cheney’s “record fundraising haul,” most of which came from big-dollar GOP conclaves in California and Texas. Out of Cheney’s accumulated $15 million war chest, a measly 2.5% of funds came courtesy of the Cowboy State. Hagerman wasn’t exactly a purebred in-stater, though: around a quarter of her campaign funds came from Wyomingites.
But why did so much dough flow into the race like an Old Faithful torrent? Why did Trump, Fox News, and every rabid MAGAite on Twitter spend well-nigh twelve months salivating over Cheney’s scalp? The midterms are no longer looking favorably red; political handicappers are trimming their sails over a GOP congressional takeover. Why blow millions on a safe seat? Why Richard, it profit a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world… but for Wyoming?
It’s a simple answer: the race wasn’t about Cheney or Hageman at all. The candidates may as well have been a clothes tree and a metal hanger—they were stand-ins for political proxy wars.
A brief sampling, hardly comprehensive, of what Cheney vs. Hageman represented: MAGA vs. globalism; Trump vs. DC elites; the GOP base vs. party doyens; common sense vs. the Bush legacy (my pick!); plain folk vs. the political overclass; military restraint vs. hawkish adventurism; local canvasser vs. K Street consultants; real conservatism vs. co-opted fake conservatism; election-truthers vs. election-accepters; gritty pugnaciousness vs. genteel respectability; owning the libs vs. carry the libs’ water; party loyalty vs. independent integrity; deep red vs. red-painted blue.
To get even more consequential and, by necessity, more vague: lies vs. the truth; good vs. evil; right vs. wrong; petty selfishness vs. big-minded sacrifice. And to get even more abstract with bonus rhyming: up vs. down; left vs. right; the forces of good vs. the forces of might.
Even in the few well-reported pieces on the contest, the breakdown was still a simple binary: Tea Party conservatives vs. “mainline Republicans”; local elitism vs. hereditary elitism.
Then there is the single-issue focus, which more than a few blue-check commentators never rest their hot little thumbs about: Liz Cheney’s vice chairmanship of the January 6th congressional committee. Her Trumpian detractors see this as the ultimate betrayal—not that whole being an unrepentant supporter of that costly and deathly quagmire in Mesopotamia (probably due in part to most Cheney-haters voting Bush-Cheney twice). By the same token, the Iraq War’s biggest critics are now the biggest Cheney boosters: “I will say this for Liz Cheney: She was wrong about all but one thing, but that one thing was the most important thing. And she gave up more than most of us have to try to save it,” tweeted looney leftist Ian Millhiser.
Ah, yes, that one, all-important, all-consequential thing! Certainly not sacrificing thousands of American lives, spending trillions in treasure, and destabilizing an entire terror-ridden region. The important thing is getting to the bottom of the redneck rumpus at the Capitol, and resultant delay of a commemorative vote count. Liz Cheney thankfully understands that procedural ceremony is a greater concern to the Washington mind than reckless civilizational destruction—so lend her your support!
Apologies for the digression. All of these reductive narratives played out in the press months before primary day, with sides dutifully manned and deeply entrenched for a sustained online I-told-you tussle. But the race was as long as moneyed attention as it was short on history. Cheney may have acted as an anti-Trumpian scourge and useful Democratic idiot, but she voted for the former president’s initiatives some 93% of the time. Harriet Hageman may have wielded the MAGAjølnir hammer, but she tried to knife Trump, Brutus-style, in the bloody 2016 primary. These complications—Machiavellian multitudes, if you will—would have made the race a mess if it wasn’t dichotomously defined away from serious criteria by outside forces.
Policy preference? Pssssh. Personal integrity? HA! Voting record? Who cares?! Donald Trump either had to be punished with a Hagerman hiding, or America Firstism needed vindication with a Cheney trouncing. The WY-1 race, and our politics more generally, is all about meta-arguments that have little to do with the real, flesh-and-blood representatives. It’s worse than John Adams’s warning of the republic dividing into “two great Parties.” We vote over muddled abstractions of grievances, egged on by strong, soundbite-laden personalities.
Of course, on social media, every political debate is an exercise in bad-faith gamification, hinged on arguments three degrees removed from the topic at hand. A preponderant example: Liberals enjoy pointing out Trump’s numerous international business ventures to undermine his nationalist bona fides, while conservatives, in turn, point out that criticizing foreign commercial engagement is xenophobic, so as to, in talio, undercut liberal tolerance supremacy. These types of back-and-forths are made to paint the other side as hypocritical, and therefore lacking legitimacy to be voted power. Yet that point is rarely made explicitly. We talk past each other, making ancillary arguments, hoping our real, more subtle point sinks in. Political disputation is so much like J. Alfred Prufrock’s romance travails: “Time for you and time for me/And time yet for a hundred indecisions/And for a hundred visions and revisions.”
Back to the originally posed question: why did Liz Cheney lose? Let me revise the inquiry slightly: why do you, considerate reader, think Liz Cheney lost? Whatever your answer, it’s likely reflective of the subjective feelings that animated thousands of Wyomingites to usher her out of Congress.
In our choose-your-own-adventure politics, no voting rationale can be wrong.