A Tale of Two Conservatives: Liz & Longwell

Maureen Dowd, New York Times columnist

Are we ready for the canonization of St. Liz, of Cheney, Martyr?

Lifetime Catholic MoDo isn’t buying it: columnist Maureen Dowd bats away the shiny new blond miraculous medal. She won’t kneel, or even lean, to light the votive candle.

Her trouble is, mea culpa, Dowd remembers. And talks.

How uncouth, and inconvenient:

Maureen Dowd, New York Times, WASHINGTON — May 9, 2021

Dowd: I miss torturing Liz Cheney. . . .

How naïve I was to think that Republicans would be eager to change the channel after Trump cost them the Senate and the White House and unleashed a mob on them.

I thought the Donald would evaporate in a poof of orange smoke, ending a supremely screwed-up period of history. But the loudest mouth is not shutting up. And Republicans continue to listen, clinging to the idea that the dinosaur is the future. “We can’t grow without him,” Lindsey Graham said.

Denied Twitter, Trump is focusing on his other favorite blood sport: hunting down dynasties. “Whether it’s the Cheneys, the Bushes or the lesser bloodlines — such as the Romneys or the Murkowskis — Trump has been relentless in his efforts to force them to bend the knee,” David Siders wrote in Politico.

Yet an unbowed Liz Cheney didn’t mince words when, in a Washington Post op-ed a few days ago, she implored the stooges in her caucus to “steer away from the dangerous and anti-democratic Trump cult of personality.”

That trademark Cheney bluntness made Liz the toast of MSNBC and CNN, where chatterers praised her as an avatar of the venerable “fact-based” Republican Party decimated by Trump.”

So far, so good, or at least so au courant. And then comes the legendary Dowd dagger:

“But if Liz Cheney wants to be in the business of speaking truth to power, she’s going to have to dig a little deeper.

Let’s acknowledge who created the template for Trump’s Big Lie.

It was her father, Dick Cheney, whose Big Lie about the Iraq war led to the worst mistake in the history of American foreign policy. Liz, who was the captain of her high school cheerleading team and titled her college thesis “The Evolution of Presidential War Powers,” cheered on her dad as he spread fear, propaganda and warped intelligence.

From her patronage perch in the State Department during the Bush-Cheney years, she bolstered her father’s trumped-up case for an invasion of Iraq. Even after no W.M.D.s were found, she continued to believe the invasion was the right thing to do.

“She almost thrives in an atmosphere where the overall philosophy is discredited and she is a lonely voice,” a State Department official who worked with Liz told Joe Hagan for a 2010 New York magazine profile of the younger Cheney on her way up.

She was a staunch defender of the torture program. “Well, it wasn’t torture, Norah, so that’s not the right way to lay out the argument,” she instructed Norah O’Donnell in 2009, looking on the bright side of waterboarding.

She backed the futile, 20-year occupation of the feudal Afghanistan. (Even Bob Gates thinks we should have left in 2002.) Last month, when President Biden announced plans to pull out, Liz Cheney — who wrote a book with her father that accused Barack Obama of abandoning Iraq and making America weaker — slapped back: “We know that this kind of pullback is reckless. It’s dangerous.”

Dowd remembers more:

For many years, [Cheney] had no trouble swimming in Fox News bile. Given the chance to denounce the Obama birther conspiracy, she demurred, interpreting it live on air as people being “uncomfortable with having for the first time ever, I think, a president who seems so reluctant to defend the nation overseas.”

Thanks to that kind of reasoning, we ended up with a president who fomented an attack on the nation at home.

In her Post piece, Cheney wrote that her party is at a “turning point” and that Republicans “must decide whether we are going to choose truth and fidelity to the Constitution.”

Sage prose from someone who was a lieutenant to her father when he assaulted checks and balances, shredding America’s Constitution even as he imposed one on Iraq.

Because of 9/11, Dick Cheney thought he could suspend the Constitution, attack nations preemptively and trample civil liberties in the name of the war on terror. (And for his own political survival.)

Keeping Americans afraid was a small price to pay for engorging executive power, which the former Nixon and Ford aide thought had been watered down too much after Watergate.

By his second term, W. had come around to his parents’ opinion that Cheney had overreached, and the vice president became increasingly isolated.

Liberals responded to Trump’s derangements by bathing the Bush-Cheney crowd in a flattering nostalgic light.

So, shockingly, the Republicans who eroded America’s moral authority — selling us the Iraq war, torture, a prolonged Afghanistan occupation and Sarah Palin — became the new guardians of America’s moral authority. Complete with bloated TV and book contracts.

Trump built a movement based on lies. The Cheneys showed him how it’s done.

Thanks, MoDo.  Like the nun’s rap on my knuckles with her thick wooden ruler, back in parochial school an eon ago, (or more like a whack upside the head), I can see I needed that. I won’t buy the miraculous medal either.

But I admit I might be tempted to light her a candle one of these days.

The beatified one and her Dear Old War Criminal Dad.

At the same time,  I’ve lately been reading about  & listening to some of St. Liz’s ex- Republican admirers.  I’m thinking of the agonized public conversation going on among some of the most cogent anti-Trumpers, now recovering and at least somewhat repentant ex-Republicans. I’m thinking particularly those associated with The Lincoln Project & The Bulwark.

Among these, Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark, is perhaps the most impressive. She is featured in this article from The Atlantic. While I would differ with her (& the others) on many issues, we seem to be in harmony on one central insight and imperative:

Our republic, left and right, is under grave threat from the MAGA insurgency, its leader, its lies, and its guns. And stopping (or outlasting) that threat is Job One on our political/cultural agenda. Period.

Sarah Longwell

Longwell is appealing in lots of ways: she’s wicked smart, articulate, has values and a keen strategic sense. Further, her evolution has been leavened by the experience of being an out lesbian, now married and with kids.

The chance to build her own version of that most conservative of social artifacts, a legal family, was overwhelmingly the gift of those she ought to despise most, American progressives. I haven’t heard her talk about this much, but perhaps it makes us, in her estimation, somewhat worth saving, a notion which in many such circles is still rank heresy.

Not least, her current political reflections are deeply grounded in the ongoing work of deep-dive focus groups she’s been conducting with MAGA folks for several years now. Which means that, unlike many of us liberals/lefties, she actually knows a lot about what & who she’s talking about.

Longwell has had a distinguished career among conservative politial operatives, and she still hasn’t shaken many of her views: in 2019, as chairwoman of the Log Cabin Republicans, she told the New York Times, in an interview at CPAC (The legendary Conservative Political Action Conference) “I became interested in conservative ideas, particularly economic ideas, in high school. I knew I was conservative before I knew I was gay.”  Still she acknowledged that her views are in the minority of their minority: Longwell also told The Times that she “personally knew only a handful of conservative lesbians, and that her spouse and all her close lesbian friends are Democrats.”

Still, she had her conservative limits. Longwell was the first female appointed to the board of the LGBT-oriented Log Cabin Republicans. But even then, there were problems. She told another Times interviewer in 2012 that

“One of the things that’s interesting about these older [LGBT] people in general is that when they were coming up in the world, the Democrats were not any better” . . . . Because Democrats now support gay marriage, “it posed a much harder question suddenly for gay Republicans.”

Then there came Trump. When the Log Cabin Republicans endorsed Trump for re-election in 2019, Longwell quit, and described herself as an “apostate Republican”.  Early this year, she started her own political communications firm, Longwell Partners, which works with  some of the key anti-MAGA activists.

So far, her analysis of the post-January 6 situation seems not only clear-eyed and informed, but also refreshingly free of righteous certitude. She knows where the Republicans  (& the rest of us) need to get to, but hasn’t yet figured out a grand plan, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. But for me this developing work in progress has been a hopeful sign, and the quality of her thinking out loud about it with other expatriate  colleagues has been compelling.

Longwell and her insights were featured in a recent article in The Atlantic, aptly titled, “The GOP Is a Grave Threat to American Democracy”, by conservative writer Peter Wehner:

The hope of many conservative critics of Donald Trump was that soon after his defeat, and especially in the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, the Republican Party would snap back into its former shape. The Trump presidency would end up being no more than an ugly parenthesis. The GOP would distance itself from Trump and Trumpism, and become a normal party once again.

But that dream soon died. The Trump presidency might have been the first act in a longer and even darker political drama, in which the Republican Party is becoming more radicalized. How long this will last is an open question; whether it is happening is not.

The radicalization manifests in myriad ways, most notably in Trump’s enduring popularity among Republicans. Trump’s loyalists have launched ferocious attacks against Republican lawmakers who voted to impeach him for his role in the insurrection, even as national Republicans eagerly position themselves as his heir. Right-wing media display growing fanaticism, while public-opinion polls show GOP voters embracing Trump’s lie that the election was stolen from him. The Republican Party’s illiberalism, its barely disguised nativism, and its white identity politics are resonating with extremist groups. Slate’s Will Saletan, in an article cataloging recent developments, summarized things this way: “The Republican base is thoroughly infected with sympathies for the insurrection.”

To better grasp what’s happening among 2020 Trump voters, I spoke with Sarah Longwell, a lifelong conservative and political strategist who is now the publisher of The Bulwark, a news and opinion website that is home to anti-Trump conservatives. She is also the founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, now the Republican Accountability Project.

Since 2018, Longwell has spent hundreds of hours speaking with and listening to Trump voters. From 2018 to 2020, she concentrated her attention on people who voted for Trump in 2016 but whose support was not locked in for 2020—many of them college-educated, suburban voters, mostly women who rated Trump’s performance as bad to very bad. Since Trump left office, she’s been using her focus groups to understand how his supporters’ views are changing.

Longwell has discovered that these voters, including many in Georgia who cast their ballots for Trump in November, have since grown more “Q curious”—she’s hearing more people talk positively about QAnon, a conspiracy theory that, among other things, posits the existence of a satanic pedophile cult run by top Democrats.

Prior to November 3, 2020, Longwell told me, “I almost never heard QAnon come up, except in a way that was derisive.” But postelection she’s had people “lean in and say, ‘I’m not saying I believe everything about Q. I’m not saying that the JFK-Jr.-is-alive stuff is real, but the deep-state pedophile ring is real.’” (The QAnon theory is that John F. Kennedy Jr. faked his own death to become the group’s leader.) In Longwell’s words, “The deep-state/conspiracy/Hollywood pedophile ring, that is in there. I’m hearing that plenty.” She added, “It’s actually pretty Marjorie Taylor Greene–like.” (Greene, who represents Georgia’s Fourteenth District, has praised the conspiracy theory and subscribes to a number of its beliefs.)

As Longwell explained it to me, Trump supporters already believed that a “deep state”—an alleged secret network of nonelected government officials, a kind of hidden government within the legitimately elected government—has been working against Trump since before he was elected. “That’s already baked into the narrative,” she said. So it’s relatively easy for them to make the jump from believing that the deep state was behind the “Russia hoax” to thinking that in 2016 Hillary Clinton was involved in a child-sex-trafficking ring operating out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant.

A second finding, according to Longwell, is that for the first time, she’s hearing people say they pretty regularly tune in to Newsmax or One America News Network, two conspiracy-theory-minded MAGA television news outlets. She’s heard from some people in her focus groups that “Fox has gone too far left.” Overall, what she sees isn’t Trump supporters fleeing Fox in huge numbers so much as experiencing some cooling of their enthusiasm and a willingness to look to other sources of information. (Tucker Carlson, the most malicious and influential figure at Fox News, does have a certain rock-star status in MAGA world.)

Finding No. 3 is that many Trump voters believe the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent. Not everyone Longwell has spoken with believes that absent fraud, Trump would have won, though many do. (Nearly two-thirds of Republicans believe that Trump won the election.) But in MAGA world, the almost universal assumption is that the election was rife with fraud, despite the fact that the Trump administration’s own election-monitoring agencies issued a statement declaring the 2020 election to be “the most secure in American history”; Trump’s ever-loyal attorney general, Bill Barr, acknowledged that the Justice Department uncovered no evidence of fraud that would have changed the outcome of the election; and election officials nationwide, from both parties, found no evidence of fraud.

“Everybody thinks dead people voted,” Longwell said, adding, “There’re plenty of people who say, ‘I think Donald Trump won. This was stolen from him. This is Democrats cheating. They figured it out. They know how to cheat better.’”

A fourth trend Longwell has noticed in her focus groups is the rise of whataboutism. She’ll point out to participants that Marjorie Taylor Greene claimed that the Parkland and Sandy Hook shootings were staged; Longwell then asks them what they make of that.

If compelling evidence is presented to MAGA supporters that what they’re being told by Greene or others is a lie, they don’t engage directly with the evidence. According to Longwell, “They say, ‘What about Ilhan Omar?’ They say, ‘What about [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]?’” As Longwell puts it, “They’ve got these things down, which is ‘Whatever you just showed me about Marjorie Taylor Greene is irrelevant because Ilhan Omar, because AOC, and I know lots about that, and I can tell you all about it.’” Some focus-group participants report that they like how Greene “speaks her mind.”

Greene raised $3.2 million during the first quarter of 2021. That’s a staggering sum, especially for a freshman member of the House, and she told the world the lesson she has taken from it: “I stood my ground and never wavered in my belief in ‘America First’ policies and putting people over politicians! And I will NEVER back down! As a matter of fact, I’m just getting started.” The fact that Greene has been criticized for her views actually works to her advantage; she is tapping into the grievance culture, the “own the libs” mentality, that right now dominates the Republican Party.

“Right-wing media has primed people for two very clear reactions to avoiding any confrontation with the bad thing that’s going on, on their own side,” Longwell explained. “And that is to say, ‘What about the left? What about this example of Democrats?’—that’s No. 1. And No. 2, ‘Why does the media never talk about that?’ So the media is as much an enemy as Democrats, and they believe that they’re connected to each other in this way.”

The irony is that those complaining that the media never talk about Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are watching media that talk all the time about Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The news outlets that the MAGA faithful are tuning in to feature “essentially a constant attack on mainstream media that they see as corrupt and in bed with liberal Democrats, and so the entire narrative is that you are being lied to, not told things,” Longwell said. This plays into what was once a healthy skepticism on the right, a refusal to passively accept the narratives being told by elite media outlets. But that healthy skepticism has “jumped the shark,” according to Longwell, to where “it becomes an obsessive way” of thinking, “where you now live in a post-truth nihilism.”

Trump followers believe they are independent thinkers, unlike the rest of us, whom they view as sheep, people who are “just sleepwalking through life,” in Longwell’s phrase—too naive, too compliant, too trusting. This explains how the effort to combat COVID-19 was derailed; much of MAGA world rejected what epidemiologists were saying, including about the efficacy of masks and vaccines, and turned the fight against the pandemic into a culture war between those they viewed as arrogant elitists and liberty-loving Americans. In this instance, living in an alternate reality—a place where masks are mocked, hydroxychloroquine is said to be a COVID-19 cure, and calls to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” are viewed as acts of patriotism—had deadly consequences. So did Trump’s lie about the election, which led to the storming of the Capitol.

This is part of what Longwell refers to as a “poisonous information environment,” in which even less-than-enthusiastic Trump voters are disoriented by the flood of misinformation and disinformation. Longwell, in characterizing what focus-group participants have told her, puts it this way: “‘I just don’t know what to believe anymore. I don’t know what’s true.’”

Bear in mind that these people are often being sent links and Facebook postings that include false information—but because that information is sent by friends and individuals they trust, they tend to believe what they read, or at least be open to the conspiracy theories being peddled. And the widespread loss of trust in institutions and authority figures, which has been happening for decades, compounds the problem.

Longwell also offered insights into a phenomenon that both fascinates and concerns me: political tribalism. Too many behaviors and attitudes are now driven by very strong loyalty to political tribes or social groups, or by antipathy and hatred for those on the other side. Many Americans are coalescing around their mutual resentments and fears. Tribalism is intrinsic to human nature, but it’s growing more acute. Amy Chua, a Yale law professor, has written about how in America today, every group feels threatened. That is a prescription not just for misunderstanding, but for more political violence.

“You can see it,” Longwell told me. “Once everybody in the group kind of knows that they’re all Trump voters, and they all kind of dislike the left, they immediately identify with their in-group.” They start to bond with one another, she explained, reveling in their shared loathing of figures such as Omar and Ocasio-Cortez.

Often, what we think are public-policy debates are really about issues of core identity. This helps explain the unusual intensity surrounding politics these days.

Longwell laments what she refers to as the “symbiotic relationship” between Republican voters and politicians. The base is angry, radicalized, and prone to catastrophize; Republican politicians believe that stirring up the base is in their self-interest; and so Republican lawmakers, combined with the right-wing media ecosystem, inflame emotions even more.

Longwell holds the Trumpian political class more responsible than she does ordinary voters, though she doesn’t let voters off the hook. But she believes that the former know better and are acting more cynically, while she has some sympathy for many Republican voters. “They’re not bad people,” she insisted. “They’re just—they don’t know what to believe or they have been told a bunch of things that aren’t true.” And that confusion, she argued, has been unscrupulously exploited. “Broadly speaking, I think that there are a lot of people who are out to take advantage of the fact that people don’t quite know what to think.”

Many of those who are part of MAGA world are post-truth, subordinating reality to partisanship and ideology, but they are not, strictly speaking, relativists. Or to be more precise: They don’t believe they’re relativists; in fact, they would argue to their dying breath that they’re defending the truth. The problem is that the information sources on which they’re relying, and that they seek out, are built on falsehoods and lies. Many Trump supporters aren’t aware of this, and for complicated reasons many of them are, for now at least, content to live in a world detached from objective facts, from reality, from the way things really and truly are. And without agreement on what constitutes reality, we’re lost . . . .

Yes. We once were (and are) lost. But now we’re found? (Or will be?)

There’s more to the article, but when Wehner moves on from his interchange with Longwell, the writing descends into platitude territory and my attention wandered. No, we’re not yet found.

Still, it is another measure of how out of joint our times are that these two strongly conservative women, one with a particularly egregious connection to the worst of our public governance in this century, could be among those that help us find our way out of this ungodly, unholy mess.

If that happens, Maureen Dowd, maybe I will buy a St. Liz miraculous medal after all.

Or at least, I’ll light that votive candle.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Conservatives: Liz & Longwell”

  1. Well, first we had the “never trump”ers. Now we have the “never again trump”ers. Most of the politics of neither batch was never going to be a good fit for Capital-D Democrats.

    But that isn’t really the question. The question is to what degree they are small-d democrats. Defending, you know, little things like the peaceful transfer of power. Which seems pretty much like a bedrock for our constitution.

    It used to be in Washington, D.C., and maybe more broadly through the nation, that you could find common cause with someone you differed with about a lot of things, and work passionately with that person on that issue.

    There aren’t any religious dimensions to this. Just practical dimensions. And some principled dimensions. It does make me a saint or the other person a saint to declare our joint commitment to the peaceful transfer of power.

    The indictments of the Cheneys on the various issues mentioned above are on the mark. But we agree on the peaceful transfer of power. Why don’t we make common cause on that.

    Whatever the shortcomings of the George W. Bush-Dick Cheney administration, they administered a peaceful transfer of power in 2008 and 2009. Barack Obama mentions that in his recent memoir. And he signaled Bush’s commitment to this even in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, even before he began to run for president.

    Keep your eyes on the ball. When someone is steadily committed to a common principle that you share, ally with them and help to strengthen it.

  2. When I was little, my little friend across the street had a Methodist Minister for a dad, and she once told me quite authoritatively that the greatest sin was the sin of lying. She backed that up with some bible quotes. I was six so I don’t think I remember what they were. But Somehow lying and telling the truth was the basis for all God had in mind. Lie and things would get screwed up, tell the truth and things would be ok. That concept seems to have been forgotten by the christian. I am not sure I understand it myself. But I am fearful that if I point out the truth of something or even an inconsistency that I might get shot. How the hell do we get out of this one?

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