U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney isn’t just trying to keep former President Donald Trump out of the White House, she’s also vying to restore political power, and moral authority, to her party’s traditional conservatives.
At times it seems a Sisyphean task.
Last week, Wyoming’s congresswoman called out far-right Republicans who have embraced the racist conspiracy theory that motivated a deranged gun nut to kill 10 Black residents of Buffalo, New York on May 14th.
“The House GOP leadership has enabled white nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism,” Cheney tweeted two days after the attack. “History has taught us that what begins with words ends in far worse.”
She said Republican leaders “must renounce and reject these views and those who hold them.”
Denouncing racism should not be a heavy lift for any politician. But it apparently is for Republican House officials and Cheney challenger Harriet Hageman, who wants to join their ranks.
On Cheyenne’s KRAE Radio, Hageman was asked about Cheney’s criticism. She made an incredible statement: “I don’t know what that gentleman did or what motivated him, but I can assure you I had nothing to do with it.”
Hageman pleaded ignorance but the “gentleman’s” motivation has been established beyond question. The alleged shooter published a 180-page “manifesto” online promoting the “Great Replacement Theory,” which claims white Americans are being deliberately and systematically replaced by minorities. A grand jury indicted him for first-degree murder.
Investigators say the 18-year-old defendant, who live-streamed his rampage, wrote that his goal was “to kill as many Blacks as possible.” Law enforcement authorities almost immediately called it a hate crime.
In addition to herself, Hageman absolved her party of any responsibility. The only attack she mentioned was made by Cheney.
“All of the Republicans I know and work with had nothing to do with that,” Hageman said. “So for her to come out and attack my fellow conservatives and Republicans for soundbites for Democrats isn’t what I want my representative in Wyoming to do, and that isn’t furthering the America-first agenda.”
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-California) and other GOP leaders also dismissed Cheney’s criticism. He accused her of “playing a political game when she knows something’s not true.”
Cheney didn’t call out Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York) by name, but she didn’t have to. The congresswoman — who replaced Cheney as chairman of the House Republican Conference — has been criticized for running Facebook ads aligned with the “Great Replacement Theory.”
Stefanik’s ads plainly spelled it out; no dog whistles were necessary. She charged Democrats with trying to grant citizenship to illegal immigrants to create a “permanent election insurrection.” Her hometown newspaper, the Albany Times Union, blasted Stefanik’s actions as “despicable.”
The GRT isn’t new. In 1995, Neo-Nazi David Lane wrote the rancid “White Genocide Manifesto,” which claimed the U.S. government intends to turn white people into an “extinct species.”
Fifteen years later, French author Renaud Camus further developed the GRT, which maintained that the native-born French were being replaced by minorities immigrating from Africa and the Middle East.
Several American politicians and the alt-right media advanced the theory in various forms. When far-right activists shocked the nation in August 2017 with their deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, torch-carrying marchers shouted, “Jews will not replace us!” Their behavior is a permanent stain on America, as is former President Donald Trump’s response. There were “very fine people on both sides” of the protest, he said.
The message wasn’t lost on ex-KKK leader David Duke, who thanked Trump for “condemning leftist terrorists.” The leader of the free world had just given legitimacy to white supremacists.
The significance of that rally was recalled by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia) the day after the Buffalo murders. He said when national leaders offer “moral ambiguity or moral equivalency” to evil deeds, “I fear that you end up with these kind of tragedies.”
It’s no coincidence that the much of the pro-Trump mob that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 also embraced GRT.
In January, Slate published an interview with leading Jan. 6 researcher Robert Pape of the University of Chicago. He said a majority of the insurrectionists lived in counties with the most significant declines in the white population.
“These fringe beliefs like ‘the great replacement [theory]’ are now no longer confined to the fringe,” Pape said. “This is overall a mainstream political movement.”
Racist politics didn’t start with Trump, and it certainly hasn’t ended since he left office.
A New York Times article published before the Buffalo shootings found that Fox News’ Tucker Carlson pushed the theory in more than 400 episodes. A recent poll found about one-third of adults believe an effort is underway to replace U.S-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.
After championing the GRT for years and becoming its loudest proponent, last week Carlson claimed with a straight face he doesn’t even know what people are talking about. “It is everywhere in the last two days, and we are still not sure exactly what it is,” he said.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida), who traveled to Cheyenne to denounce Cheney a few days after her vote to impeach Trump, tweeted that Carlson is right to champion GRT. Gaetz said the Anti-Defamation League, which called for Carlson’s resignation, is a “racist organization.”
By calling out the far-right’s gaslighting Cheney has broadened the reasons for Wyoming voters to support her in the Aug. 16 GOP primary. Her campaign is no longer just a referendum on Trump. What happened in Buffalo raised the stakes.
Hageman could have challenged the alleged culpability of Republican lawmakers and still conveyed the fundamental truth at its core: When such violence is perpetrated because of someone’s race, it’s an attack on the equality and freedom Americans have long cherished.
By pretending not to understand why this hate crime occurred, Hageman fumbled the ball. Whether it helps or hurts her at the polls will show which candidate best matches the values held by Wyomingites.
Trump hand-picked Hageman to run against Cheney, so I get why she doesn’t want to anger his hard-core base. If it’s simply a matter of playing the political games necessary to win the election, maybe Hageman believes showing loyalty to Trump is all she has to do.
Since the insurrection, people who know I disagree with nearly every position Cheney has taken in the House have asked me if I think she’s sincere or making political calculations for a potential White House run.
I think she has the courage of her convictions. She’s not afraid to speak — or even shout — truth to power. The fact Cheney’s willing to take her party’s leaders to task over racism gives me one more reason to believe I’m right.