Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 22, 2008 (U.S.Army/FlickrCC)

In his epic song “Youngstown,” Bruce Springsteen places an old steel worker in the rubble of closed-down steel mills and factories. Looking around at the scraps of what became known as America’s Rust Belt, the man says:

“We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam, now we’re wondering what they were dying for.”

With poetic precision, this line captures a looming, epic struggle for political power in America today: The fight for control over the Republican party. 

The two standard bearers, former President Donald Trump and U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, are bound to face off in the 2022 primary here in Wyoming. Trump will endorse an anti-Cheney candidate. Cheney, almost certain by then to be free from conference-chair duties in Congress, will need a win to launch her increasingly expectable 2024 presidential campaign.

Although Cheney very often voted for Trump’s policies, there are some key differences that separate the two, enough so to place them on different ideological sides within the party. They are, of course, separated by the controversy over the vote-fraud claims from last year’s election, but that is one issue. The deeper difference is centered around the concept of patriotism. 

When Trump came into office in 2016, America was 15 years into the war on terror. He saw the war weariness and wanted Americans back to work and our military home. 

To him, patriotism is built on prosperity. 

Cheney seems to believe that prosperity and patriotism have nothing to do with each other. A leader of the neoconservative faction of the GOP, she confines patriotism to the duty of the American people to support armed conflict.

To be clear, neither Cheney nor anyone else in American politics believes that we should fight wars because we want to. Everyone agrees that we only go to war because we have to. But that does not change the fact that our ability to endure long wars is ultimately tied to our nation’s economic performance. 

Trump established his brand of prosperity-based patriotism as the prevailing doctrine of the Republican party. If Cheney takes over leadership, she will bring back the war-based version of patriotism that reigned before Trump.

Before Cheney takes on a Trump-endorsed candidate and re-affirms neoconservatism as Republican philosophy, she might want to take a tour through recent history. 

The Vietnam War protests, which began in the 1960s, morphed into an overall war weariness toward the end of the 1970s. Coinciding with the economic hardship from the era of Rust Belt decline, this conflict fatigue shaped Americans’ view of the Cold War. As Springsteen’s lyric alludes, the war brand of patriotism ran short on friends in the economic wasteland of the 1970s. 

That was the first time in modern American history when war weariness set the political agenda for the country. It would not be the last. 

We recovered from the Rust-Belt downturn, thanks in good part to Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, but economic stagnation returned in the 2000s. The American working class once again found itself wading through syrup to get ahead economically.

Following a rebound in Barack Obama’s second term and under Trump, our economy is once again on the brink of strife and struggle. It is in this economy that Cheney wants to return the Republican party to war-based patriotism.

Her primary victory next year is nowhere near certain. Trump, whose abrasive character is off-putting to many, is also genuinely popular with many others. His popularity is founded in good part in his professed appreciation for a strong, independent working class. With his “America First” message Trump tries to make the case that patriotism is forged in families with opportunities to build a better life on hard work and self determination: that patriotism is built on prosperity.

Compared to Trump, Cheney’s messaging puts much less emphasis on the economic well-being of the American worker. Her war-based brand of patriotism ignores the fact that a nation’s war tolerance wears thin when people struggle to pay for the funeral dinners as they lay their fallen sons and daughters to rest. 

Can she win next year? Only time will tell. But Cheney has a formidable challenge ahead of her. Trump’s emphasis on the economy at home over conflict abroad resonated with millions of blue-collar Americans. They flocked to his rallies. They flocked to his ballot, and more so in Wyoming than in any other state. 

Cheney does not seem to understand the Trump voter. She has dismissed the idea of focusing on a working-class Republican electorate as “neo-Marxist”

She seems to believe that she can win by continuously pounding the former president. She takes every opportunity to reassert that Trump’s claims of a fraudulent election are lies, and to pin the Jan. 6 mob-storm of the U.S. Capitol on him. Neither have made much of a dent in Trump’s popularity here in Wyoming. According to the Club for Growth, he is viewed favorably by four out of five GOP primary voters. Cheney, by contrast, is deep underwater in the same poll. 

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Maybe Trump loyalists believe claims that Cheney was silent on far-left riots in 2020. Perhaps they wanted her to join her colleagues in accusing Maxine Waters of inciting violence during the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis. Or maybe they just don’t care that much anymore about election accusations and Jan. 6. Maybe their minds are preoccupied with finding jobs that feed their kids or keeping their small businesses open.

Cheney is playing a high-stakes game with her political career. By decoupling patriotism from prosperity she will only face tougher challenges going forward. Many economists and analysts agree that high inflation is coming. There is also widespread worry that our galloping budget deficit can lead to panic-driven tax hikes and harsh cuts in benefits and entitlements.

A war abroad matters little when inflation makes food and gas prices outrun paychecks. A war-mongering neocon will find little sympathy when fiscal panic strikes and Medicaid starts denying medical services to poor families.

Will Cheney be that neocon? Or will she embrace the MAGA-hat wearing working-class conservative and recognize that patriotism is built on prosperity?

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  1. Sadly, Trump is no patriot, he’s clueless to the concept as are his followers. Patriotism to Trump is 100% dedication to him and his ideals! The current GOP is only interested in pushing Trump’s agenda. It’s sad to think the GOP is more concerned with the cult of personality, rather than working with Dems, to benefit the American people. I’m not a Cheney fan by any stretch of the imagination, but I do applaud her for calling a spade a spade and not merely towing the party line which has become blurred!

  2. Doesn’t integrity and honesty have anything to do with this? Trump based and still bases his policies on what is good for Trump and the lies that support what is good for Trump. Cheney has looked to her Constitutional duties, not her personal interests unlike too many others in Congress (frankly on both sides).

    While I may not agree with all of her votes, I support her right to hold different opinions. I absolutely applaud her dedication to the truth and to combatting Kevin McCarthy, Else Stefanik, and others who do not know the difference between fact and the fiction that Donald Trump continues to spew. As a Wyoming property owner, I hope that Liz Cheney continues her good work in representing the people of Wyoming.

  3. If the author of this opinion piece is correct and patriotism is only “…based on prosperity”, then the future of this country is indeed bleak. Patriotism should be based on devotion to the democratic ideals on which this country was founded, not unbridled greed and a cult of personality.

  4. Sven R Larson, Ph.D.

    PhD?

    I must have missed something, like the guy with the eyeglasses on his head looking for his eyeglasses.

  5. The thing I don’t understand about right wing Americans is how they can live in quaking fear of Communism and or socialism and then go down and happily fill their shopping carts full of manufactured products from Communist China. The labor unions fought a loosing battle in the 1980s warning against such a thing but were flushed down the toilet by the right wingers. Go figure.

  6. Wow….a self-described conservative believes that patriotism is nothing more than believing that people have the right to accumulate wealth. Adherence to the democratic processes set forth in the constitution, supporting states’ rights, and upholding the rule of law – all foundations of American democracy – apparently mean nothing to that conservative. The ability for him to prosper is all it takes for Mr. Larson to start waving the flag. What a patriot-

  7. The author avers: “To him (Trump), patriotism is built on prosperity.”

    But Wyoming citizens should ask and/or remind themselves how the coal and oil & gas industries did during Trump’s administration. Both were catastrophic debacles. Wyoming business people dependent on tourism are surely aware of what a disaster the Corona virus was last year as the virus raged while Trump seemingly did everything in his power to exacerbate the situation (“LIBERATE MICHIGAN!!!”)

    But the real issue is explained here:
    =====================================================
    Financial Times / Martin Wolf 5/11/2021 https://www.ft.com/content/aebe3b15-0d55-4d99-b415-cd7b109e64f8

    “In a liberal democracy, fair elections determine who holds power. Attempts to subvert or overturn the vote are treason.

    That is precisely what Donald Trump attempted to do both before and after last year’s presidential election. He tried to turn the US into an autocracy. That was not at all surprising: it had been obvious from the beginning of his political career that this was his aim.

    He failed. Decent and brave people ensured that. But this story has only just begun. Even without social media, Trump still holds the loyalty of his party’s base and so controls its leaders. Even people whose lives he placed in danger with the invasion of the Capitol he promoted rush to kiss his hand at Mar-a-Lago. Meanwhile, deeply conservative stalwarts, such as Liz Cheney, the third-highest ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, are being defenestrated. Her crime? Stating that Trump’s Big Lie that the actual outcome of the election was a Big Lie is a big lie.

    The fact that Trump is lying is not news. What is news is that, even shorn of public office, Trump defines the truth for his party. There is a word for a political organisation in which the prime duty of members is absolute loyalty to a leader who defines what is true and right: Führerprinzip (‘leadership principle’). The Republican’s wholesale embrace of Trump’s Big Lie is a perfect instance of it.

    This, alas, is far from all. Trump’s Big Lie is being weaponised through state legislation designed to subvert elections. Much attention is being paid to obstacles to voting. But death threats have also hounded honest officials out of office.

    Worse still, as the States United Democracy Center notes: ‘In 2021, state legislatures across the country — through at least 148 bills filed in 36 states — are moving to muscle their way into election administration, as they attempt to dislodge or unsettle the executive branch and/or local election officials who, traditionally, have run our voting systems.’ Accountable individuals feel bound to uphold their oaths of office. Less visible legislators might not.

    Alas, this assault is not surprising. Eight of the 23 states that Republicans control totally were members of the Old Confederacy. These states shifted towards the Republicans after passage of the Civil Rights Act, in 1964. A big part of this story then is the attempt of the South to protect itself, yet again, from the votes of African Americans.

    So what we are seeing is a blend of fanaticism with careerism. It is fine, both groups feel, to subvert elections if doing so puts the ‘right’ people in power. After all, these Democrats are just un-American. The end of keeping them out of power justifies any means.

    Biden understands this. As he told Congress: ‘If we truly want to restore the soul of America, we need to protect the sacred right to vote.’ But Democrats also need to change the electoral coalitions of the contemporary US in their favour. To do that, they have to move significant numbers of white non-college educated people into their camp. In brief, Biden needs to turn a decent approval rating (by Trump’s standards) into an overwhelming one.

    Biden is playing for huge stakes — and knows it. This is not just about securing a strong post-Covid economic recovery for the US. It is not just about restoring the US position in the world as ally and as actor on crucial issues, such as climate. It is not just about proving that the US government is capable of doing important things. It is now about protecting the core of democracy — peaceful acceptance of electoral outcomes.

    If that were to go in the US, would-be autocrats everywhere would have carte blanche to do as they pleased. The danger is great, since the Republicans are no longer a normal democratic party. They are increasingly an anti-democratic cult with a would-be despot as their leader.

    I desperately hope Biden succeeds. But he has taken a huge gamble on the success of his programme. It may be the most consequential gamble taken by any democratic leader in my lifetime. The future of democracy is at stake.”
    =====================================================
    Excerpt above reprinted under Fair Use. Entire article can be viewed without subscription here: https://on.ft.com/3eFS6cB

  8. This article is more a promo for Trump’s idea of patriotism than it is a comparison of Cheney’s disagreement with Trump on patriotism. Besides, I think Cheney and Trump’s disagreement s had more to do with defending the constitution after the January 6 insurrection.

  9. Dr. Larson:

    I know Richard Cheney was a successful President of Halliburton. I do not know much about Liz
    who has enjoyed the benefits of a hard working wealthy, Yale Graduate, Rugby playing Dad. President Trump was also successful, understood business and could direct policies based on practical knowledge.
    Enjoyed your article.

    1. Trump started out wealthy and became wealthier by not paying contractors and declaring bankruptcies. Had he not started out with a lot of money, he most likely would have died in a gutter before the end of the 70s. In short, he was, and is, an incompetent, loud-mouthed, lying, clown.

      A fair-sized segment of working people, who have seen their real wages and working conditions decline dramatically (due in part to offshoring by our beloved modern-day robber barons) since the 70s–thanks to the likes of Taft-Hartley and right-to-slave-labor laws at the state level, along with policies of the dull-witted Reagan (Mr. Trickle-Down), and the Bushes (the incompetent duo), but also incompetent democraps like the Clintons and Obama–unquestioningly worship him and other conservative liars, much like the Germans worshiped Hitler during the 1930s.

  10. I believe this is a very insightful article. Trump was the first President in a long while to truly care about the well being of Americans rather than the rest of the world. Americans are tired of propping up nations that do not even like us, and trying to be the world’s freedom monitor by sending our best to die on their soil.

    1. Kindly list all the things that the Trump did for you. He did nothing for me. His tax cut benefited the wealthy, while my taxes stayed the same. That’s a major reason why wealthy conservatives love him so much.

      1. Mr. Reading states in part: Kindly list all the things that the Trump did for (me).

        Trump denounced me as a sucker and loser for having served in the US military.

      2. Trump’s quintessential supporters are definitely not “wealthy conservatives.”

        Good grief, the BS is flowing in this post like the Wind River in May. Don’t quit your day job to take up this political commentary gig you got going on here.

  11. As a conservative I cannot understand how much support Trump gets. He greatly accelerated the decline of US influence in world politics by taking his go it alone policies and over-using sanctions. We are not better off and his followers are blind to it. I applaud Cheney for calling him out. We need conservative leaders who are more sophisticated in their understanding of how to improve the USA and not undermine our global leadership position.

    1. Thank you Mr. Creighton. It’s a shame that there aren’t more rational members, such as yourself, in the new age republican party.

      Cheers

  12. Trump’s definition of patriotism? What a joke. The man believes in nothing except naked self-interest.