Donald Trump vs. Liz Cheney: “Like so much of American society, the GOP is coming apart by class”

From a New York Times guest essay by Jon A. Shields headlined “What Donald Trump Understands About Honor”:

In the modern Republican Party, there has never been anything quite like Liz Cheney’s war with Donald Trump. Whereas once the party’s most heated rivalries were primarily ideological — like the feud between Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater — today’s have little to do with policy. Instead, they are about rival systems of honor that are remaking identity politics on the right.

These competing honor systems grow in different social milieus: One is relatively blue collar and home to Mr. Trump’s MAGA movement, while the other is college educated and home to Ms. Cheney’s Never Trumpers. Like so much of American society, the G.O.P. is coming apart by class.

Though Ms. Cheney seems to view Mr. Trump as someone without principle, he lives by a code. As Bob Woodward once described it: “Never show weakness. You’ve always got to be strong. Don’t be bullied. There is no choice.”

This ancient way of life, which permeated the Queens of Mr. Trump’s youth and is generally familiar to citizens outside the professional class, has gone by many names in America: “hillbilly justice” in Appalachia, the “code of the street” in poor urban neighborhoods and the “code of the West” in many Western states, including Wyoming, which Ms. Cheney represents in the House. The people who live in these honor cultures are expected to protect their honor by always standing up to their enemies and generally letting others know they are not to be messed with.

Because an honor culture requires those who are slighted or dissed to seek vengeance, Mr. Trump is obsessed with Ms. Cheney. At the Save America rally last year, he implored, “The Liz Cheneys of the world, we got to get rid of them.” And during his first public appearance since leaving the White House, he singled out Ms. Cheney once again by noting that her “poll numbers have dropped faster than any human being I’ve ever seen.”

Wyoming has long been shaped by an honor culture, as the Cheney family must know well. Dick Cheney had to navigate it as a student at Natrona County High in the 1950s. When he was caught fighting on school grounds, his teacher required both combatants to duel it out in a boxing match. After seeking a boxing coach, Mr. Cheney won the showdown….

Until recently, though, the honor culture of Mr. Cheney’s high school had little to do with the Wyoming Republican Party, which was insular and run by affluent ranchers and members of the professional class. Now that culture is remaking the highest reaches of the party as MAGA insurgents wrest control from the establishment. Hence, state party meetings, once sleepy and wonky affairs, are increasingly marked by bravado.

At the Republican state convention in 2020, a fistfight broke out between two county chairmen that sent one to the hospital with a broken ankle and dislocated shoulder. The man who won the scrape is not to be messed with: He has reportedly attended meetings with a gun at the ready, as well as an ax handle, which, according to his attorney, he uses as a cane.

This insurgent, blue-collar culture has not been well received by the Never Trump politicos in Wyoming. Susan Stubson, an attorney aligned with the establishment told us, “I find it threatening.” Another prominent member of Ms. Cheney’s circle called it “toxic.”

Whatever else it is, this old honor culture has deepened today’s identity politics. Ostracized from the genteel establishment, many working-class Wyomingites see themselves in these new shows of Trumpian bravado. Like other Americans, they feel a sense of kinship with those who act like them. As Ms. Stubson lamented, “We had never been able to connect to the larger community.”…

Honor culture isn’t about just identity. This primitive code also seems indispensable to those Republicans radicalized by today’s polarized politics. If one is persuaded that the left is on the verge of destroying American civilization, then electing as many fearless fighters and strongmen as possible is the order of the day. That is why a prominent MAGA donor like Tom Klingenstein said he sees Mr. Trump as “just what the doctor ordered” in “these revolutionary times.”

Enter Harriet Hageman, Mr. Trump’s proxy candidate in his war against Ms. Cheney. A lawyer who once aligned with the old guard, Ms. Hageman broke from Ms. Cheney’s clique to pursue power. Attuned to Wyoming’s new right, her first campaign ad is already appealing to the state’s deeply rooted honor culture. It accuses Ms. Cheney of breaking the “code of the West,” one that requires “loyalty,” “honor” and a willingness to “fight” for compatriots.

Ms. Cheney is fighting on behalf of her own code of honor. Hers is driven by a fidelity to what the Yale political theorist Steven Smith calls “enlightened patriotism,” one that insists on “loyalty to a particular constitutional form that we call liberal democracy or constitutional democracy.”

Such patriotism has always been in tension with the motto “my country, right or wrong,” because it is beholden to abstract, creedal principles, such as equality, individualism and the rule of law. And because these principles are open to interpretation, patriotism in the United States has long had a distinctly critical, questioning character….

Ms. Cheney had no real choice when faced with Mr. Trump’s assault on our constitutional order. To Ms. Cheney — and her Republican supporters in Wyoming — it would have been shameful to remain loyal to Mr. Trump. This is why, on the first anniversary of the Capitol invasion, she admonished on Twitter, “Anyone who denies the truth of what happened on January 6th ought to be ashamed of themselves.”

Beneath the surface of their honor feud lurk clashing understandings of political ambition. Unlike Mr. Trump, Ms. Cheney is seeking the esteem of future generations by doing what’s in the public interest even if she is cast out of office for doing so. Ms. Cheney told a Wyoming paper that before her fellow Republicans pushed her out of House leadership, she warned them “that history was watching.”

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, is so loyal to his narrow code that he lacks even the theory of mind to understand Ms. Cheney’s ambition. For him, losing any contest is always dishonorable because it tarnishes his reputation as a strongman. Hence, his enduring fixation with ratings, polling and the “stolen” 2020 election….

There seem to be no noble defeats for Mr. Trump. And that means that Ms. Cheney’s willingness to risk political death must be mysterious to him. She is not just his most formidable foe; she’s an enigma.

Even if they understood each other better, their feud would still be impossible to resolve. Unlike sharp policy disagreements that can end in grudging compromises, Mr. Trump and Ms. Cheney see any concession in their feud as dishonorable. Mr. Trump cannot concede defeat in 2020, and thus Ms. Cheney cannot de-escalate her war against him. And because that’s true, Mr. Trump can’t ignore Ms. Cheney. They are wed to each other, captured by rival codes of honor that are remaking the American right.

Jon A. Shields, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, is the author of three books, including “Trump’s Democrats,” which he co-wrote with another professor at Claremont, Stephanie Muravchik. They are working on the book about Liz Cheney together.


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