In 1949, five of the world’s greatest living writers — André Gide, Richard Wright, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Arthur Koestler — and the American foreign correspondent Louis Fischer contributed essays to a collection, in which they reflected on their embrace, rejection, and disavowal of communism.
Liz Cheney — one of Donald Trump’s most prominent Republican critics, who was just routed in a party primary, denying her the chance to defend her seat in the US House of Representatives in November — might be able to relate.
The twentieth century was the heyday of ideological commitment and political disillusion. The communist cause seemed to many people, particularly literary intellectuals, to offer a path toward personal fulfilment and social justice, even a kind of salvation.
By the time Gide, Koestler, and the others put their disillusionment down on paper, this belief was well and truly behind them. But they understood that for many — particularly their intellectual peers — communism’s spell had yet to be broken.
In fact, it would take the Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 to get the too-clever-by-half Jean-Paul Sartre to question his conviction that the Soviet Union was leading the way to humankind’s future. George Bernard Shaw, with his predilection for shocking statements, never voiced any doubt about the Soviet experiment.
Political and ideological disillusion seems to be stimulating a similar oppositional zeal in the United States today, with Cheney as a case in point. Cheney has served three terms as Wyoming’s only representative in the House, each time winning massive majorities. But, this time, Wyoming voters dealt her a resounding defeat.
The reason is as simple as it is undeniable: Cheney refused to kowtow to Trump and his assertion that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen.” Cheney has long condemned the “personality cult” that has hijacked the Republican Party, and has helped lead the House investigation into the role of Trump and his allies in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
Wyoming voters, however, are still in thrall to Trump. So they chose Cheney’s Trump-endorsed opponent, Harriet Hageman, a fervid proponent of Trump’s theories.
But Cheney is not finished. She has announced the formation of a political action committee focused on highlighting threats to democracy and opposing any effort by Trump to secure a second term as president.
She is even considering running for president herself in 2024 — a move that it is widely believed would not lead to victory, but could help to block Trump from the White House.
To be clear, Cheney opposes Trump, not Republican conservatism per se. On policy matters, she voted in line with her party — and Trump — 93% of the time. She rejected Trump and his “personality cult” only after recognising that he posed a mortal threat to American democracy, and to the Republican Party that her family represents.
A historical irony
This is something of a historical irony, given that President George W. Bush’s administration — in which her father, Dick Cheney, served as vice president — was far from a beacon of democracy. In fact, Trump’s presidency probably would not have been possible without the norm-violating that occurred on Cheney’s watch.
And while Cheney himself could have spoken out against Trump’s nomination back in 2015, he didn’t. In a private conversation, he told me that he would support Trump simply because he was the Republican Party’s nominee. His daughter then followed the same logic. I later heard that he regretted that decision — too late for him, his daughter, and America.
In any case, hoary myths about the American West, with its supposedly straight-talking, straight-shooting people, or about practical and pragmatic Midwesterners and warm and community-minded Southerners, need to be retired. Six years into the Trump revolution, a majority of Republicans in these regions choose conspiracy theories over truth and tribal loyalty over country.
When asked to choose between an acolyte of Trump and the daughter of cowboy aristocracy, Wyoming voters embraced the former.
Nina L. Khrushcheva, Professor of International Affairs at The New School, is the co-author (with Jeffrey Tayler) of In Putin’s Footsteps: Searching for the Soul of an Empire Across Russia’s Eleven Time Zones (St. Martin’s Press, 2019).
Project Syndicate, 2022.