Liz Cheney: The Model of a Modern Never-Trumper

Liz Cheney: The Model of a Modern Never-Trumper

In the six days since her defenestration from the leadership ranks of the Republican Party, Liz Cheney — the congresswoman from Wyoming, right-wing Republican, daughter of the former vice president and now leader of the anti-Trump party opposition — has been hard to ignore.

There she was in the halls of the Capitol, in a bright blue dress and matching jacket, pledging before the cameras to do her best to make sure the former president never returns to the Oval Office. Here she was in her office for a “Today” show sit-down with Savannah Guthrie, her sensible beige pumps crossed at the ankle, reiterating the same. There she was in a Fox News sparring match with Bret Baier, disavowing the Big Lie in a somber black dress and navy jacket. Here she was on CNN with Jake Tapper, once more into the fray, all in black.

She has been, in other words, a more ubiquitous public presence than pretty much any other elected politician from either party. And she says she is just beginning, waging her battle not behind the closed doors of Congress but on the small screen, for all to hear and see.

She stands, she says, for truthism in the Republican Party, not Trumpism. And it’s not just her words that present an alternate reality to those watching, an antidote to the narrative crafted and promulgated by the former president that the 2020 election was stolen by the Democrats. Her image paints a different picture, too. She’s offering a different female face of power than the female faces that came to represent the Trump administration — one that harkens back to a long tradition of establishment Republicans, rather than the Aaron Spelling-Fox News image-making of the MAGA years.

“She’s the classic Republican woman,” said Tammy Haddad, a Washington media consultant and former political director of MSNBC. “A little bit armored, everything for work purposes.”

Remember that?

In her boxy jackets in neutral tones, matching straight dresses just brushing the knee atop sensible pumps, with her rectangular blue-frame glasses and neat shoulder-length bob, Ms. Cheney presents the picture of what Chris Wallace of Fox News called a “practical politician” in their interview: buttoned up, no-nonsense, girded in a shoulder pad.

Her jewelry is discreet and basic: some gold at the ears, a strand or two of beads around the neck. Her consistent form of adornment, her Congressional lapel pin, serves as evidence of her professional credentials, a reminder that whether she is in leadership or not, she is still in office. There are no prints or ruffles or designer names to distract from the issue at hand. No frippery or flounces to soften her edges. She barely even smiles.

It’s a visual reminder — unspoken, almost subliminal — of her connection to what was once called a “cloth coat Republican,” so named by Richard Nixon in a 1952 speech to frame his values and those of his party in contrast to the free-spending, mink-coated ways of the opposition. (The Republican cloth coats should be distinguished from the ones that had a featured role in the Biden inauguration but were more of a style statement than those Nixon had in mind.)

It’s a continuum that includes Ms. Cheney’s mother, Lynne Cheney, as well as party heroines like Elizabeth Dole and Kay Bailey Hutchison. It excavates associations buried within the lizard brain and pushes buttons on words like “reliable” and “modest.” Also “respectable.” “Frumpy” even. There is, after all, a whole school of thought that says seriousness of purpose is demonstrated by seriously bland dress. It’s a stereotype, but a common one. Which is what makes it an effective subliminal lever.

If it also seems a throwback to the days when women had to fight their way into positions of power … well, Ms. Cheney’s argument is that Republicans have to return to their core values; the values of yesteryear. It’s consistent. (It’s also a reminder that while she may be trying to move past the Trump years, in many ways her political beliefs are deeply rooted in the past.)

And it is a marked contrast with the women who embodied Trump administration values over the last four years and who continue to represent it in exile, most prominently Ivanka, Melania, Lara, Kimberly and (latterly) Kayleigh. Cast in a similar mold of high-definition femininity, they made a trademark of figure-hugging wrap dresses by Chiara Boni La Petite Robe, tousled blow-dried locks, spiky stilettos, heavy false eyelashes and dazzling white teeth.

In this, they represented the “dress like a woman” edict of the former president to a TV-ified extreme, modeling a very different kind of female tradition, one that declared its allegiance to decoration and then weaponized it, wielding the clichés of gender norms like a blade.

(The Trump style baton has now seemingly, if not entirely surprisingly, been picked up by Representative Elise Stefanik, Ms. Cheney’s replacement as House Republican Conference chair, who seems to have undergone something of an image makeover, much as Sarah Huckabee Sanders did when she became press secretary, along with her political makeover as a MAGA loyalist.)

It’s even a contrast to the #pantsuitnation tradition of Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi and adopted (and adapted) to a certain extent by Vice President Kamala Harris, with her uniform of dark trouser suits, simple shells and Manolo Blahnik pumps.

For those who think that none of this is deliberate — that Ms. Cheney doesn’t think about what she wears, that even to consider it as a part of a strategy is to unfairly demean her — just note that her one deviation from the norm occurred the night she made her last stand as conference chair in the House, when she swapped her congressional pin for a much larger rhinestone brooch.

A star-spangled copy of the flag that George Washington flew during the American Revolution (made by Ann Hand, the same jeweler who made Nancy Pelosi’s Mace of the Republic pin), it was given to Ms. Cheney, according to CNN, by her mother, in recognition of the fight to come. Against her dark navy jacket, it was impossible to miss.

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