In early December 2020, about a month before the deadly U.S. Capitol riot incited by former U.S. President Donald Trump, we commended Georgia elections official Gabriel Sterling for speaking out against Trump’s dangerous speech:
“Mr. President…” Sterling said into a row of microphones in the state capitol, “Stop inspiring people to commit potential acts of violence. Someone’s going to get hurt, someone’s going to get shot, someone’s going to get killed, and it’s not right.”
Sterling also called for his fellow Republicans, including Georgia’s U.S. Senators (who have since lost their seats to Democratic opponents), to denounce dangerous speech and threats of violence related to the election.
“This is elections, this is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word, are complicit in this.”
“We need you to step up, and if you’re going to take a position of leadership, show some.”
We echoed Sterling’s call, and earlier this month Jessica Haney made a similar exhortation to evangelical Christian leaders who have influence over similar audiences. Liz Cheney is perhaps the most prominent Republican leader to have spoken out against Trump’s lies and dangerous speech (including voting to impeach Trump for inciting the riot) – and in response to her efforts to prevent violence, she was turfed out of her leadership role.
In a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives just before the Republicans voted to remove her from leadership, Cheney spoke about the fragility of freedom and democracy, and the importance of protecting elections.
28 years ago, I stood outside a polling place, a schoolhouse in Western Kenya. Soldiers had chased away people who were lined up to vote. A few hours later, they came streaming back in, risking further attack undaunted in their determination to exercise their right to vote.
In 1992, I sat across the table from a young mayor in Russia, and I listened to him talk of his dream of liberating his nation from communism. Years later, for his dedication to the cause of freedom, Boris Nemtsov was assassinated by Vladimir Putin’s thugs.
In Warsaw in 1990, I listened to a young Polish woman tell me that her greatest fear was that people would forget. They would forget what it was like to live under Soviet domination. That they would forget the price of freedom.
Cheney then again denounced dangerous speech and Trump’s lies about the election:
Today we face a threat America has never seen before. A former president who provoked a violent attack on this capital in an effort to steal the election has resumed his aggressive effort to convince Americans that the election was stolen from him. He risks inciting further violence. Millions of Americans have been misled by the former president. They have heard only his words, but not the truth as he continues to undermine our democratic process, sowing seeds of doubt about whether democracy really works at all.
Cheney should be commended for joining Gabriel Sterling doing the right thing and standing up against dangerous speech and violence. Instead, her colleagues punished her, demonstrating that they value their own electoral interests more than preventing violence or protecting democracy and the rule of law. This deeply disturbing response will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on other Republican leaders who might otherwise be convinced to speak out.
We can only hope that some leaders will be moved by Cheney’s words and decide to follow her example in doing the right thing, even when it’s unpopular and has negative consequences. As Cheney said:
Our duty is clear, every one of us who has sworn the oath must act to prevent the unraveling of our democracy. This is not about policy. This is not about partisanship. This is about our duty as Americans.