In refusing to back down from her opposition to former president Donald Trump and challenging Republicans to strip her of her leadership role in the House, Liz Cheney has shown the same determination that John Kennedy admired in the eight senators he wrote about in his Pulitzer Prize-winning history Profiles in Courage.
The best comparison for what Cheney has done is not, however, with the legislators of Profiles in Courage, but with a more dramatic figure—Marshal Will Kane, the hero of the classic 1952 western, High Noon. The link tying Kane (Gary Cooper) and Cheney together stems from the isolation they faced as a consequence of sticking to their principles.
High Noon opens on Kane’s wedding day. After years of being marshal in the small town of Hadleyville, Kane is about to settle into private life with his new bride, Amy (Grace Kelly). His retirement plans are interrupted when he learns that Frank Miller, a killer he sent to prison, has been released and is headed to Hadleyville to take revenge on him and the town.
The question for Kane is whether to confront Miller and the three members of his gang who are waiting for him at the train station or leave and avoid a showdown. Kane opts to stay. “This is my town. I’ve got friends here. I’ll swear in a bunch of special deputies,” he tells Amy, who wants him to leave.
Kane is being too optimistic. Nobody in town will stand by him. Even Amy, who is a Quaker, threatens to leave him. “I won’t be here when it’s over,” she tells Kane. “You’re asking me to wait an hour to find out if I’m going to be a wife or a widow.” In the end Amy stays. She saves Will’s life, shooting one of the gang who is after him. But nobody else in town lifts a finger. Will and Amy triumph over Miller and his outlaws on their own, and High Noon concludes with Will and Amy leaving town, alienated from the townsmen they once regarded as their friends. Whether the town can survive on its own is the question High Noon leaves open.
In the early 1950s, High Noon was seen as a parable for what the left had to fear if nothing were done to stop the Communist witch hunts led by Sen. Joe McCarthy. Carl Foreman, the writer of High Noon, was blacklisted after he appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and refused to give HUAC the information it wanted. Countless other Hollywood figures met similar or worse fates.
But the idea that High Noon reflected only the danger those on the left experienced as a result of McCarthyism is misleading. The climate of fear that McCarthy helped create intimidated some of the most powerful figures in the country. While running for president in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower backed off criticizing McCarthy, despite his disgust over McCarthy’s attacks on Gen. George Marshall, the man most responsible for Eisenhower’s promotions during World War II. And in 1954, when the Senate censured McCarthy for what it deemed abusive conduct, John Kennedy, as his biographer Robert Dallek points out, managed to avoid going on record in favor of censuring McCarthy.
Today, Liz Cheney in the role of Will Kane is taking on the same far-reaching political issues that High Noon did. She is, by her own admission, a lifelong conservative, and a very harsh one at that. Along with her father, Vice President Dick Cheney, she supported the Iraq War and the controversial use of waterboarding. Those are parts of her resume that have earned her criticism and that she has not disavowed. But Cheney’s opposition to Trump is more than a defense of her brand of conservatism. She is not guilty of hyperbole when she says of Trump, “he continues to undermine our democratic process, sowing seeds of doubt about whether democracy really works at all.”
Whether Cheney can succeed in stopping Trump is a difficult question to answer right now, even as NeverTrumpers threaten to split from the party. In the coming months Cheney will be isolated from most Republicans in the House, and in all likelihood she will face a tough primary challenge in Wyoming in 2024.
At the same time, a Trump run for the presidency in 2024, let alone a Trump election victory, would heighten the very forces that led to the January 6 Capitol insurrection and are producing voter-restriction legislation across the country. The bad news for Trump is that Liz Cheney, even after losing her leadership post and facing an uncertain electoral future, isn’t backing down. “I will do everything I can to ensure that the former president never gets anywhere near the Oval Office,” she said after the leadership vote.