As President Joe Biden made his way toward the House dais to deliver his speech on Wednesday night, he and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (Wyoming) exchanged a very brief fist bump.
Like I said, it was brief. Cheney was one of at least 20 people — and that is a low-end estimate — whom Biden fist-bumped or elbow-bumped on his way to the podium. (The two also appeared to exchange some sort of pleasantry that was inaudible, at least to me.)
It was the sort of things colleagues do. A sign of mutual respect. Nothing more.
Despite all of that, as soon as I saw it happen, all I could think to myself was: Donald Trump (and his acolytes) are going to have a field day with this.
Here’s why: We are a visual people. Which means videos have power in our society. And the video of Biden fist-bumping Cheney is going to be used by every Trumpist who wants Cheney to lose her seat next year as evidence that she is a Republican In Name Only (RINO) and a sellout of conservative principles.
This is, of course, ridiculous. As I noted on Wednesday, Cheney has built a decidedly conservative — and pro-Trump! — voting record during her time in the House.
But Cheney has become the No. 1 target of the former president because she had the audacity to vote for his impeachment following his incitement of a riot that led to an armed insurrection at the US Capitol on January 6.
In an interview with Punchbowl News on Tuesday — before the fist-bump — Cheney was both pragmatic and optimistic about her political future. She acknowledged that she is likely to face a “challenging primary” following her vote against Trump, but quickly added: “Anybody who wants to get in that race and who wants to do it on the basis of debating me about whether or not President Trump should have been impeached, I’ll have that debate every day of the week.”
Which, honestly, I’m not sure she’s right about. While she clearly cast her impeachment vote out of principle, the current default stance of the Republican Party base is that anyone who doesn’t support Trump on literally everything is not a “real” Republican.
The former President is doing his darndest to enforce that total fealty, seeking to punish those who, like Cheney, stray.
“Liz Cheney is polling sooo low in Wyoming, and has sooo little support, even from the Wyoming Republican Party, that she is looking for a way out of her Congressional race,” said Trump in a statement released Tuesday. “Based on all polling, there is no way she can win.” (Sidebar: Yes, he really wrote “sooo,” not once but twice.)
And in raw political terms, Cheney — unwittingly — handed the forces aligned to oust her for refusing to march in step with Trump a gift on Wednesday night. While it should not be a bad thing for a GOP leader and a Democratic president to exchange a word and a fist bump, Trump’s cult of personality masquerading as a political party will use that moment to illustrate everything they think is wrong with Cheney.
If you don’t think a moment — caught on tape — matters, just ask former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) about his decision to embrace former President Barack Obama during a presidential visit in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
I rest my case.