His vote did not change the outcome, but Mitt Romney reminded us on Wednesday how one man alone can dramatically change the tone and the moral character of a moment.
“We’re all footnotes, at best, in the annals of history,” he said, as he announced his vote to convict President Trump of abuse of power. “But in the most powerful nation on earth, the nation conceived in liberty and justice, that is distinction enough for any citizen.”
Trump was, of course duly acquitted by the Senate and will remain in office. But the emotional focus of the afternoon was on the junior senator from Utah, who did what no senator in U.S. history has ever done. Romney became the first senator ever to vote to remove a president of his own party; it was the first bipartisan vote to convict in American history.
Maybe that fact will be just a footnote, or asterisk. But it felt like something—the most recent Republican nominee for president breaking ranks to vote for the removal of his party’s sitting president. He knew that he was on the losing end of the vote, but said, “I will tell my children and their children that I did my duty to the best of my ability, believing that my country expected it of me.”
Clearly, Trump World was taken by surprise and their reaction was a cry of strangled anger and rage. Donald Trump Jr.—who may well be the next man to be the Republican nominee for president—demanded that Romney be “expelled” from not just the GOP conference, but from the actual Republican party itself. As if that were a thing that could be done. It is instructive to note that we do not often hear calls from the Trump family for the expulsion of Trump’s more unsavory supporters.
Because the logic of Trumpism demands that we make room for the possibility of there being very fine people who march for white supremacy, while those who oppose Trump are human scum who must be expelled.
But don’t worry. Not a cult.
“We are living in the Era of Rage,” Peter Wehner wrote on Wednesday afternoon. “Mitt Romney knows this, and he therefore knows the attacks on him will be vicious. He will be accused of being a traitor not only by the president, a cruel and unforgiving man, but also by his fellow Republican lawmakers, the right-wing media complex, and even many of his constituents.” And yet, despite all that. Romney chose to make his stand.
Some of us have gotten so used to disappointment that his vote came as something of a surprise; it was an unexpected jolt of inspiration—like an anachronism from an age before pusillanimity replaced principle.
But because genuine acts of political courage have become so rare, some pundits had a hard time processing what it meant. Who is this guy? What is he really up to? Everyone now assumes that everyone else is working an angle, too:
There is a certain despairing kind of sophistication in assuming that an elected official couldn’t be acting out of genuine conscience at this late date. After all, we live in an era that provides almost daily confirmations of our worst suspicions. Cynicism is usually a reliable setting for default analysis.
And it’s also true that Romney will probably get some temporary “strange new respect,” from many of the folks who viciously attacked him just a few years ago. But the larger reality is that he was willing to torch his political future and his status as an elder statesman of the GOP. You cannot credit him with possible benefits from his stand without taking stock of the very real costs.
In the end, Romney, told the Atlantic, the evidence against Trump was inescapable. “The president did in fact pressure a foreign government to corrupt our election process,” Romney said. “And really, corrupting an election process in a democratic republic is about as abusive and egregious an act against the Constitution—and one’s oath—that I can imagine. It’s what autocrats do.”
In the interview he explained how came to his decision:
Throughout the trial, he said, he was guided by his father’s favorite verse of Mormon scripture: Search diligently, pray always, and be believing, and all things shall work together for your good. “I have gone through a process of very thorough analysis and searching, and I have prayed through this process,” he told me. “But I don’t pretend that God told me what to do.”
His reference to his father, George, is revealing. One imagines that the younger Romney had his father’s moral courage very much in mind over the last few weeks. George Romney was governor of Michigan and had ambitions to run for president. But he is remembered now not for his political career but for his striking moral courage.
“His calling card was his shocking authenticity,” wrote Rick Perlstein. “His courage in sticking to his positions without fear or favor was extraordinary.”
In January of 1964, for example, the second-year governor received a letter from a member of the top Mormon governing body reminding him of the “teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith” that “the Lord had placed the curse upon the Negro.” Drop your support for the 1964 civil rights bill, the elder warned, arguing that God might literally strike Romney dead for his apostasy: “I just don’t think we can get around the Lord’s position in relation to the Negro without punishment for our acts,” the letter said. Romney only redoubled his commitment – leading a march the next year down the center of Detroit in solidarity with Martin Luther King’s martyrs for voting rights’ in Selma, Alabama. In 1966, the Republican Party staked its electoral fortunes on opposing open housing for blacks. Romney begged them, unsuccessfully, not to.”
Mitt Romney will have to wait for the verdict of history and he may not be around long enough to read its final judgment.
In the meantime, how well prepared is he for the Trumpian onslaught that is now headed his way? “Not very well prepared,” he told the Washington Post. “I have tried to keep myself from really thinking about that so that I didn’t lose my resolve.”
He recalled a hymn he has sung in church that he said says to do the right thing and let the consequences follow. “I’m only dealing with the first part. . . . And I know there will be consequences.”
But the consequences will not all be negative. To Trump’s followers, Romney’s isolation will be taken as proof of his irrelevance. But to other citizens his lonely stand is a reminder of Frederick Douglass’s remark that “One and God make a majority.”
By standing alone on the Senate floor, Romney reminded us that the embers of principle and political courage are not, after all, wholly extinct.
And that’s not nothing.