Why So Serious?
The explanation Mitt Romney gave for casting his lone Republican vote to convict at Trump’s impeachment trial was emotional, at times halting. As a deeply religious man, the Utah Senator apologized, he had no choice but to find President Trump guilty of abuse of power.
Odd that Romney had to plumb his soul before making that decision. If you see someone run a red light, you don’t consult your God before saying so. But at that podium, presenting his reasons, Romney’s torment was not that of a normal juror. His anguish hinted at what we, the uninitiate, could not see: the stake at the back erected for him should he confess his faith. Which he did.
Romney, however, faced neither stake nor firing squad. What retribution, then, could make him tremble? Losing his job? The term “unemployed” doesn’t apply to a man of his wealth. Trump’s wrath? The president would finger him in tweets that could potentially mobilize a base of millions of ardent followers informed by nothing but Trump’s tweets. It was daunting retribution, but well known. Romney would simply have to brace for that.
No. Something deeper, something sinister, was afoot, profoundly disturbing due to its intimacy.
A worrying transformation had occurred among Romney’s Republican peers. None among them dared oppose Trump, not just at his impeachment trial, but in any way. Voting to acquit the Man now was only the latest of tributes exacted and paid. Yet, Romney realized, this bacchanalian devotion stopped exactly at party lines. If a storm abates precisely at a particular latitude, you do not question why one side is calm, but what is causing the turbulence opposite. More to be wondered at is when the bacchanalians blame the sober for the uproar.
It was before this audience, his changed peers, that Romney faltered. They were the mob, standing shoulder to shoulder, that would drag him to the stake should he breach their partisan solidarity.
For those of us outside the hellish charm of high political power, opposing Trump requires an act of defiance we cannot imagine. He harrows seasoned men and women. He bluffs the hard-bitten. He reduces the brutal to mewing. His fluent lies confound the sane. You cannot confront him and prevail, because there is only one person there: while you acknowledge his existence, he does not acknowledge yours. Reasoning with him is like talking to a log. It cannot be done. People succumb, or they leave. Unable to simply leave, 52 U.S. Republican senators succumbed for the pittance of a hope of gaining Trump’s favor in the next election and thus the honor of paying him tribute for years to come. This deterioration of political integrity had infected each one.
A second detriment of being a U.S. Republican senator in the Trump era is the fawning required to dissemble any hint of opposition to a leader as hyperactive as he is paranoid. Because toadyism is despicable in someone of their station – and because they are as quick to recognize toadyism in their colleagues as their colleagues are to detect it in them – they scrupulously disguise it as unalloyed fidelity to Trump. Because their loyalty springs from expedience, not reality, they cannot tell when their vows ring absurd. Hence the shouting matches declaring Trump a babe in arms assailed by hundreds of baseless accusations ranging from sexual predation, draft dodging, breach of contract, and tax evasion to taking emoluments from foreign governments and abuse of power. It is the world, not Trump, that is corrupt.
Exile from Trump’s inner circle would impose a highly unpleasant deprivation. No longer in the hall to receive a pat on the shoulder as he passes by, no chance to hear him call out their name with jocular familiarity at a Trump rally in their state (“Where is old so-and-so? Where is he? I know he’s out there somewhere. I saw him. There he is. Come on up here, so-and-so.”), never more to bask in his approval should he perchance retweet their tweet to his millions of followers, no triumphant glide to glorious and lucrative reelection as one of the chosen. No longer to be one of the chosen. A painful prospect. But removal at this point would also be dangerous. They are aware that there is more branch behind than ahead, that the limb has noticeably tapered. Their full-throated support for Trump’s repeated violations was public. Getting cast out of the enchanted realm could quite possibly skid them into a jail cell next to Michael Cohen’s. While they know they would never turn on the Man, they must make sure the rest maintain sodality. Their pact to annihilate any dissenters is as implicit and solemn as it was inevitable.
It was to this league that Romney made his plea, knowing they were beyond hearing. That league, Romney was aware, had crippled Senator Susan Collins of Maine and Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. Romney stood against it alone. No wonder his voice quaked at times. They were going to flay him alive.
To rediscover his moral courage, let Romney consider political activist Alexei Navalny. Having endured prison, torture, and acid attacks, with a Russian stake clearly visible in the background – not just to intimidate but to be used should he go too far – Navalny opposes Putin with defiance, eloquence, and dignity.
To sober them up, let the 52 Republican senators consider: If currying Trump’s favor to hang onto their jobs is their highest priority, their baptism by acid is long behind them and the face they raise to their constituents for reelection scarred beyond recognition.