Author’s Note: I wrote this piece shortly after Mitt Romney offered the lone Republican vote to convict Donald Trump of the charges against him. You will detect echoes of it in the Confessions piece. Yesterday, Mitt Romney became the first major Republican officeholder to say Black Lives Matter.
Earlier this week, our nine-year-old son—a scholar of the ancient Greek myths—woke us recounting the story of Prometheus. Zeus tasked Prometheus, one of the Titans of the age, to repopulate the Earth after all living creatures had perished. Prometheus modeled his new creation—mankind—after the Gods and fashioned them with river clay. Zeus, ever wary of threats to his own power, adopted a tyrannical attitude toward his new subjects, an attitude Prometheus greatly resented. Among Zeus’ arbitrary decrees was withholding from mankind the gift of fire. But Prometheus loved mankind more than Zeus and the Olympians, so he stole Olympus’ divine fire and bestowed it upon mankind. Zeus, angered beyond reason, ordered Prometheus chained to a rock for eternity, where an eagle would peck out and eat his liver every day. Because Prometheus was a Titan, the wound would heal overnight and the torture would repeat itself each day throughout eternity. For his noble treachery, Prometheus suffered for centuries before his rescue.
If this allegory rings a bell, it is because Senator Mitt Romney now faces a similar fate after being the lone Republican voting to convict Donald Trump. The parallels are unmistakable. Romney, a political titan in his own right, but doomed to futility against Trump, the impulsive, volatile, vindictive autocrat, to whom the lesser Gods owe their positions of rank and prestige.In the aftermath of Wednesday’s vote, pundits attempt to make sense of Romney’s dissent. Does he seek to lead a post-Trump Republican Party? Will he lead a 21st-Century “Bull Moose” ticket to deny Trump re-election, as Teddy Roosevelt did to William Howard Taft in 1912?
Trump has his own answers for Romney’s actions, many of which—like most Trump rhetoric—are unprintable. But when stripped of their vulgarity, the general theme is that Mitt Romney is a “loser.” Trump assumes that Romney obsesses over his loss like Trump obsesses over his victory. Indeed, Trump’s obsession accentuates the Trump Administration’s predominant (and perhaps only) organizing principle—that American society is made up of “winners” and “losers.” The “winners” are defined by, you guessed it, the “winners.” Everyone else is a loser. And a person’s worth is measured only by what one is willing to do to “win.” The late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel called his parody children’s book about Trump “Winners Aren’t Losers,” a three-word tautology that might serve as Trump’s first, and only, Federalist Paper.
One irony of Romney’s Promethean moment is that Romney himself once used similarly divisive rhetoric to win Republican votes. Romney infamously told a group of wealthy donors—in Boca Raton, a stone’s throw from Mar-a-Lago, the Winners’ national headquarters—that 47% of Americans pay “no income taxes” and these “47% . . . will vote for [President Obama] no matter what.” In Romney-speak, these were the losers. Romney’s 2012 running mate, Paul Ryan, similarly classified Americans as “takers” and “makers.” Romney eventually disclaimed his “47 percent” calculus, and Ryan delivered a public 2016 mea culpa apologizing for his “takers and makers” rhetoric. Of course, by then Trump was emerging as the Republican future using a more potent, malignant strain of the theme. Ryan promptly disappeared from the scene rather than confront the force he helped create.
Romney did not. And so the question of the day—what is Mitt Romney’s purpose? Political expediency can hardly be the answer. The Republican Party is Trump’s party. Some percentage of “loyal” Republicans undoubtedly plot a post-Trump future. Good luck to them. But this cannot have been Romney’s purpose, because even Republicans sympathetic to that cause voted for acquittal. And while one can’t rule out a quixotic spoiler presidential run, this vote was unnecessary to launch it. Romney is universally known, has money and resources, and sufficient organizational abilities to run a nationwide campaign.
No, one must ultimately return to the reason Romney himself gave. Taking to the Senate floor knowing the political torture soon to follow, he declared that to acquit Trump would “expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience.” Romney knew: Suffer at Trump’s hands…or at the mercy of his own conscience.
Atticus Finch once taught Scout that the “one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” Romney’s conscience will now be debated for decades, an inherent rebuke to the premise of a purely partisan impeachment. And if nothing else, millions of voiceless Americans have their objections preserved for history to judge. Years from now, perhaps history’s judgments will even unbind Romney, just as Prometheus was finally, mercifully, unbound.
A final irony. Had Romney followed his fellow Republicans in exonerating Trump, the final vote would have been—that’s right—53-47.