Hagiography usually waits until someone has died, but Mitt Romney is still very much alive. In the Senate’s final vote to acquit Donald Trump of all charges, Romney became the first Senator to vote to convict and remove from office a president of their own party, with the Utah Republican citing his personal faith and the magnitude of the president’s wrongdoing in his decision.
The act was courageous, and will surely have ramifications upon Romney’s standing with the current Trump-loyal GOP. But the wave of effusive praise for Romney’s single vote from both anti-Trump Republicans and centrist Democrats oversells the actual risk he took and paves over the actual policies he represents.
Romney has been stirring this pot for weeks, and his decision to vote in favor of conviction clearly did not come as final snap judgement. Instead, his message was slickly released through a pre-taped interview with Chris Wallace at Fox News and an embargoed piece by The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins, Romney’s sympathetic reporter of choice. Both were timed to come out as he was making his dramatic floor speech to the Senate. It came off flawlessly — the White House never saw it coming.
And it certainly worked: Trump loyalists and the White House are furious, and liberals are quickly moving to canonize the (still living) Romney as a saint in the same way they rushed to beautify John McCain for his vote to preserve the Affordable Care Act.
“At a time when many wonder what honor is left in public life, there stands Mitt Romney,” Chris Murphy, the junior Democratic senator from Connecticut, wrote on Twitter.
It’s easy to see why: both acts are framed in a classic heroes’ archetype, one man standing up against his own kind to do what is right. They also both exist to build a myth of bipartisanship onto a man who exhibited most of the Republican party’s worst qualities.
But Democrats like Murphy are taking the entirely wrong message from his defiance. They think Romney’s lone vote represents a chance to return to the rose-tinted politics of yesteryear, where people stood up for what is right. In truth, it’s the opposite: The fact that Romney was the only Republican vote to convict cements the fact that that era is dead (if it ever really lived), save for a few last gasps by those with the political capital to wheeze.
Because make no mistake, Romney only voted this way because he could. His Senate seat is pretty safe: He’s not up for re-election until 2024, and he’s a largely beloved Mormon candidate representing Utah. While there are surely some hardline Trump sycophants in the Senate, the majority of his GOP colleagues probably don’t care all that much how Romney voted. And it’s likely that more than a few would have joined him if the constraints of political cowardice and vulnerable seats didn’t keep them in line. Romney was perhaps the only Senator with the motivation and the freedom to act.
Perhaps the most telling facet of Romney’s choice is what finally inspired him to act: not any of Trump’s many decisions that brutalize the American people, but that the President happened to be a moronic, corrupt scumbag while making them. Take immigration, for example: Romney has mildly distanced himself from some of Trump’s more despicable policies, calling family separations at the border “heartbreaking,” but in prior speeches referred to himself as “more of a hawk” on immigration than the President, citing his opposition to the Obama-era DACA program.
Romney knows that the Republican party and the powers that guide it will eventually outlive Trump. By opposing the president on little more than overt criminality, rather than the inherent violence of his policies, the Senator is signaling nothing more than the fact that he’d be able to do all the same fascism as Trump with a better hairline.