Mitt Romney announced his plans to retire from the Senate, and he’ll take one of the last vestiges of GOP norms with him. To mark the occasion, let’s recall the moment Mitt stood, and stood alone, for what was right during Trump’s first impeachment.
The following is an excerpt from my book, Please Scream Inside Your Heart: Breaking News and Nervous Breakdowns in the Year That Wouldn’t End.
Adam Schiff closed out the House managers’ case against Trump with this: “You can’t trust this president to do the right thing, not for one minute, not for one election, not for the sake of our country. You just can’t. He will not change and you know it . . . Is there one among you who will say enough?”
Not for one minute, not for one election, not for one tweet.
Schiff’s congressional district included West Hollywood, home to some of the most famous entertainers in the world. But there was no question which resident gave the best performance during the weeks that encapsulated the House impeachment and Senate trial. By the time the trial ended, liberal parents were buying their toddlers Superman pajamas telling them the S stood for Schiff.
But three years into the relentless, unabashed enabling of an anything-goes presidency, the US representative from California’s Twenty-Eighth District may have intended as rhetorical the question: “Is there one among you who will say enough?”
But there was an answer: Yes. Exactly one.
In the most famous scene of the 1960 blockbuster Spartacus, a group of recaptured slaves led by Kirk Douglas’s character are told they could save their own lives “on the single condition that you identify the body or the living person of the slave called Spartacus.”
Spartacus courageously stands to announce his identity, but before he can speak, Tony Curtis (playing the part of Antoninus) stands beside him and calls out, “I’m Spartacus.” And one by one, other slaves stand and heroically risk their lives and call out the same.
At the conclusion of the Senate trial of Donald Trump, Mitt Romney boldly gave a speech explaining why he would vote to convict the presidenton the abuse of power charge: “My own view is that there’s not much I can think of that would be a more egregious assault on our Constitution than trying to corrupt an election to maintain power. And that’s what the president did.”
Romney stood and declared, “I’m Spartacus!” And his colleagues nodded in his direction and said, “Yup, that’s Spartacus, alright.”
In an odd irony, Kirk Douglas died on the day Mitt Romney stood up while the rest of his party remained seated. Something else died a little bit more that day too: the rule of law.
How did so many Americans stand by and not only accept but embrace a clearly wrong, historically absurd verdict in favor of the president of the United States? One answer to that question is that millions of Americans saw a completely different trial, one that took place in their algorithmically driven Facebook feeds.
The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins provided many valuable insights into this world that most Americans were missing. In the months leading up to the impeachment trial, Coppins ran an experiment. He created a new Facebook account that he used to follow several pro-Trump groups and pages. He then let Facebook’s algorithm work its magic.
What I was seeing was a strategy that has been deployed by illiberal political leaders around the world. Rather than shutting down dissenting voices, these leaders have learned to harness the democratizing power of social media for their own purposes — jamming the signals, sowing confusion. They no longer need to silence the dissident shouting in the streets; they can use a megaphone to drown him out. Scholars have a name for this: censorship through noise.
Days after the trial, Lindsey Graham would remark: “When I die God isn’t going to ask, ‘Why didn’t you convict Trump?’” (No, he’ll just step aside and let John McCain beat the shit out of you.)