At Least One Republican Still Knows Right From Wrong

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For three years, we’ve wondered who would play Joseph Welch, the indignant Army lawyer, to President Donald Trump’s Joseph McCarthy. In a 1954 Congressional hearing Welch famously asked McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?” In subsequent years the moment acquired density and gravity. Welch’s defiance of McCarthy’s slanders became lodged in popular culture as the quintessence of patriotism and courage.

In Trump’s Senate impeachment trial, would any Republican have the decency, the patriotism, the courage to stand up for the truth? Would the entire party lock arms and agree to let every crime, every lie, every greasy assault on rule of law just slide away?

Yesterday, Utah Senator Mitt Romney rose to his solitary assignment with history, voting to convict Trump on one article of impeachment. “Were I to ignore the evidence that has been presented and disregard what I believe my oath and the Constitution demands of me for the sake of a partisan end, it would, I fear, expose my character to history’s rebuke and the censure of my own conscience,” he said.

Millions of Americans in the 1950s thrilled to McCarthy’s thuggery, lies and careless destruction of reputations. The Republican Senator from Wisconsin was no pariah; he was a champion. His fans lustily cheered McCarthy’s manufactured evidence. They laughed about the careers he ended and the souls he drove to ruin and despair. They dismissed his personal corruption. They tingled at his tall tales of the communist invasion of the American mind, with the dirty reds pouring over the ideological border to poison the white purity of the homeland.  

But those are not the Americans we remember and honor today. In the interest of our own myth-making, which every great nation requires to enshrine its highest values, we agree to forget, and so forgive, those Americans. Instead, we honor Welch, the establishment lawyer who rose from the toxic dump of McCarthyism to embody the nobility too few of his compatriots possessed. His public challenge to McCarthy has been tolling like a bell for almost seven decades.

It’s no small thing that Romney refused to close his ears to the ringing.

He knows that the system may not work this time. This president’s crimes are not going the way of Richard Nixon’s in Watergate. The Republicans are cowed, desperate and eager to rationalize their complicity. The Democrats, who can only protect the rules if they continue to play by them, are at a disadvantage against a corrupt opponent and constitutional structures that enable minority rule. Trump’s Department of Justice appears to have given Trump and his foreign friends a green light to cheat in the 2020 election. Trump is sure to conduct himself as lawlessly as Trump invariably does.

Election sabotage aside, Democrats may fail to nominate a candidate who can defeat Trump even in a fair contest. The economy is good. The Democrats are struggling.

Whether American democracy and rule of law survive the Trump era is an open question. If they fail, Romney will be remembered, and honored, only by those who most miss the ideals for which he took his stand. To them, Romney will be an icon, a beacon of honesty amid a hurricane of lies.

If we collectively manage to rescue the listing rule of law before it sinks, Romney will loom even larger. Romney didn’t end Trump’s misrule any more than Welch ended McCarthy’s wild ride. But his example is both stark and permanent. The shame of his GOP peers burns brighter, and hotter, because of Romney’s individual courage.

The inevitable MAGA efforts to destroy Romney are already underway. Perhaps the smears will have an effect. Perhaps the taunts and threats, against Romney and his family, will succeed, later if not sooner, in hounding him from office.

“I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the president, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced. I was not wrong,” Romney said on the Senate floor. “In the last several weeks, I’ve received numerous calls and texts. Many demanded, in their words, that I ‘stand with the team.’ I can assure you that that thought has been very much on my mind: You see, I support a great deal of what the president has done. I voted with him 80 percent of the time.”

Romney knew he would pay a high price, with no political benefit on the horizon. He stood up anyway. Whatever our political party or ideological leanings, we should celebrate and honor his bravery. Whatever comes next, we should not forget it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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