A Latter-Day Joe McCarthy
Posted on July 20, 2015
(This originally appeared in The Hill)
"Senator; you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
In the summer months of 1954, 80 million Americans, transfixed, watched live the deliberations of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, as it watched Joe McCarthy wage war against the U.S. Army.
When a lawyer representing the Army, Joseph Welch, posed that question to the Wisconsin Republican, it proved to be a critical turning point in American history.
McCarthy and his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, actually didn’t have much in the way of decency. The Senate would later censure McCarthy (although not expel him) for his unethical behavior, and he would die at age 48 from alcoholism.
The arc of Joe McCarthy’s career was short and dramatic. He struck a nerve in the psyche of the American people. In the aftermath of World War II, as our former allies, the Soviet Union, became our bitter enemies, and as we lost ground to its ideology when Chairman Mao conquered China, paranoia ran deep.
McCarthy wasn’t wrong about communist influence in the State Department or in Hollywood. There were plenty of spies in both places, as records would later show. But his approach to weed them out was paranoid, undisciplined and erratic. And when he decided to take on the Army, he made a huge strategic mistake.
Donald Trump reminds me a bit of McCarthy.
He, too, has struck a nerve in the psyche of the American people (not all of them, mind you, but the same kind of folks who were inspired by the Wisconsin senator).
For Trump, the issue is not communism but illegal immigration. Like the communist threat, our broken immigration system does pose a threat to the security of the American people, although that threat has been exaggerated.
Like McCarthy, Trump has been erratic in his attacks. McCarthy made bold promises of having lists of people who were communist sympathizers in the State Department, which, of course, he never produced.
In his announcement for the White House, Trump said about Mexico, “They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
McCarthy started his decline when he attacked the Army as an institution. It was at that point that the president, Dwight Eisenhower, decided that enough was enough and took steps to signal his displeasure with McCarthy’s antics.
Trump’s attack on Arizona Sen. John McCain’s military service is a similar bridge too far. Pro tip for any political novice: Never question the heroism of any former prisoner of war, especially one who still bears the scars of a long captivity.
Certainly don’t question that service when you yourself skillfully used every trick known to avoid being drafted into the military.
I remember once when my former boss, Denny Hastert (R-Ill.), got into a public brawl with McCain on the issue of raising taxes to pay for the Iraq War. McCain was for it, and Hastert was against it. The then Speaker of the House asked the question, “What does John McCain know about sacrifice?”
As it turns out, McCain knows a lot about sacrifice. And while he might have graduated last in his class at the Naval Academy, as was pointed out by the Trumpster, his service in the U.S. Senate has been remarkable.
Say what you will about the Arizona Republican, love him or hate him, but never question his love of this country or his status as a bona fide war hero.
In honor of Sharknado Week, I think we can safely say that Trump has jumped the shark in his candidacy for the White House. The bellowing billionaire has had his moment in the political sun. But in the bright glare of the spotlight, it turns out that he is nothing more than a latter-day Joe McCarthy, making irrational comments, picking unwinnable fights and proving that he is not capable to lead this country.