by Paul R. Pillar
Sixty-four years ago this week came a pivotal moment in the overdue discrediting and downfall of an American demagogue. The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a nationally televised inquiry from April to June of 1954 that became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin Republican who made his reputation by fulminating against Communist infiltration, imaginary or real, in agencies of the U.S. government, had turned his aim at the U.S. Army. Meanwhile the Army complained that McCarthy’s legal counsel and sidekick, Roy Cohn, had pressured the service to give preferential treatment to a draftee who was a friend of Cohn and a former aide to McCarthy. The hearings were a long, public airing of the dueling accusations.
The Army retained as special counsel for the hearings Boston lawyer Joseph Welch. After weeks of televised sparring and after Welch challenged McCarthy to give to the FBI and the Defense Department a list McCarthy claimed to have of subversives in defense plants, McCarthy started attacking a young lawyer in Welch’s firm named Fred Fisher on grounds that he had formerly belonged to a legal association accused of Communist connections. Welch criticized this attack as needless and irrelevant—Fisher was not working with Welch on the Army case—and said, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy persisted, Welch responded with the most memorable line of the hearings: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator; you’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Polls indicated a sharp drop in McCarthy’s public support at about the time of the hearings. The famous red-baiter became a has-been. Six months later, the Senate passed a resolution formally censuring McCarthy.
Most of the harm that McCarthy did, to the republic and to innocent citizens, was not focused on the specific issues on the table at that hearing in 1954. Fisher was not permanently disabled by McCarthy’s attack. He went on to a successful legal career in which he became president of the Massachusetts Bar Association. Rather, the hearings were a catalyst for openly recognizing the rottenness of the methods McCarthy had been employing for years. They provided an emperor-has-no-clothes moment in which what should have been broadly discredited much earlier finally was.
The republic must deal today with the American politician who, among those who have come after McCarthy and have acquired at least as much prominence and power as him, uses methods most like his. This politician, who learned some of his favorite techniques at the feet of that same Roy Cohn, is now in the White House. This politician, too, is a lying demagogue who is willing to defame anyone or anything if it garners desired attention to himself or if fomenting hatred and distrust toward his targets serves some other purpose for him. Chronic lying has become so prominent as to become a hallmark of his presidency. That there may be grains of truth in some of the disparagement he dishes out is, of course, no excuse for the methods. There were some real Communist sympathizers in the U.S. government in McCarthy’s time.
The methods of Donald Trump that probably are most akin to what Joseph McCarthy did are those involving Trump’s defamation of the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the inquiry of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. That defamation campaign has increased in intensity in recent weeks. As with many of McCarthy’s accusations, Trump asserts without evidence that important parts of the U.S. government, and officials working in them, are not loyal to the interests of the entire nation, which they are supposed to serve. Instead, according to Trump, they are acting ignobly with some other interests in mind. Trump is not asserting that those interests involve Communism or some other foreign ideology, but his pushing of “Spygate” echoes McCarthy’s insinuations in other obvious ways. That the conspiratorial notion Trump is pushing has no basis in fact is reflected in how even a Republican and bare-knuckle partisan fighter such as Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who is not running for re-election, said after being briefed on the subject that the “Spygate” notion is false and that the FBI had been doing exactly the sort of investigative work it is supposed to do. One difference from McCarthy is that Trump appears to want to save his own legal skin rather than just get attention and make political waves. But this difference certainly does not make the methods any more excusable.
The damage from such McCarthy-like defamation to important public institutions and to the rule of law is considerable. The stable functioning of American democracy depends on rigorous and impartial law enforcement and on public confidence that the organs of government involved in law enforcement and security are operating rigorously and impartially. Trump’s disdain for this entire concept is reflected in the “la justice, c’est moi” notion his lawyers have expressed on his behalf in communications to Mueller.
The harm to individuals, and specifically to public servants who have worked in the institutions in question, also can be considerable. As Mitt Romney might put it if he were less oriented toward the private sector, “Institutions are people, my friend.” Robert Mueller, who is the straightest arrow to ever fill a senior government job, who served longer than a normal term as FBI director because people in both parties recognized that he was that good and trustworthy, and who now is doing a difficult job when he should be enjoying retirement and time with grandchildren, gets maligned. Other intelligence and law-enforcement officers with long records of distinguished public service get disparaged as political hacks.
Three differences between the McCarthy era and the Trump era help to explain why there hasn’t yet been any 1954-type pivoting of opinion or any widespread, explicit acknowledgement of the rottenness. An obvious difference is that Trump is president and McCarthy never was. Trump has all the powers of the presidency and the political deference that goes with them. Politicians in one of the two major political parties (with a few exceptions like Gowdy, who are retiring from office) turn a blind eye to Trump’s excesses as long as they get the tax policy or judicial appointments they want. This will not change until and unless Trump becomes a clear political liability to most Republicans (if, say, a trade war triggers a recession).
A second and related difference is the partisanship that is far more intense in the AG (After Gingrich) era than it was in the 1950s. A Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, had a lot to do with bringing down McCarthy. Now, extreme methods against domestic political opponents are condoned more than before, and partisan domination is elevated to a sine qua non that it was not before.
A third difference involves how ideas get communicated to the public. The Army-McCarthy hearings were broadcast on live television, gavel-to-gavel on two commercial networks and in part on a third. Even though in 1954 television sets were still a new accoutrement to the typical American home, as many as 80 million people were estimated to have viewed at least part of the hearings. Americans could see and judge for themselves. Near the end of the hearings, one of the committee members with whom McCarthy jousted, Stuart Symington (D-MO)—and whom McCarthy, in a Trump-like bestowing of disdainful nicknames, called “Sanctimonious Stu”—accurately said to McCarthy, “Senator, the American people have had a look at you now for six weeks; you’re not fooling anyone.”
Today, far fewer Americans would be exposed directly to such a televised reckoning on Capitol Hill than would get the Fox version of it, or Rush Limbaugh’s comments on it. The explosion of social media and of real fake news has crippled the ability of many Americans to see and judge for themselves. Donald Trump has both cultivated and demagogically exploited a mishmash of truth and falsity, news and lies, and accountability and defamation. The results can be seen in the weakening of public support for the special counsel’s work, with the weakening having no apparent cause other than the defamation.
An appropriate question to ask today is, “Have you no sense of decency, Mr. Trump?” If the question is more than rhetorical, the answer should be obvious, but the question should be asked repeatedly anyway. Unfortunately, the nation has not had, in response to this current incarnation of McCarthyism, its Joseph Welch moment. It is uncertain whether it ever will get it.