The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Is this Donald Trump’s Joe McCarthy moment?

Former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago dinner with anti-Semite and Adolf Hitler admirer Kanye West (now known as Ye) and white supremacist Nick Fuentes, followed by his declaration that the U.S. Constitution should be “terminated” so he can be reinstated as president, presents Republicans with their own Profile in Courage test: Do they condemn Trump for the company he keeps and agree with him that the Constitution should be “terminated”? And will they support Trump if he is their party’s 2024 presidential nominee?

Thus far, the responses from their parched lips have largely been either silence, or deflection or expressing an ambiguous desire to “move on.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) falsely asserted that Trump had condemned Fuentes “four times.” Former Vice President Pence says Trump was “wrong” to have the dinner and believes Republicans should “support and defend” the Constitution, but does not rule out supporting Trump if he is renominated in 2024.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) offered Trump her full-throated support, hardly surprising since she once shared a stage with Fuentes. House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) remained silent, but did not retract her endorsement of Trump’s 2024 campaign. Perhaps the most convoluted response came from Republican Rep. David Joyce (R-Ohio) who, when asked about Trump’s call to “terminate” the Constitution, said, “Well, you know, he says a lot of things.”

In many ways, the Republican Party’s history with Donald Trump harkens back to its experience with another demagogue, Joseph R. McCarthy. In 1950, the Wisconsin senator claimed to have in hand a list of 205 communists working in the State Department, a charge that catapulted the heretofore little-known McCarthy onto the national stage. Sen. Bricker (R-Ohio) told McCarthy, “Joe, you’re a real SOB, but sometimes it’s useful to have SOBs to do the dirty work.” Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) encouraged McCarthy to “keep talking and if one case doesn’t work, he should proceed with another.”

Campaigning for the presidency in 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower eliminated his planned denunciation of McCarthy after the Wisconsin senator accused General George Marshall of being “eager to play the front man for traitors.” Susan Eisenhower, Ike’s granddaughter, remembers that McCarthy had an instinct for innuendo and “what is now called ‘fake news’ [which] strengthened the senator’s power and influence.”

McCarthy’s downfall came in 1954, when he accused the U.S. Army of harboring suspected communists. His wild accusations led to a made for television moment when an exasperated Army attorney, Joseph Welch, admonished McCarthy: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” In that instant, Republicans were done with McCarthy. Republican National Party Chair Leonard Hall declared that he could no longer “go along” with McCarthy’s sniping at “persons who are fighting communists just as conscientiously as he is.” By a vote of 67 to 22, McCarthy was censured by the U.S. Senate. President Eisenhower privately vowed, “He’s the last guy in the world who’ll ever get [to the White House] if I have anything to say.”

For years, Republicans refrained from criticizing McCarthy for fear of alienating their most loyal supporters. Eugene Pulliam, a conservative Republican and prominent newspaper publisher, declared that McCarthy “has the confidence of literally millions of people who think he is being directed by God.”

Members of the John Birch Society who, like McCarthy, saw a vast communist conspiracy working inside the U.S. government, were also ardent McCarthy admirers. By the early 1960s, the Society quickly grew to 30,000 members and was praised by prominent Republicans, including Barry Goldwater: “Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society. I’m not talking about commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks. I’m talking about the highest cast of men of affairs.” Running for governor of California in 1966, Ronald Reagan said it was unfair to label all Birchers “crazies,” and he welcomed their support: “Any member of the society who supports me will be buying my philosophy. I won’t be buying theirs.”

A cardinal rule of politics is that no political party wants to alienate its base supporters. Republicans have slavishly adhered to that maxim. One exception came in 1950 when Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) broke with her colleagues when it came to dealing with Joe McCarthy. In her Declaration of Conscience speech, Smith declared that she did not want the Republican Party to ride to victory on the “Four Horsemen of Calumny-Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

But hers was a lonely voice. Today, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) has issued her own Declaration of Conscience, and promises to “do whatever it takes” to make sure Trump never again enters the Oval Office. But, like Smith, hers is a lonely voice.

In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King wrote that people of ill will have used their time “much more effectively” than the people of good will. King noted that there is a need for repentance not merely for the “vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”

His words summarize the choice Republicans must now make: Will they call out Trump by name, refuse to endorse him and finally purge him from their ranks? Or will they remain silent? Put another way: Will this be a moment when Republicans finally rid themselves of Donald Trump in the same way they did of Joe McCarthy, or not?

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at The Catholic University of America. His latest book, co-authored with Matthew Kerbel, is titled “American Political Parties: Why They Formed, How They Function, and Where They’re Headed.”

Tags Donald Trump Elise Stefanik Joe McCarthy Joseph McCarthy Kanye West Kanye West Kevin McCarthy Marjorie Taylor Greene McCarthyism Nick Fuentes Nick Fuentes Trump 2024

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More White House News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video