Trumpism must not become the new McCarthyism

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January 6, 2021 has become one more date added to history’s infamous calendar. On that day, President Trump incited a mob riot. For the first time since 1814, when the British invaded the Capitol and burned the White House, the halls of Congress were desecrated. This sad denouement to the Trump presidency has been condemned by many, with the Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today blaming Trump for the insurrection and calling for his immediate removal. Eight Republican senators and 138 House members obsequiously bowed to Trump and endorsed his message to “stop the steal,” voting to invalidate the certified results from either Arizona or Pennsylvania. Two Cabinet members and several White House staffers have since resigned, with more considering the same. The stain left on the Trump presidency is akin to Lady Macbeth’s blood spot, one that will never wash away. 

At the rally before the insurrection, Donald Trump, Jr. issued a warning for those opposing Trump: “This isn’t their Republican Party anymore,” he said. “This is Donald Trump’s Republican Party.”

For four years, Republicans got the message. After Charlottesville, when Trump infamously declared that there were “very fine people on both sides” – a remark that Joe Biden says motivated him to seek the presidency – White House staffers remained silent. Congressional Republicans were equally cowed. The few who bucked Trump were either unceremoniously defeated or did not seek reelection knowing that a primary defeat was certain. 

When the Democratic House impeached Trump, the Republican Senate held a sham trial that did not call any witnesses. After voting Trump not guilty, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) wrongfully asserted that Trump had “learned a pretty big lesson.” Only Mitt Romney (R-Utah) supported convicting and removing Trump, a move that led to his further ostracization within the party. Following impeachment, congressional Republicans continued to ignore Trump’s tweets and tolerated his willful repudiation of congressional authority, knowing that more than 90 percent of their own party’s rank-and-file backed Trump. Only now, with days left in his presidency, is there a stir within the ranks to distance themselves from Trump.   

In many ways, we have been here before. In 1950, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) charged that there were 205 known communists “still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” Between 1950 and 1954, McCarthy’s charges were met with either tacit silence or explicit endorsements. Powerful Sen. Robert Taft (R-Ohio) publicly advised McCarthy to “keep talking and if one case doesn’t work out, he should proceed with another.” 

Indiana senator William E. Jenner accused Defense Secretary George C. Marshall of being “eager to play the role of a front man for traitors,” adding that Secretary of State Dean Acheson was a “communist-appeasing, communist-protecting betrayer of America.” In 1950, Republican senatorial candidate Prescott Bush, father and grandfather to the two Bush presidents respectively, bused hundreds of McCarthyites to Connecticut to campaign for him. (Bush lost by 1,000 votes out of 862,000 cast.) That same year Richard Nixon, a successful 1950 Republican senatorial candidate, praised McCarthy at a campaign rally, saying, “God give him courage to carry on.” Two years later, Republican presidential nominee Dwight D. Eisenhower physically embraced McCarthy and endorsed him, saying that the loss of China and the “surrender of whole nations” in Eastern Europe were the byproducts of communist infiltration in the Truman administration, which “meant – in its most ugly triumph – treason itself.”

Eisenhower remained silent when McCarthy attacked his benefactor, George C. Marshall, who had tapped him to become supreme allied commander during World War II. Ohio senator John Bricker acknowledged McCarthy’s utility: “Joe, you’re a real SOB, but sometimes it’s useful to have SOBs around to do the dirty work.” 

McCarthy had strong public support. A 1950 Gallup poll found 54 percent believing that McCarthy’s charges were true; only 29 percent thought he was “playing politics.” Two years later, public opinion had swung overwhelmingly to McCarthy’s side: 81 percent believed there were “a lot of communists or disloyal people in the State Department,” and 58 percent said they had done “serious harm to our country’s interests.” Like McCarthy then, Donald Trump has strong Republican backing, even now after the sacking of the Capitol: 68 percent of Republicans do not see the insurrection as a threat to democracy, and 45 percent actually support the riot. 

Only in 1954, when McCarthy conducted an inquiry into alleged treachery within the U.S. Army, did he earn widespread condemnation and censure. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith (R-Maine) made her famous “declaration of conscience” speech, saying McCarthy had “debased [the Senate] to the level of a form of hate and character assassination sheltered by the shield of congressional immunity.” Republican National Chairman Leonard Hall announced that he could no longer “go along” with McCarthy, while Sen. Ralph Flanders (R-Vt.) accused him of “doing his best to shatter the party whose label he wears.” Democrat Adlai Stevenson noted that the Republican Party was “hopelessly, dismally, fatally, torn and rent. . .divided against itself, half McCarthy and half Eisenhower” — a striking parallel to today’s GOP, which is divided between a powerful pro-Trump faction and an establishment remnant hoping to distance itself from him.

Back in the 1950s “McCarthyism” crept into the political lexicon, with McCarthy himself defining it as “calling a man a communist who later proves to be one.” But the term McCarthyism served a more important purpose: It exempted those who aided and abetted Joseph McCarthy for their own political gain, blaming a deeply flawed and ambitious politician for his excesses, until he became so disreputable that voices were raised and censure votes were cast. Today, as Lady Macbeth’s blood spot becomes indelibly imprinted on the Trump presidency, some Republicans are beginning to perform another exorcism, seeking whatever means they can to disassociate themselves from their leader. Like McCarthyism, it is convenient to define Trumpism as the excesses and vanities of a deeply flawed man, allowing those who stood by to exempt themselves from blame. A discredited Trumpism must not become the new McCarthyism — a useful term for excusing the outrages of the past four years. While Donald Trump is today’s Joe McCarthy, we cannot forget those who aided and abetted his rise, as well as those whose political ambitions and thirst for power remained conveniently silent. 

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and author of “What Happened to the Republican Party”

Tags 2020 presidential election Anti-communism in the United States Capitol attack Donald Trump Joe Biden Joseph McCarthy McCarthyism Mitt Romney Republican Party Susan Collins trumpism

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