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 methods McCarthy had been employing for years.
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, learned some of his favorite techniques from Cohn. This politician, too, 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. 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 Trump that probably are most akin to what Joseph McCarthy did are those involving Trump’s crusade against the Department of Justice, the FBI, and the inquiry of special counsel Robert Mueller. That campaign has increased in intensity in recent weeks. Trump is asserting ad nauseam that important parts of the U.S. government, and officials working in them, are disloyal to the nation. Instead, so the argument goes, they are acting ignobly with some other interests in mind. The assertion is not that those interests involve Communism or some other foreign ideology, but Trump’s pushing of the notion 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 bareknuckle partisan fighter such as Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who is not running for re-election, said after being briefed on the subject that “Spygate” is bogus. Today House speaker Paul Ryan added that he believes the FBI proceeded appropriately. One difference from McCarthy is that Trump appears to be motivated by wanting to save his own legal skin rather than just getting attention and making political waves. But this does not make the methods any more excusable.
The damage from such antics to important public institutions and to the rule of law is not inconsiderable. The stable functioning of the 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 approach to this entire concept is reflected in the “la justice, c’est moi” notion his lawyers have expressed on his behalf in communications to Mueller and his declaration that he can unilaterally pardon himself.
The harm to individuals, and specifically to public servants who have worked in the institutions in question, also can be considerable. Robert Mueller, who is as straight an arrow as ever filled a senior government job, who served longer than a normal term as FBI director because people in both parties recognized his merits, is persistently maligned as a bad apple. Other intelligence and law enforcement officers with long records of distinguished public service are disparaged as political hacks or worse.