Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Listen: this has happened before, part three.

I have previously written about two other historical antecedents to Trump: the Know-Nothings and "Redemption."  But there is a third parallel that is most apt: Senator Joe McCarthy.

McCarthy was born in Wisconsin to poor farming parents who had immigrated from Ireland.  His schooling was erratic, since he helped his family on the farm, but he managed to put himself through college and then law school.  After a few years of practicing law, he ran as a candidate for judge in 1939 and won, succeeding in the race in part by lying about his opponent's age.

His judicial career doesn't bear discussing -- although it has to be said he didn't exactly shine -- and it ended when McCarthy volunteered for the Marines when America entered World War 2.  He was a briefing officer with no combat duties, but he volunteered to be a gunner/observer for twelve missions.  He was injured during the war when he broke his leg at a party.

After the war, McCarthy ran a failed Senate campaign, then took back his seat as judge while planning for a second run.  This time, he won -- a victory that many attributed to attacks on his opponent for war profiteering.

Senator Joe McCarthy started off quietly, giving speeches and working for a few special interests, but his real rise to power came when he started declaring that he had identified numerous Communists (205 of them!) who worked in the State Department and elsewhere in the government.  In a country shaken by the Soviet development of a nuclear weapon and the revelation of several high-profile spies in the government, McCarthy's claim sparked a firestorm of press.

McCarthy seldom provided any evidence for these claims, but they initially seem to have come from allegations made by a former Secretary of State to another Congressperson. The accusations were essentially unsubstantiated, since few of the accused still worked at State and all of them had undergone further security checks.  But that didn't stop McCarthy.  He seized upon this and other prior claims as "evidence," as though someone else's baseless accusations could constitute evidence for his own.  Suspicion alone was all the evidence that McCarthy needed.

Responding to McCarthy's rampant fearmongering, the Senate put together a special committee and held hearings -- the Tydings Committee.  The hope by many senators was that McCarthy's allegations would fall apart under scrutiny.  And, sure enough, he never substantiated them and the committee (and the full Senate) approved conclusions that cleared the State Department and its security procedures.

Unfortunately, the opportunity to rant for hours at a time in the national spotlight didn't diminish McCarthy's standing.  Rather than implode, McCarthy swelled.  While his approval in Wisconsin wasn't great, he had achieved national standing and was widely regarded as one of the most prominent figures in the Senate.  He was helped by the fact that he was Catholic and America's large Catholic community was just beginning to flex its political muscles (including the Kennedy family, which supported him).  And after he was re-elected, he was put in charge of a major committee -- not the security committee he would have preferred, but one with enough scope that he could start holding his own hearings.

McCarthy's committee began holding prominent investigations of different institutions, focusing particularly on those bodies that could be expected to have some diversity of opinion.  He investigated the Voice of America radio station run by State and then the International Information Agency system of libraries.  Unsurprisingly, he found some broadcasts and some books that could be characterized as "communist."  It made for even more national exposure and strengthened the public perception that there really was some sort of communist conspiracy.

Having met with success -- if hysteria, rumors, and scapegoating of innocents can be called such -- McCarthy turned away from the State Department to the Army.  As before, he seized on already-existing accusations in order to inflate his own profile.  Maj. Irving Peress was a dentist enlisted in the Army as a medical professional, but who had failed to satisfactorily answer questions on a standard Army "loyalty review" form.  Accordingly, he'd been discharged.  McCarthy made a show of "investigating" the case, even though there seemed to be no mystery and no scandal, raking Peress over the coals as a witness and blasting the Army's handling of the case.

In the process, though, McCarthy made some enemies in the Army; not longer thereafter, the Army officially accused McCarthy of using the investigation process to apply pressure on senior officials to promote one of McCarthy's friends.  McCarthy's own committee was set to adjudicate the matter.

It would prove to be the end of his career.

McCarthy had always seem invulnerable.  He wasn't, but he did have a special power: Joe McCarthy could not be shamed.  With a straight face and despite incontrovertible evidence, he would declare that he'd flown 32 combat missions during the war, had been wounded in the line of duty, and that he was the recipient of numerous awards for heroism.  With a steady voice and despite clear contradictions, he would denounce vast legions of the innocent as communists.  With a clear conscience and despite all reasonable dissent, he would do evil things and rejoice as it gave him power.

As long as there was a shred of ambiguity -- some thin thread on which to hang his accusations -- McCarthy didn't stop.  He blustered and bullied, and his fans loved him for it.  They were willing to forgive any exaggeration or extremity as long as he was on their team and seemed to be dominant.

But when your power comes from an illusion of your mastery or the prevalence of prejudice, it is a fragile thing.  McCarthy found that out when he went up against the Army... and for the first time, after years of claims and bluster, the American people saw him clearly.

Senator Stu Symington, focused and prepared and calm, took him apart like a roast chicken.

Edward R. Murrow did a feature on McCarthy, found him to be a crude liar, and denounced him for a dangerous fool.

And attorney Jack Welch leapt to the defense of an innocent young lawyer, Fred Fisher, in words that rang as clear as a bell with their passion and scorn.

Almost like magic, McCarthy became a figure of contempt for most of America.  His majority support inverted, his allies in Congress abandoned him, and everyone in the country suddenly felt free to criticize him without fear.  The Senate officially censured him.





Joe McCarthy served out the remainder of his term, to be sure.  But his spell was broken and his power was over.  He launched no more investigations.  He destroyed no one else.  His day was done, and he and his supporters were thrown down.  His name became a pejorative.

We don't know the hour or the day.  It might not happen with some grand confrontation or speech.  This time, there might not be a handful of brave heroes... there might be millions.

But it will happen.  After all, this has happened before.

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