Is Trump finally approaching his McCarthy moment?

By: - January 16, 2018 5:00 am
President Donald Trump and Senator Joseph McCarthy

Latest racist attacks on immigrants could be an important tipping point

As bleak as our national political landscape may seem right now, it’s worth remembering that it is far from the only time in American history in which a dangerous, dishonest and delusional con artist has held a position of great prominence. In the early 1950’s, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin rode his paranoid and dishonest witch hunt against supposed “communist subversion” to become one of the most famous and powerful men in the nation.

It seems hard to imagine now, but there was a time during which even President Dwight Eisenhower, the enormously popular and well-respected hero of World War II, lacked the political courage to take on McCarthy in public, even though he knew him to be a dishonest charlatan.

Ultimately, of course, it was the cumulative effect of McCarthy’s serial dishonesty and cruelty that brought him down. Even though the far right fringe continued to swallow his lies and imaginings to the bitter end and beyond, there eventually arrived a point at which, for the overwhelming majority of the American people, McCarthy became an embarrassing caricature of himself.

One of the key moments that helped turn public opinion against McCarthy and spur his fall took place in June of 1954 when a courageous lawyer named Joseph Welch confronted McCarthy in a nationally televised Senate hearing. The subject matter was an attempt by McCarthy and his evil toady, Roy Cohn (who, not surprisingly, later befriended and advised Trump), to smear a young lawyer who worked for Welch and who had at one time been a member of the liberal National Lawyers Guild. The famous climax of the exchange featured these words from Welch:

Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild…Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

A tipping point on Trump?

The 1950’s were, in many ways, a more genteel and innocent time, of course, and it will undoubtedly take a lot more to shut up and bring down Donald Trump than a mere public confrontation and shaming over his lack of human decency. That said; one senses in recent days that things may finally be approaching a tipping point for Trump.

The impetus in this case, somewhat surprisingly, is a toxic triumvirate of recent actions targeting immigrants:

  • An end date to the protections for DACA holders or “Dreamers” who arrived in the U.S. as children,
  • Terminations of protection for hundreds of thousands of immigrants with “temporary protected status” (TPS) from Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador, and, perhaps most infamously,
  • Trump’s vulgar and offensive broadside against TPS holders’ countries and his suggestion he would prefer northern European immigrants.

Trump’s vulgar statement was so outrageous and has been so widely condemned, that he has felt compelled, in a weird echo of Richard Nixon’s famous (and ultimately inaccurate) assertion that he “was not a crook,” to make public statements that he is “not a racist.”

As the Associated Press reported yesterday :

President Donald Trump is defending himself anew against accusations that he is racist, this time after recent disparaging comments about Haiti and African nations.

‘No, No. I’m not a racist,’ Trump said Sunday, after reporters asked him to respond to those who think he is. ‘I am the least racist person you have ever interviewed. That I can tell you.’ Trump also denied making the statements attributed to him, but avoided the details of what he did or did not say.

‘Did you see what various senators in the room said about my comments?’ he asked, referring to lawmakers who were meeting with him in the Oval Office on Thursday when Trump is said to have made the comments. ‘They weren’t made.’

Trump stands accused of using ‘shithole’ to describe African countries during an immigration meeting with a bipartisan group of six senators. The president, in the meeting, also questioned the need to admit more Haitians to the U.S., according to people who were briefed on the conversation but were not authorized to describe the meeting publicly.

Trump said in the meeting that he would prefer immigrants from countries like Norway instead.”

The denunciations of Trump’s statement – from across the nation and across the globe – have been swift and overwhelming. Even many on the Christian right who have thus far tolerated Trump’s behavior for cynical political purposes, have been moved to speak out.

An editorial in the Charlotte Observer aptly put it this way:

It is further evidence of Trump’s racist views and policies. And it ignores the fact that through history, millions of people have come to this country to flee unbearable conditions. Those people largely built this country, in fact.”

What Trump’s decline and fall might look like

While there is obviously nothing that can be done to Trump directly and personally because of his racist views and speech (even Trump has First Amendment rights), it is increasingly conceivable that an important and seminal rebuke could take the form of a legislative defeat on the issue of the looming crises for “Dreamers” and immigrants with TPS status.

As is widely known now, there are roughly 800,000 Dreamers who will face an existential threat if action isn’t taken in the weeks ahead to solve the problem of the expiring DACA program. Meanwhile, a similar humanitarian disaster looms for people of all ages with TPS.

In some cases, these immigrants have been living in the U.S. lawfully for nearly 20 years. They have purchased homes, worked lawfully, and raised children as our friends and neighbors. More than 40,000 North Carolinians could lose their status if both of these programs are allowed to expire.

In such an environment, it seems simply inconceivable that the majority of Americans will turn their backs and allow their elected representatives to collaborate with a Trump scheme to deport and/or criminalize these people.

And if this turns out to be the case and Congress really does act to put Trump in his place, it’s easy to imagine how such an event could be the first of many dominoes. That the 2018 elections loom ever closer and Trump’s polling support is now down to about one-in-three Americans (right about the level to which McCarthy’s fell at its nadir) makes such a scenario all the more plausible.

Ultimately, what brought down Joseph McCarthy was public opinion. Yes, he was forced to endure an official censure by his Senate colleagues, but what really sent his career spiraling into the abyss was the fact that he became irrelevant. Once Joseph Welch landed his haymaker on the great bully and publicly demonstrated what a morally and intellectually bankrupt person he was, McCarthy’s political capital quickly collapsed.

No one had to impeach or prosecute the man. He was simply forgotten.

And so it might conceivably be for Trump. While the president clearly poses a much greater threat to the republic and has many more tools at his disposal than McCarthy ever did, it’s at least possible to imagine a similar scenario in 2018.

Perhaps, rather than flaming out in some kind of great constitutional conflagration like a criminal trial or an impeachment, Donald Trump will meet his political demise in a manner similar to McCarthy – as a pathetic, forgotten, and irrelevant figure who had his moment in the sun, but who was then exposed as a fraud and a paper tiger by an unlikely player and then just faded away.

Maybe, just maybe, the defenders of immigrants in 2018 will do to Trump what Joseph Welch did to McCarthy in 1954. Stay tuned.

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Rob Schofield
Rob Schofield

Editor Rob Schofield oversees day-to-day newsroom operations, authors regular commentaries, and hosts a weekly radio show/podcast.