The Conservative Movement Has No Decency

Framing Donald Trump as an indecent anomaly exonerates the movement and party that produced him.

One of the most storied, Aaron Sorkin-esque moments in American history — making the rounds recently after Donald Trump’s indecent comment on Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic National Convention — is Joseph Welch’s famous confrontation with Joe McCarthy. The date was June 9, 1954; the setting, the Army-McCarthy hearings.

It was then and there that Welch exploded:

Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

People love this moment. It’s when the party of the good and the great finally stared down the forces of the bad and the worse, affirming that this country was in fact good, if not great, rather than bad, if not worse. Within six months, McCarthy would be censured by the Senate. Within three years, he’d be dead.

Citing the Welch precedent for the Trump case, Politico perfectly captures the conventional wisdom about the confrontation:

For the first time, the bully had been called out in public by someone with no skeletons in his proverbial closet, whose integrity was unquestionable, and whose motives were purely patriotic. The audience in the senate chamber burst into applause.

But there are two little-known elements about this famous confrontation that call that fairy tale into question.

First, Welch chose his words carefully: have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?

Joe McCarthy had been running wild for four years, wreaking havoc first on the Democrats, then the Republicans, and finally on the security establishment itself. For many people — Welch’s syntax shows, almost unselfconsciously — June 9 marked the moment when McCarthy finally revealed that he had no decency, as opposed to only a very little decency, the moment when he showed that he had no redeeming qualities at all.

So how, we have to wonder, was he viewed before then?

In the four years prior to this confrontation, McCarthy had been riding high. Not merely among the rubes and the yahoos of the Commie-fearing hinterland, but at the highest levels of the Republican Party. McCarthy, as Robert Griffith showed many years ago, was the party’s useful idiot, even darling. No one made the case better than he that the Democrats were the party of twenty years of treason. It was for that reason that he was favored by the party pooh-bahs and the party faithful.

As I wrote three years ago of the collusion between McCarthy and Senate Majority Leader Robert Taft, whose nickname was ”Mr. Republican”:

Taft did not merely “allow” the man and the -ism to dominate; Taft actively coddled, encouraged and supported him and it at every turn. As early as March 23, 1950 — four weeks after McCarthy’s famous speech in Wheeling, West Virginia — Taft gave McCarthy his firm support, telling McCarthy, “If one case [accusing a State Department official of being a Red] doesn’t work out, bring up another.” And added, for good measure, “Keep it up, Joe.”

When Truman attacked McCarthy’s speech — no amateur when it came to red-baiting, Truman called McCarthy “the greatest asset the Kremlin has” — Taft responded in kind, accusing Truman of being “bitter and prejudiced” and of “libeling” McCarthy, who was “a fighting Marine.” (Asked whether he had indeed libeled McCarthy, Truman responded, “Do you think that is possible?”) . . .

In 1951, however, Taft pulled back — after it seemed that McCarthy had gone too far, accusing George Marshall on the Senate floor of aiding the Communist cause. . . . But within weeks, Taft reversed course. In response to a wave of letters from complaining fans of McCarthy, Taft issued a correction in which he downplayed his disagreements with McCarthy (“I often disagree with other Republican senators”) and reaffirmed his support: “Broadly speaking, I approve of Senator McCarthy’s program.”

Just in case there was any doubt about that, Taft personally endorsed McCarthy’s reelection bid during the Wisconsin primary of 1952, claiming that “Senator McCarthy has dramatized the fight to exclude Communists from the State Department. I think he did a great job in undertaking that goal.” He even campaigned for McCarthy — despite the fact that McCarthy never returned the favor by endorsing Taft.

And on at least one occasion (there might have been more), Taft quietly passed information to McCarthy about possible subversion in the State Department, suggesting to McCarthy that one employee deserved “special attention.”

In his confrontation with McCarthy, Welch opens a window into an even subtler and more corrosive form of establishment collusion with McCarthy.

For many years, Welch had been a partner at Hale and Dorr, an elite Boston law firm, and had temporarily gone to work as the general counsel to the US Army. That’s how he wound up at the Army-McCarthy hearings. What immediately provoked Welch at those hearings was that McCarthy had launched a broadside against Fred Fisher, a young attorney in Welch’s law firm who had once been a member of the National Lawyers’ Guild, a left-wing outfit that Dwight Eisenhower’s attorney general had called “the legal mouthpiece of the Communist Party.”

This is how Welch responded to McCarthy’s charge:

Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us. When I decided to work for this Committee, I asked Jim St. Clair, who sits on my right, to be my first assistant. I said to Jim, “Pick somebody in the firm to work under you that you would like.” He chose Fred Fisher, and they came down on an afternoon plane.

That night, when we had taken a little stab at trying to see what the case is about, Fred Fisher and Jim St Clair and I went to dinner together. I then said to these two young men, “Boys, I don’t know anything about you, except I’ve always liked you, but if there’s anything funny in the life of either one of you that would hurt anybody in this case, you speak up quick.”

And Fred Fisher said, “Mr. Welch, when I was in the law school, and for a period of months after, I belonged to the Lawyers’ Guild,” as you have suggested, Senator. He went on to say, “I am Secretary of the Young Republican’s League in Newton with the son of [the] Massachusetts governor, and I have the respect and admiration of my community, and I’m sure I have the respect and admiration of the twenty-five lawyers or so in Hale & Dorr.”

And I said, “Fred, I just don’t think I’m going to ask you to work on the case. If I do, one of these days that will come out, and go over national television, and it will just hurt like the dickens.” And so, Senator, I asked him to go back to Boston.

With that mention of his own interrogation of Fisher and decision not to bring him to DC, Welch was inadvertently testifying to the corrosive process by which moderates, centrists, liberals, and leftists — across the country, at all levels of government, in the tiniest corners and most obscure crevices of civil society — cooperated with McCarthyism, lest they too become targets not just of McCarthy (who was, after all, just the tip of the red-baiting iceberg) but also of the FBI, freelance blacklisters, employers, and more.

In the face of red-baiting, many of these establishment figures didn’t speak up or protest; they cleaned their own house, making sure that they wouldn’t be targeted next. Welch’s decision to keep Fred Fisher out of the hearings was, all things considered, relatively anodyne; usually, people were simply purged. As Yale’s president famously put it, “There will be no witch hunts at Yale because there are no witches at Yale.”  (To get the tiniest flavor of how creepy this process was, just read the story of Robert Bellah’s encounter with McGeorge Bundy at Harvard.)

These were the men, in other words, who quietly, subtly, carefully colluded with the indecency of the red-baiters (including McCarthy) throughout the Cold War. They colluded and colluded until that rare moment when they finally exploded, as Welch did on June 9, 1954, in recognition that McCarthy’s indecency was total, that there was no saving remnant of virtue or value that might mitigate it. But until then, they were silent, or worse.

(It should be said that liberals and Democrats played their own considerable role in generating McCarthyism. Indeed, McCarthyism was, to some degree, the tail end of a long process of persecution and purging the Left, which liberals had been engaging in long before anyone had ever even heard the name Joseph McCarthy. So when Politico says, “McCarthy and his committee were the leading edge of a ‘Red Scare,’” they’re peddling pure bullshit. But that’s another subject that I’ve dealt with elsewhere on numerous occasions. My focus here is more limited.)

There’s a point here about political evil, a point that Hannah Arendt understood all too well. One of the reasons evil attracts this extended circle of collaborators and colluders is that it seldom arrives in a big box, wrapped in a bow, labeled “evil.” Instead, it works in small and subtle ways, overtaking a society slowly but surely, working its way through those gray zones where people can’t see clearly, where they aren’t quite sure what it is they are dealing with, till, when they finally figure it out, it’s too late.

As I wrote in the Nation last year:

Arendt attends to the smallest moments of the Shoah, not to lend her account novelistic detail but to make the point that the devil literally is in the details. “Cooperation” with evil is “gradual,” she explained to a correspondent. It’s always “difficult indeed to understand when the moment had come to cross a line which never should have been crossed.” That is also the banality of evil: the smallness of its package, those gray lines, those devilish details. . . .

If evil comes in small steps, overcoming it, nearing goodness, also inheres in small steps. As Susan Neiman explains: “Arendt was convinced that evil could be overcome only if we acknowledge that it overwhelms us in ways that are minute. Great temptations are easier to recognize and thus to resist, for resistance comes in heroic terms. Contemporary dangers begin with trivial and insidious steps.”

And that brings me to my second point. By the time Welch confronted McCarthy, by the time he recognized and proclaimed McCarthy’s evil to the world, it was too late. The damage had been done. The red-baiting had done its work. (Likewise the Supreme Court’s heralded rebuke to McCarthyism.)

What finally did Joe McCarthy in was not Joseph Welch. It was the fact that the GOP was getting decreasing returns out of red-baiting the Democrats — red-baiting and McCarthy had helped them get liberals booted out of the Senate and get the Democrats to purge whatever remaining elements of the Left they had not already purged in the late 1940s — and the fact that McCarthy had begun to turn on the GOP (and the security establishment), too. Within four short years, their wonder-boy asset had become an increasingly erratic, almost sclerotic liability.

Welch’s question — have you no decency left — could more properly be posed as: have you no utility left? When the good and the great finally denounce the bad and the worse, it’s not because the latter has crossed some Rubicon of decency; it’s usually because they’re useless or threatening to established interests. And it takes no great act of courage to denounce them; often, that’s just a sign that the object of denunciation is already down or defeated.

I was thinking about this episode this weekend, reading the reactions to Donald Trump’s comments about Khizr Khan’s moving speech about his son, Humayun Khan, who fought and was killed in Iraq. In response to Khan’s powerful criticisms of Trump at the DNC, Trump claimed:

If you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say. You tell me.

With its suggestion that Ghazala Khan was silent because Muslim women aren’t allowed to speak in public, Trump’s comment was gross in every way. And, yes, indecent. Profoundly indecent.

(Though it was an obscenity, it has to be said, for the US government to ask and send Humayun Khan to fight and die in an unjust, senseless, terrible war. A war, we should never forget, that Hillary Clinton and other prominent Democrats voted for. People watching Clinton at the DNC thrilled to her claim that Jackie Kennedy “said that what worried President Kennedy during that very dangerous time [the Cuban Missile Crisis] was that a war might be started — not by big men with self-control and restraint, but by little men — the ones moved by fear and pride.” But the sad and scary truth of the Iraq War is that the junior senator from New York who voted to authorize George W. Bush to launch it was not a little man moved by fear and pride but an accomplished, talented, experienced, well-informed, pragmatic, careful, and cautious, supremely controlled politician who also happens to be a woman. Life would be a whole lot simpler if that were not the case.)

Among the many journalistic critics of Trump, James Fallows was the first to invoke the Joseph Welch precedent. Responding to an earlier iteration of Trump’s comment, Fallows wrote:

But it is important to document the starkness of the two conceptions of America that are on clear view, 100 days before this man could become president. The America of the Khan family, and that of Donald Trump.

“Until this moment, I think I never really gauged your cruelty.” Joseph Welch, 1954.

Ezra Klein followed up. Citing Fallows’s quoting of Welch, Klein wrote:

At this point, I honestly don’t know what to say. I don’t have new language for this, I haven’t found another way of saying this isn’t okay, this isn’t kind, this isn’t decent. . . .

This is the woman Trump decided to slander. This is the gauge of his cruelty.

This isn’t partisan. This isn’t left vs. right. Mitt Romney never would have said this. John McCain never would have said this. George W. Bush never would have said this. John Kerry never would have said this. This is what I mean when I write that the 2016 election isn’t simply Democrat vs. Republican, but normal vs. abnormal. . . .

What kind of person is Donald Trump? What kind of person says these things?

As emotionally, and perhaps politically, satisfying as these questions are, they are the wrong questions. Like so much of the commentary on the GOP presidential candidate, Klein’s focuses on the person — and the novelty — of Donald Trump rather than on the party and the movement that produced him. Countering that amnesia doesn’t require any elaborate education in American history; simply recall three moments of recent memory.

In 2002, Georgia Democratic senator Max Cleland — a Vietnam vet who had his two legs and part of his arm torn to shreds by a grenade, leaving him in a wheelchair for life, his two legs and part of his arm amputated — lost his Senate seat to Saxby Chambliss. Why? Despite Cleland’s lead in the polls, Chambliss (who went on to serve in the Senate for two terms as an esteemed Republican, for Saxby is an honorable man) ran television ads questioning Cleland’s patriotism (complete with likenesses of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden). The man had given his two legs and part of his arm to this country, but the Republican Party saw fit to back a candidate, and subsequently a two-term senator, who had the indecency to say that Cleland’s commitment to his country was not to be trusted.

In 2004, the Republican shadow apparatus ran an entire campaign against John Kerry’s war record, claiming that despite his winning of a Bronze Star and Silver Star for what he did in Vietnam, despite the fact that he had put himself in considerable danger to help save his unit, Kerry actually betrayed his country. Not just when he returned from Vietnam and helped lead the opposition to the war, but also while he was fighting the war, putting his life at risk. That these ads were made on behalf of a candidate who used his family connections to get out of fighting that war only added to the indecency.

That same year, Cindy Sheehan’s son Casey was killed while serving in Iraq. She soon began protesting the war and George W. Bush, camping outside his ranch in Crawford for weeks on end to highlight what had happened to her son and the injustice and folly of the war.

Bill O’Reilly said: “I think Mrs. Sheehan bears some responsibility . . . for the other American families who lost sons and daughters in Iraq who feel this kind of behavior borders on treasonous.”

Michelle Malkin even invoked the memory of Sheehan’s dead son against her: “I can’t imagine that Casey Sheehan would approve of such behavior.” Fred Barnes called her “a crackpot.”Here we have an instance of a Democratic presidential candidate, a sitting Democratic senator, and a prominent antiwar activist — all with stories of patriotic, almost unthinkable sacrifice — subjected to a pattern and practice of humiliating, disgusting slurs and smears. By figures high and low in — and near and only slightly less near to — the Republican Party.

That we can sit here and act as if Donald Trump’s indecency is a singular pathology rather than a systemic mode of politics (I don’t have time to get into here the ways in which the Democratic Party has often enabled this rightward march over the years, but suffice it to say, that must be part of any real historical reckoning); that we can treat his arrival on the scene as a novelty and an innovation rather than the logical outgrowth of years of right-wing revanchism; that we would invoke against Trump the memory of an earlier, more decent Republican Party, present as recently as one election ago: that is itself a kind of collusion, an erasure of the past, a collusion with indecency.

In the same way that it took no great act of courage for Joseph Welch to denounce a man who was already on his knees, it requires no bravery — and betrays a great forgetting — to denounce Trump while exonerating the party and the movement that produced him.

It is also a dangerous forgetting: after all, before you can cross a Rubicon, you’ve got to march a considerable way.