Just as in an earlier era, McCarthy’s criticism of the US army was a major factor in his downfall, the Republican presidential nominee’s feud with the Muslim parents of a fallen US Army soldier could herald the end of his campaign.
Red lines were crossed, insults against numerous ethnic groups were hurled, anti-elite charges of being out of touch advanced, accusations of treachery and of selling out the country to subversives and foreigners were made repeatedly, with seemingly little political consequence. But the end came when there was a concerted attack on one of United States’s most revered institutions – the army.
This is what led to the downfall of US senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953-54. He had gone too far, was out of control and was bringing elite anti-communism – a mainstay of Cold War US’s justification for global expansion – into disrepute.
Could this have also caused the beginning of the end of Republican contender Donald Trump’s presidential campaign? Has he gone too far, even for hard-core, right-wing Republicans, who had fostered the very political culture from which Trumpism sprang? And with the turning and defanging of Bernie Sanders’s leftist assault on Wall Street, has US politics returned to normalcy with the establishment firmly back in the cockpit?
The downfall of McCarthy
The anti-communist McCarthy had decided, in discussions with that other Machiavellian Richard M. Nixon, that his road to fame, and possibly the White House, lay in exposing the supposed communist takeover of the US.
From the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, to the Protestant church and the White House, the US was riddled with corruption and weakened by Communist fifth columns, and he was going to “take our country back”, as it were.
Adding to a broad anti-communist and anti-liberal movement, which included the House Un-American Activities Committee, McCarthy went after nearly every organisation in the US, except the KKK, the FBI and the GOP. He wreaked havoc among federal employees, thousands of whom lost their jobs, were blacklisted or suffered an even worse fate.
He spoke, the media amplified his message through largely uncritical reporting and heads rolled. He seemed invincible, his witch-finder general role became popular and his place in the White House seemed assured.
President Dwight Eisenhower frowned upon his methods, but refused to condemn or repudiate McCarthy; he happily tolerated, and supported, the construction of an existential Soviet threat as the basis for a foreign policy of anti-communist containment.
Yet, the Wisconsin senator’s aura of Teflon-like invincibility was finally torpedoed when he went so far as to attack the US’s cherished military at a time when there was a near-universal support for its warriors, especially those who had fought the “good war” a mere decade earlier.
During the US army hearings of 1953, McCarthy said that General Ralph Zwicker, a decorated soldier, had the intelligence of a five-year-old and declared him unfit to wear an army uniform. He later tried to destroy the career of a young US army lawyer, Fred Fisher, by denouncing him as a fellow traveller of communism and a member of that ‘bastion of communism’ in the US, the National Lawyers Guild. This attack led the US army’s lead counsel, Joseph Welch, a Boston-based, blue-blood Republican, to declare: “You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
From that point on, the US public turned away from McCarthy, and viewed him as cruel, manipulative and dangerous, as did the US ‘moderate’ right-wing political elite. His fall from grace was rapid thereafter. He was censured by the Senate and he faded away, dying of alcohol poisoning in 1956.
Yet, McCarthy’s censure was on the grounds of conduct unbecoming of a US senator – of ungentlemanly behaviour – and not due to the pain and suffering that he had caused to untold numbers of people. The GOP had had enough of McCarthy after his fiery anti-communism, once a powerful tool against the Democrats, had brought anti-communism itself to disgrace. He was out of control and hence had to take the rap for it. The man was disowned, but the anti-red campaign continued and McCarthyism continued even without McCarthy.
Trumped by his own rhetoric
Trump’s attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a soldier who was killed in Iraq, in response to the speech given by Khizr at the Democratic National Convention, and his subsequent comments on Ghazala being silenced by the couple’s Islamic beliefs, have led to outrage among the general public and even among some Republicans. But even though many Republican leaders have criticised Trump, they have largely refused to repudiate him as their party’s candidate.
Trump’s defence against Khizr’s accusation that he, the GOP’s nominee, had sacrificed nothing for his country, was that he had created thousands of jobs, which ultimately rang hollow. Khizr’s call for Trump to step down from the election race as he was unfit to lead the US was followed by President Barack Obama’s own invitation to the GOP to jettison Trump as their candidate.
Trump’s retaliatory attack on the Khans follows his disrespect for the Vietnam War record of senator John McCain, who had spent several years as a prisoner of war, and his subsequent trivialisation of a Purple Heart from an admiring veteran of the Iraq War. But, McCain, who is in a tight race to retain his own Senate seat in Arizona, has yet to reject Trump.
As polls show, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton now holds a 10- to 11-point lead over Trump, who now also faces concerted attacks from the right, such from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion. Clinton, and Republican senators and representatives are now more openly challenging Trump’s stance on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine and his assertiveness in Syria, and there appear to be murmurs about the GOP’s rules on replacing their duly elected nominee.
Adding fuel to the fire, Trump alienated even more Republicans by initially failing to endorse the candidacies of Republican senators and GOP leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, even when his running mate, Mike Pence, publicly voiced his support for them. All of it is looking to be a shambles of their own making.
Reinforcing their usual political allies, the Republican donors from corporate America are pulling the plug on the Trump campaign. The billionaire Koch brothers remain unconvinced that Trump can be tamed by the GOP or by Pence, and are refusing to donate their fortune to Trump’s faltering bid for the presidency.
Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett Packard Meg Whitman, and many others, have been recruited by the Clinton campaign to denounce Trump and to back Clinton, hence adding another GOP donor’s scalp to their tally after having reeled in Michael Bloomberg.
Republicans like former Reagan-Bush appointee Frank Lavin, are reassured by the conservatism of the DNC and Clinton’s selection of senator Tim Kaine as her running mate. Lavin recently commented, “I have an increasing comfort level with Hillary Clinton…. She’s not going to be bossed around by the Bernie Sanders wing of the party”. A ‘Republicans for Hillary’ group now appears to be imminent.
Could there be a lifeline?
Yet, the figures for June and July indicate a major surge in small donations to Trump’s campaign. His support among the US’s economically disenfranchised, looked down upon nationalists and ethno-centric elements of the white working class seems to be holding. But even they might not like Trump’s disrespect for military service.
White rural southerners join the US military in droves. But, as so powerfully explained by J.D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Trump is the only candidate who speaks the language of their desperate plight.
The GOP donors’ and Democrats’ pincer movement appears to be gaining momentum with dire implications not just for the Trump campaign, but also for the proclaimed radicalism of the Democrats trying to hold on to millions of Sanders voters.
Trump’s anti-establishment credentials remain intact, while his political credibility among sceptical Republicans lies increasingly tattered . Clinton’s base in the establishment, despite numerous anti-corporate passages in the party’s manifesto – now more apparently a sop to the powerful, but defanged Sanders movement – seems stronger than ever.
The centre ground, ever the preserve of the self-declared ‘moderate’ establishment, appears to be holding, but skewed heavily to the right, defying both the Sanders revolution and Trump’s attack on elite power and its global over-reach.
Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of International Politics at City, University of London. He tweets @USEmpire and his blog may be found here.