It appears that among Donald Trump’s (and the GOP’s) strategies to win re-election in 2020 is to paint the Democratic Party as a bunch of anti-American socialists and Communists. This is to be expected from a man proud of his association with Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s legal hatchetman; and it’s also an indication of just how far Trump and the GOP are willing to turn back the clock to the 1950s, one of the most fear-ridden and racially-charged eras of modern American history.
At the time, McCarthy was eventually brought down, not least because of the efforts of journalists to come to the defense of traditional American values. Edward R. Murrow was among them. Of course, parallels are inexact: McCarthy was a Senator, Trump the U.S. President; we were then in the midst of a Cold War, while Trump seems to be in the midst of a re-election campaign. But the tactics they used are the same — perhaps worse now, as Trump is attempting to smear the entire Democratic party and any dissenters from his administration as “un-American.” An interesting difference, too, is that there’s no real organized threat from the Communist Party, as there arguably was then, not to mention the fact that no world economy is purely capitalist or communist. They’re all mixed economies, including our own; socialist-tinged programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and farm subsidies are now staples of American economic life. Even the greatest 20th century critics of socialism like Leszek Kołakowski admitted that, in a compassionate society, some redistribution of income from the better- to the lesser-well-off was necessary for a functioning democratic state.
Another difference is that in 1954, Joseph Welch could appeal to the “sense of decency” of McCarthy and his supporters. It’s apparent to me that neither Trump nor his supporters possess that sense.
The following speech, with which Murrow closed a 1954 television program about McCarthy, is a stirring and honest envoi that admits our own role and our culture’s role in creating both McCarthys and Trumps. It’s also a reminder that the dynamics that produced the Trump Presidency were infesting American society before his election, and they’ll still infest it when he leaves office, whenever that will be.