Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about this question that Joseph Welsh directed at the mid-20th century demagogue, Senator Joe McCarthy. Seen by historians as the turning point that finally derailed McCarthy’s communist witch hunts and abuse of power, it reminds us that it takes people of courage and integrity to combat evil.
Before Welsh called out McCarthy and demonstrated for all that beneath the exterior of a bully lurked a coward, the Wisconsin Senator had ruined many careers and lives. His time in office set a corrosive tone for politics from which it took the country years to recover. He was able to get away with his destructive behavior for so long because almost no public official was willing to stand up to him.
The 1950s was in many ways a dark time in American politics. It feels a lot like that today.
We have a president who is careless in his decisions and in his cruelty. Concerned only about himself, he issues executive orders aimed at satisfying his political supporters rather than furthering any serious national goals. The antithesis of a role model, Donald Trump demonstrates on a daily basis that he is a bully, a liar and has the attention span of a small child.
As many observers noted during his presidential campaign, Trump openly appeals to people’s worst instincts. Whether he is actually a racist, he certainly draws some who are, encourages them with inflammatory language as well as “dog whistles”, and does nothing to express disapproval when they respond with ugly or violent actions.
In his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, Trump has selected as a key advisor someone with a history of encouraging bigotry. Early actions of the Trump Administration, in which Bannon has played a central role, have provided still more support for these concerns.
Meanwhile, in the Congress they control, Republican Representatives and Senators have, with few exceptions, shown no anxiety or embarrassment about Trump’s outrageous words and actions. Indeed, they have, in their glee over controlling both houses of Congress, demonstrated their own streak of cruelty and indifference to the needs of many Americans.
Republicans in Congress seem prepared to repeal the Affordable Care Act without any replacement despite seven years of promising a better version. They want to defund Planned Parenthood despite the fact that millions of people, not only women, rely on it to provide a wide range of health services. Republicans are busy nullifying environmental regulations, including one preventing coal companies from dumping waste into rivers.
And then, perhaps the height of irresponsibly and hypocrisy, Republicans voted to erase the regulation prohibiting mentally incompetent individuals from purchasing fire arms. Whenever there is a mass shooting, the gun lobby argues that we don’t need more gun regulations, merely more effective treatment for those with mental illnesses. What they actually mean, however, is that there should be no limits on who can have firearms and no limits on the profits of gun manufacturers.
All of these actions–Trump’s as well as those of Republicans in Congress–are the epitome of indecency. They come from a party that claims a monopoly on patriotism, but seems intent on undermining American democracy and helping only the very wealthy at the expense of everyone else.
There are but a handful of exceptions to this indictment. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have spoken out forcefully against Trump’s threats to reinstitute torture. Fortunately, so has Secretary of Defense James Mattis. In the face of a stunningly unqualified nominee to be Secretary of Education, two other senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, voted no. It’s hard to find other examples.
If the start is any indicator, Donald Trump is going to do great damage to this country during his presidency. Republicans in Congress not only seem willing to let him have his way, but are also intent on creating a less healthy, less financially secure and more heavily armed society.
Until and unless the American people rise up and challenge the exercise of power in Washington, our best hope of averting the worst of those prospects is for more Republicans in Congress to speak out for decency. It doesn’t take a psychiatrist to know that Donald Trump has a serious personality disorder and could destroy our democracy, blunder into a war or leave the country weak and isolated. It’s time to put country ahead of party and stand up to Trump.
Addendum from Cambodia: Most of this post was drafted before we left on a trip to Cambodia and Vietnam. From even our limited monitoring of the news, it is clear that Donald Trump’s worst instincts are continuing to dominant his behavior. The unrelenting attack on the press is the clearest sign of his authoritarian goals. From the vantage point of Cambodia, which suffered terribly from the inhuman excesses of the Khmer Rouge, the critical need to resist the indecency of his administration is beyond doubt.
Note on the photo: The man sitting next to Senator Joe McCarthy is Roy Cohn, who was his chief aide and in later years became a mentor to Donald Trump.