It was an unanswered question that ended an era strangely similar to our own.
“At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
By Anatole d’Ecotopia
It was the question put to Senator Joseph McCarthy by attorney Joseph Welch in 1954, after McCarthy tried to insinuate guilt by association of a junior partner in Welch’s practice — in what was effectively the last of McCarthy’s infamous Communist “witch hunt” trials of the 1950’s. McCarthy, in fact, had neither shame or decency — but a recently-reformed Supreme Court did. In a series of landmark decisions, the Warren Court managed to remove the power of the House Un-American Activities Committee to destroy lives and reputations… by way of unsubstantiated accusations of Communist affiliation. That same year, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy. McCarthy would remain in office for another two years — but McCarthyism was effectively dead.
In our own troubled time, Donald Trump has not yet gotten around to accusing state voting officials of being affiliated with “Antifa”, but it is probably as inevitable as Trump’s upcoming removal from office, just as inevitable as the last-minute stunt planned by House Republicans to revoke today’s Electoral College decision affirming Joe Biden as the next President of the United States.
By way of what Trump has managed not to do — accede to the will of the people and concede a lost election — lives have been placed in far greater hazard by Trumpism than ever were by McCarthyism. Election officials in every single battleground state where Trump has filed frivolous and ineffective lawsuits have received death threats. And not just election officials — in Georgia, a mere technician ‘doxxed’ by right-wing extremists found himself threatened as well.
There is no point in asking if Trump “has left” any sense of the decency he never had in the first place. There is no point in expecting his followers to acquire any such sense at all. Whatever the Republican Party might have once claimed to be, it is now simply a conspiracy to retain and exercise political power by any means necessary. A conspiracy to institutionalize the prejudices and grievances of Trump’s “base” into public policy, a conspiracy to preserve the power of craven authoritarians like Mitch McConnell, Lindsey Graham, and Ted Cruz.
There is some small hope that Trump’s appointees to the Supreme Court will show continued clarity on the fact that it is the Constitution to which they are loyal, not the Republican Party. But it is highly unlikely that they will show the unexpected liberalism of the Eisenhower-era appointees that contributed to the defeat of mcCarthyism. Our best hope for the reform of this Supreme Court is ensuring that it is Democrats, not Republicans, who make the next appointments. At least this court has shown sufficient decency to rise above the petty partisan quid pro quo calculations of Trump. Perhaps they have other reserves of decency as well.
Our greatest hope for a returned sense of public honor and decency is, for better or worse, Joe Biden himself. Although progressives can — and will — find much to criticize in the policies of the incoming Biden Administration, they will not find the naked partisanship and corruption of Donald Trump. They will not find an ally to authoritarian regimes, nor an enabler of proto-facist extremists. They will find an elderly and moderate statesman, one whose long service and long life includes living memory of the abuses of the McCarthy Era and the Nixon Era, who has watched the tragic Republican descent from Nixon to Trump — the descent from veiled racist dog-whistles and petty criminality to unrestrained corruption, racism… and madness.
Although Biden’s age is perhaps his greatest liability, it is perhaps also an asset. From the perspective of that age, it is possible to see past the “new normal” of this flawed era — and recall that it was not always thus. If Joe Biden accomplishes nothing further than returning decency and trust to the American public arena, he will deserve our gratitude. For the opportunity to do so… he deserves our support.