In 1954 one of the greatest frauds in U.S. politics culminated in 36 days of televised hearings. Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin had come to prominence by leading the campaign to expose communists in government, elected or appointed. His accusations were far-reaching and public; his allegations harmed countless individuals.
The cruel truth, however, was that Joseph McCarthy never made a successful case against anyone. He managed to push several people out of their jobs and influenced public opinion by selling lies.
There is a general expectation that politics is a dishonest practice. Even Donald Trump’s legendary “30,573 false or misleading claims” (as tracked by Washington Post) seemed to fall within allowable limits given his ability to lie and keep his base.
Lies that Joseph McCarthy told ruined lives.
Some of Trump’s lies were of this deadly variety, like when he tried to extort President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy for dirt on his political opponent’s son. Trump was impeached for the extortion, but many features of the conspiracy were lost in the shuffle.
Paul Manafort, for example, had charges of money laundering and financial fraud frozen by the Ukraine’s chief prosecutor in order to protect needed military assistance. The depth of the malfeasance in withholding $400 million in aid is now apparent. Let’s not forget that Trump, Manafort, and the GOP blamed the Ukraine for Russian hacking.
Now comes the next McCarthy.
Kevin McCarthy, House Minority leader, lives up to his namesake. He delivers on the most dangerous political dishonesty. In the moment where the impact and sensitivity to Trump’s corruption is most profound, he returns to attack his political opponents and democracy itself.
Do not underestimate his words in his attacks against House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff: “Why is he still chair of the committee and why is he still even on the committee? In a new Congress, if it’s a new majority, he will not be.” They only serve to perpetuate a lie that serves his political power and interests. In his congressional career McCarthy has not committed to anything.
He rode the coattails of the Tea Party agenda while it worked. He tested the politics of telling the truth about the January 6 insurrection for 48 hours when he appropriately blamed Trump: “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding.”
He sees great potential in leading the charge in the next conspiracy. He rewrites the insurrection at the Capitol, Trump’s second impeachment, and doubles down in condemning those who sought justice in charging Trump’s corruption in the first impeachment.
While Joseph McCarthy was ultimately censured by the Senate, it is hard to imagine Kevin McCarthy receiving such a well-deserved reprimand in the House. Kevin McCarthy has helped the GOP resist decency, delayed reactions to overt bigotry, and only participated in delicate wrist-slapping when forced to.
With widespread gerrymandering and voter suppression designed to favor Republicans, Kevin McCarthy is positioning himself to take the Speakership from Nancy Pelosi. His mandate, however, would be incredibly dangerous. He amplifies the Republican lies and embraces the politics of vengeance and extortion, emboldened by a base that has not accepted Trump’s loss (as of 12/21 only 21% admitted Biden had a legitimate victory).
I fear the politics that threaten retribution. We have had seven years of “Lock her up” chants, increases in hate crimes and politically motivated violence. Candidates are now taking pages from Vladimir Putin’s playbook and campaigning with the promise that their opponents will pay.
McCarthyism v2.0 has already been installed in the Republican party operating system, and it is off to a corrupting start.
Wim Laven, Ph.D., syndicated by PeaceVoice, teaches courses in political science and conflict resolution.