A recent post from Heather Cox Richardson reminded me that–despite my personal experience with a once-responsible Republican Party–this isn’t the first time the GOP has gone off the rails. In my defense, I was very young when the United States went through the period known as MCarthyism.
As Richardson reminds us, the Republican response to FDR’s New Deal was divided between those who understood the new approach as a “proper adjustment to the modern world” and those who were determined to destroy that adjustment.
Those who wanted to slash the government back to the form it had in the 1920s, when businessmen ran it, had a problem. American voters liked the business regulation, basic social safety net, and infrastructure construction of the new system. To combat that popularity, the anti–New Deal Republicans insisted that the U.S. government was sliding toward communism. With the success of the People’s Liberation Army and the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Americans were willing to entertain the idea that communism was spreading across the globe and would soon take over the U.S.
One of those who wanted to return to the “good old days” (aka “Make America Great Again”…) was an “undistinguished senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy.” McCarthy famously proclaimed that he had “a list” of communists working for the State Department, and that the Democrats–“fellow travelers”– refused to investigate these traitors in the government.
It was a previous version of the Big Lie.
The anti–New Deal faction of the party jumped on board. Sympathetic newspapers trumpeted McCarthy’s charges—which kept changing, and for which he never offered proof—and his colleagues cheered him on while congress members from the Republican faction that had signed onto the liberal consensus kept their heads down to avoid becoming the target of his attacks.
These forerunners to today’s spineless Republican officeholders weren’t willing to speak up about the damage being done to American principles. One who did speak up–memorably, and on the Senate floor–was Margaret Chase Smith.
Referring to Senator McCarthy, who was sitting two rows behind her, Senator Smith condemned the leaders in her party who were destroying lives with wild accusations. “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism,” she pointed out. Americans have the right to criticize, to hold unpopular beliefs, to protest, and to think for themselves. But attacks that cost people their reputations and jobs were stifling these basic American principles. “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,” Senator Smith said. “It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”
Senator Smith wanted a Republican victory in the upcoming elections, she explained, but to replace President Harry Truman’s Democratic administration—for which she had plenty of harsh words—with a Republican regime “that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.”
“I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”
The parallels to our current situation are blindingly obvious, and those of us (me very much included) who had forgotten this dangerous time from America’s past should recall Santayana’s admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”
Today’s GOP is using the McCarthy playbook–repeating Smith’s all-too-accurate appraisal. They are appealing to fear and ignorance with bigotry and smear. And with exception of a very few like Liz Cheney and Adam Kitzinger, elected Republicans who know better, who understand the threat posed by these tactics, remain silent.
That silence is acquiescence.
Smith’s attack on Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear has often been quoted (although it would be inaccurate to say it remains well-known), but America would do well to ponder another part of her speech, which Richardson quotes.
“As an American, I condemn a Republican Fascist just as much as I condemn a Democrat Communist,” she said. “They are equally dangerous to you and me and to our country. As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.”
Smith authored a “Declaration of Conscience,” enumerating five principles she hoped (vainly) that her party would adopt. That declaration ended with a warning:
“It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques—techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.”
History may not repeat itself, but as Twain observed, it often rhymes.