I am a child of the end of the McCarthy era. By the time I reached the age of moral accountability the movement was dead, or at least seriously moribund. To be sure, McCarthyism even then had its diehard adherents. (Believe it or not, William F. Buckley remained a McCarthy apologist to the end of his life.)
What finally killed McCarthyism? Some trace its final death blow back to the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, where attorney Joseph Welch famously asked Senator McCarthy, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
The question had a powerful impact on the American people, who were transfixed by television’s first gavel-to-gavel coverage of a congressional hearing. It’s a tame question by today’s standards, and one I cannot imagine having any lasting effect on Donald Trump or the MAGA crowd. Even so, the January 6 committee hearings shared some echoes of the Army-McCarthy hearings.
I was a teenager when Richard Nixon resigned the presidency in August of 1974. Nixon’s gotterdammerung began with the Watergate hearings. In those hearings an important figure in the person of John W. Dean III emerged. Dean had been Nixon’s White House Counsel, and his testimony became the most damning of all. The January 6 committee’s witness Cassidy Hutchinson has been occasionally and aptly compared with Dean and his testimony.
McCarthyism and Nixon remain ghosts of the American political psychological makeup even today. For example, I am occasionally indignantly flayed for my use of the word “comrade” by some people who still dwell — anachronistically — beneath McCarthy’s (and later Nixon’s) fading penumbra. For better or worse we Americans are the synergy of our collective past. It’s what makes us uniquely, well, interesting.
What will the legacy of Donald Trump be? My hope is that Trump will serve, like McCarthy, like Nixon, and even like Hitler, as a cautionary tale to history, and that MAGA Trumpism will ultimately be undone by the emerging generation of young Americans. I think I have good reason to hope that.
Even so, though the height of Trump’s power has come and gone, much of Trumpism still remains behind. We can take some solace in the knowledge that McCarthyism and, to a lesser extent, Nixonism, died quickly with them. But the silly human penchant to become nostalgically enamoured of the past remains a constant threat. It’s how the absurd notion of “making America great again” found its footing.
Even today, fringe groups, personally ignorant of the bombing devastation and human suffering of Nazism, are spellbound by the flags and symbols of Hitler’s vision. Such nonsense played an important role in the 2016 election. The power of our heritage and the danger some of it can play in shaping our political choices will always be with us.
Our best weapon is education, and the greatest tool that education can give us is the tool of critical thinking. Critical thinking will prevail once hard evidence dethrones coincidence, innuendo and conspiracy theories. If we learn nothing else from Trumpism we should learn this: Donald Trump rose to power on the wings of conspiracy theories. Human ignorance is our greatest adversary. Education is our greatest hope.
We are faced with many challenges for the future. In order to most effectively combat global climate change, Americans must fully reclaim the American government. Our best hope is the emerging generation and their enlightened commitment to compassionate government and preservation of the planet. We have much work ahead, and much reason to hope. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe, and have a very happy New Year.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.