Donald Trump, Joseph McCarthy, And Profiles In Republican Cowardice

Much like it did during the McCarthy Era, the Republican Party has to decide what side of history it wishes to be on. The right side, or the wrong side.

CNN’s Jake Tapper ended this morning’s State Of The Union with a monologue asking what it will take for the Republican Party to stand up against an out-of-control President, drawing a historical analogy that is becoming increasingly relevant by the day:

The analogy to the McCarthy Era is an apt one. While the circumstances are far different and it is far more dangerous to have a man like Trump in the White House than it was to have a paranoid drunkard like McCarthy in the Senate, the question today is the same as it was back then. Namely, what will those in a position to do something about it, in this case, the Senate Republicans, do about it.

As Tapper notes, for much of the time during which McCarthy’s reign of terror took place, Republicans like Bob Taft, who likely could have taken McCarthy out with one speech, chose to stay silent while he ruined the lives of innocent people with the help of Roy Cohn, the lawyer who twenty years later would just happen to become friends with a young Manhattan real estate developer named Donald Trump. Even President Eisenhower, who had nothing but contempt for McCarthy and did work behind the scenes to rein him in, declined to speak out publicly against him. The only exception to that rule was Margaret Chase Smith, Republican Senator from Maine, who delivered what has come to be known as the Declaration of Conscience in June 1950, when McCarthyism was just beginning. Instead of being the first of many Republicans to speak out, though Smith stood out alone and, while doing so did not impact her politically back home in Maine (she was re-elected easily in 1954, 1960, and 1968) it did mean that McCarthy was allowed to continue his horrible campaign until he was finally and famously brought down by a Washington, D.C. lawyer named Joseph Welch in 1954.

While Donald Trump’s offense are far greater in magnitude and impact than McCarthy’s, the situation we face is largely the same. With the exception of Mitt Romney, there is not a single Senator or Member of Congress who has spoken out against the evidence that this President has openly solicited foreign nations for damaging information about his political rivals, including a potentially hostile nation like China. Even worse, the President has clearly made progress on issues of interest to those nations — military sales and a meeting with Trump for Ukraine and progress on a trade deal for China — contingent upon an investigation of Biden and other matters of interest to him, such as the bizarre right-wing conspiracy theory that basically alleges that it was the Ukrainians who were interfering in the 2016 election and that they were doing so in favor of Hillary Clinton.

Despite this overwhelming evidence, the Republicans on Capitol Hill have either gone into hiding or have become slavish repeaters of the worst of the content coming out of the White House and Fox News Channel. The best example of that today came from Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, one of the few Republicans who actually agreed to show up on television today (the White House was asked to send surrogates by each of the shows, apparently, and declined:

This is what the GOP has become. It’s certainly no profile in courage, Indeed, as I said, it is, in fact, a profile in cowardice.

It didn’t have to be this way. Republicans on Capitol Hill and around the country could have stood up and spoken out at any time over the past four years about the President’s vulgarity, xenophobia, and obvious racism. Instead, they have for the most part chosen to stand by and let him get away with what he is doing in the name That doesn’t mean, though, that Republicans are required to sit idly by and tolerate whatever nonsense may spew forth from the White House and the President’s Twitter account, though. If they chose to, they could stand up and denounce him by name. With very few exceptions, though, that isn’t happening. Instead, we see Republican officials saying all the right things about denouncing the hatred that came out in Charlottesville but failing to denounce by name the President who has implicitly endorsed that hatred. As long as that continues, their party will continued to be tied to Donald Trump, and the consequences for that, though it may be some time before they emerge, are likely to be quite severe.

In the past, both James Joyner and I have pointed out that the Republican Party is now Trump’s party. It’s times like this that make that clearer than ever. Any pretense that Republicans may have had that they were tolerating Trump in the name of getting Judges and Justices, or tax cuts, or to ‘repair and replace’ Obamacare is laid bare in the fact that they are now openly or tacitly defending a racist. The fact that this is happening in a party that was established to support the abolition of slavery is just another sad example of what has happened to a party and a conservative movement that cares more about power than principles, and more about party than country.

Back before Trump was elected, I noted that the Republican Party had reached what might be called a “Time For Choosing,” a reference to the speech that Ronald Reagan delivered on the eve of the 1964 Presidential Election in what was basically a last-ditch effort to save Barry Goldwater from electoral disaster. Roughly a year later, in the wake of the President’s attempt to defend the alt-right participants in the violence in Charlottesville last August, I argued that they faced yet another choice. Either they could see that event and the President’s response to it as a clear indication of the kind of man and kind of President is and distance them from him, or they could cozy up to him because it meant they could get things like Obamacare repeal or a tax bill signed into law. By standing by the President even as the pre-campaign news got worse and, later, as Trump’s Presidency demonstrated that even the most pessimistic of predictions about what electing him would bring about proved to be far too optimistic, they have indicated quite clearly which path they have chosen. How they are going to deal with the consequences of that choice is unclear, but it seems clear that it’s not going to be easy for them to back away from what Trump has done and continues to do to their party and to the country.

Today, the GOP faces a similar choice and, inexplicably and undeservedly, still has a chance to redeem itself. What the President has done in the matter we’re dealing with now is obvious to anyone willing to look at the evidence objectively. In response to the increasingly bad news, Trump has taken to lashing out irrationally at anyone in sight, from the news media to a fellow Republican from Utah who decided to rebuke him for his wrongful behavior. As was the case with the Republicans during the McCarthy Era, history will judge what they do now. And it will not be kind to those who were on the wrong side.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Passerby says:

    McCarthy was not brought down by Joseph Welch. Welch only criticized McCarthy AFTER McCarthy had already been censured by the Senate, and was no longer dangerous to criticize. After Welch made his “have you no decency” speech, Welch then went to Hollywood. It was a low-risk theatrical performance on Welch’s part. People earlier paid a price for criticizing McCarthy — like the conservative Democrat Millard Tydings, who lost his seat — but Welch ran no risk in criticizing McCarthy at all, because McCarthy was already a spent force by then.

  2. michael reynolds says:

    @Doug: Well-written piece, kudos.

    This level of cowardice is just jaw-dropping. I’ve said it before, but if I was this weak, this cowardly I’d buy a gun and eat it. My daughter coming out as transgender has more backbone, more integrity and endures greater risks every day than these pathetic specimens.

  3. CSK says:

    They’re terrified of Cult45. Really terrified. Flake was right: If the impeachment conviction vote were by secret ballot, Trump would be out on his flabby, oversized keister in a trice.

  4. mike shupp says:

    Somewhere along the line — about 1992, I think — the GOP began jumping off a precipice. For what reason really escapes me, but prominent Republicans grabbed the partisan button and turned it up to 11 over the Clintons (Washington DC) and Hispanics (California) and held it in that position ever since.

    My sneaking suspicion is a couple of oil billionaires paid for building up a stronger political superstructure than anyone envisioned, and we’re going to be stuck with the consequences for another couple of generations. This is my OPTIMISTIC take on things. Alternate days of the week, I suspect there are flaws in society and human psychology which make tolerant liberal democracies a short term thing, and that descent into a planet-spanning Dark Age within the coming century is nearly inevitable.

  5. CSK says:

    @mike shupp: In my darker moments, I think that feudalism may be the normal human condition.

  6. Teve says:

    @mike shupp: a few years ago I knew a physicist who was sure that all of this global enlightenment civilization was going to be a brief blip. A weird aberration between two very long period of darkness and disease and tribalism and war.

  7. DrDaveT says:


    In my darker moments, I think that feudalism may be the normal human condition.

    This is not a new theory. Prescriptions for how to deal with it vary, but I haven’t seen any convincing arguments that you’re wrong.

  8. CSK says:

    @DrDaveT: Yes. Solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. I used to teach Hobbes.

  9. DrDaveT says:


    I used to teach Hobbes.

    Cool! Did you get the occasional Randite in your class? If so, how did you deal with them?

    (As an irrelevant aside, the best sports team name I’ve ever seen was a volleyball team made up of foreign students from the UK, that I played against occasionally in grad school. They called themselves “Nasty, British, and Short”.)

  10. Gustopher says:

    There is a segment of the Republican base that thinks McCarthy was right.

  11. CSK says:

    @DrDaveT: No Randites I can recall. A couple of them were fascinated by Tom.

  12. grumpy realist says:

    What puzzles me is the large number of Republican politicians who have turned into total obsequious ass-kissers. (Yeah, Lindsey Graham, am looking at you.)

    Makes me wonder what Trump has in the way of blackmail material on these guys.

  13. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist: I’ve said this before, but in Graham’s case, it may be that he just wants to keep his job. South Carolina is big on Trump.

  14. Vince Bert says:

    McCarthy was right but the Commies got him in the end! He was a great American hero!

  15. Anonne says:

    Trump is merely a reflection of the party; the party is not a reflection of him. While he is its perfect avatar, it could never have happened without the party being rotten to the core.

  16. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @Vince Bert: Don’t be a moron. It wasn’t the Commies who “got” McCarthy, it was John Barleycorn.

  17. Davebo says:

    Good post Doug but consider purging “though” from your writers quiver.

    That doesn’t mean, though, that Republicans are required to sit idly by and tolerate whatever nonsense may spew forth from the White House and the President’s Twitter account, though.

  18. Barry says:

    @mike shupp: “Somewhere along the line — about 1992, I think — the GOP began jumping off a precipice. ”

    Note that this was the end of the Cold War – not just the actual Cold War itself, but Clinton defeating Bush I, which marked the end of the Cold War domestic political pattern.

  19. grumpy realist says:

    @Barry: There does seem to be a link between the end of the Cold War (a.k.a. stuff in reality) and the speedy rise of modern political catfighting. Egged on of course by the advent of the 24-hour “news” channels.

    Too many people in the US and elsewhere who would be perfectly happy to watch the end of the world, providing that it’s televised.

  20. al Ameda says:

    @Vince Bert:

    McCarthy was right but the Commies got him in the end! He was a great American hero

    Vince Foster found out and he had to go.
    A few years later Seth Rich found out, and he had to go.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    I continue to dither over whether current GOPs are uniquely bad, or have always been like this. A useful data point.

  22. gVOR08 says:

    @mike shupp: In Winner Take All Politics Hacker and Pierson date the shift to the mid 70s when corporate money started to play a bigger role.

  23. Edwin Hurwitz says:

    The link between Trump and McCarthy is Roy Cohn, whose poison is clearly ascertainable in both.