I’ve long since given up trying to predict what will happen with the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. He’s either on his way to being the GOP nominee in a bum’s rush or there’s some truly spectacular saga of American political theater and drama about to unfold which I can’t even speculate on yet. But the one thing I’ll never get tired of for as long as the show lasts is watching the responses of Trump’s increasingly hysterical critics who have mounted one line of attack after another, only to see them go down in flames as Trump’s fortunes continue to rise.
Saying he “wasn’t serious” didn’t work. Claiming that he’s “not conservative” hasn’t taken much wind out of his sails. Charges of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and (probably) triskaidekaphobia have only shoved him closer and closer to a 50% approval rating. But today I saw what might be a liberal course of last resort in a column by Richard Cohen at the Washington Post. If you can’t take Trump down by comparing him to Hitler, you may has well try comparing him to Joseph McCarthy. And we begin with a less than flattering portrait of the famous communist hunter.
In the late 1940s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy arrived in Columbus, Ohio, to make a speech but within an hour allegedly was shooting craps. “It was a disgusting sight,” according to a source, “to see this great public servant down on his hands and knees, reeking of whiskey and shouting, ‘Come on, babies, Papa needs a new pair of shoes.’ ” What Papa really needed was a kick in the butt.
I’ve never claimed to be more than an amateur historian, but I must confess that I’d never heard that story. Reeking of whiskey? Shooting craps on the sidewalk? I knew there was something I liked about that guy. But where does Trump come into all this? He’s notoriously averse to boozing it up and people who wear suits that cost more than some of us make in a year don’t frequently engage in games that involve kneeling on the pavement.
Donald Trump is not quite yet ready to fill McCarthy’s boots. He has the late senator’s gift for exaggeration and self-worship, and he needs the spotlight the way a vampire needs blood. But he holds no public office, least of all a Senate seat. He commands no committee, the way McCarthy did the one that investigated the Army. He cannot subpoena and he cannot compel testimony and he does not have access to FBI and other confidential files that can be used to destroy careers and reputations. All this is something to shoot for…
What I hear is robust condemnation of him followed almost instantly by a whispered assertion that he is on to something. Maybe so. Our immigration laws are broken and need to be fixed. There is an Islamist threat, but it comes from sociopathic radicals, not from the vast Muslim community.
McCarthy’s contempt for the truth was evident from his earliest days in public office. Yet countless Republicans thought he could be useful and, besides, he raged against the political correctness of his day. His defenders insisted he said what needed to be said. Never mind the exaggerations and the lies. He supposedly spoke a greater truth.
I see. We’re all being hoodwinked! Trump has some secret master plan on the back burner wherein he will take a wrecking ball to freedom and the American Dream, but first he needs access to everyone’s secret personnel files. And the only way for him to get access to that sort of information and influence is to… run for President?
Normally such blistering hyperbole doesn’t merit a response, but Cohen, while wrong on nearly every specific point, may have unwittingly put his finger on a very real aspect of Trump’s popularity which continues to puzzle media observers. McCarthy definitely went overboard with his efforts during his time in the limelight and there were some obvious, negative results. The blacklists which became infamous during that period swept up a lot of people who had no real affiliation with communism or attempts to overthrow our government. But at the same time, it’s hard to deny that he crystallized a national focus and sense of urgency regarding a very real problem. There absolutely was an active communist party in the country for a significant period of time and it was completely antithetical to the common weal in a vibrant democratic republic. That party lasted a lot longer with significant financial backing and public support than Cohen gives them credit for, too. I can still recall seeing nationally run campaign advertisements for Gus Hall when I was a young lad.
But the deeper point is that Trump, like McCarthy, seems to have an ability to point out problems and get people talking even if you don’t agree with him on the specifics. I freely admit that this is an element of “Trumpism” (as it’s being called in some circles) which I totally failed to grasp at first and really only began to consider after hearing about it from our own readers and some other, less frantic voices in new media. Even among those here who are some of Mr. Trump’s biggest supporters, I’d venture to say that each and every one of them can point to one or more policies, statements or past actions of the real estate mogul where they disagree with him. And yet… he gets people up out of their seats and sets them in motion to deal with some very real problems, doesn’t he?
It’s somewhat ironic that on the same day that Cohen published his high pitched screed against The Donald, his own paper released another column which oh so carefully suggests that Trump may have finally gotten people to the point where they are getting fed up with political correctness.
In the 2016 Republican presidential primary season, “political correctness” has become the all-purpose enemy. The candidates have suggested that it is the explanation for seemingly every threat that confronts the country: terrorism, illegal immigration, an economic recovery that is leaving many behind, to name just a few.
Others argue that growing antipathy to the notion of political correctness has become an all-purpose excuse for the inexcusable. They say it has emboldened too many to express racism, sexism and intolerance, which endure even as the country grows more diverse.
“Driving powerful sentiments underground is not the same as expunging them,” said William A. Galston, a Brookings Institution scholar who advised President Bill Clinton. “What we’re learning from Trump is that a lot of people have been biting their lips, but not changing their minds.”
Combining that with the experience of a number of the folks here I’ve spoken to about Trump, that may be one of the best phrases I’ve heard applied to this phenomenon yet. “Biting their lips, but not changing their minds.”
It’s sort of refreshing in a World Collide sort of way. Your thoughts?