Easy Chair — From the April 2018 issue

Forget About It

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Two summers ago, Khizr Khan, the father of a Muslim soldier killed in Iraq, electrified the Democratic National Convention with his declaration that Trump had “sacrificed nothing” for his country. A more dignified politician would have responded with a somber message of gratitude and consolation to the Khan family. Trump took a different tack. Wondering aloud why Khan’s wife had stood quietly by as her husband spoke, Trump suggested that she had been silenced by the alien force of Islam.

James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, was ready with his response. He reached back to that moment in 1954 when Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had been terrorizing the military for months with his mad hunt for signs of subversion, was laid low by Joseph Welch, a Boston attorney serving as the Army’s counsel. “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty,” Welch said. Summoning the full force of the nation’s pent-up rage, Welch thundered, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Americans love this moment between Welch and McCarthy. It’s not just drama, it’s drama that hurts: within six months, McCarthy would be censured by the Senate; less than three years later, he’d be dead. When liberals like Fallows invoke this moment as they rebuke the right, they’re hoping to inflict a similar blow. Perhaps that’s why Fallows, having used it once against Trump, chose to use it again, less than two years later, against the Republicans in alliance with him. “Have you no sense of decency?” Fallows asked in January 2018. “It is a question worth pondering, in the shithole era.” Someone as sensitive to language as Fallows should know that you only get to play the Welch card once. Play it twice, in the same game, against the same players, and your incredulity seems strained, your outrage forced. It is a punch divested of all power.

But if it is force that liberals seek, the blast of wrath and righteousness that sends the indecent reeling, the backstory to Welch’s confrontation suggests they may be going about it the wrong way. In the years before Welch’s salvo, McCarthy had been riding high, aided and abetted by the most senior members of the GOP. McCarthy was the Republicans’ useful idiot, helping return Congress to their control in 1952. By 1954, he was no longer useful. He was just an idiot — and a liability. Not only was he going after the military, he was turning on Republicans too. He had done their dirty work; now he was doing them damage. The ism could stay; the man had to go.

Welch’s broadside was less an announcement of McCarthy’s indecency, about which nobody had any doubt, than a signal of his diminished utility, a report of his weakness and isolation. Declarations of indecency are like that: they don’t slay monsters; they’re an all-clear signal, a statement that the monster is dying or dead.

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