By Mary Holway
Nearly 70 years ago, in the summer of 1950, Maine Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith confronted Joseph McCarthy, the then-powerful Republican senator from Wisconsin, on the floor of the U.S. Congress.
McCarthy had successfully exploded American politics by advancing the conspiratorial theory known as the “Red Scare.” Utilizing fear tactics and hateful propaganda, McCarthy launched a chilling “witch hunt” by defaming individuals he considered to be suspicious of being Communist and “blacklisting” those individuals (naming names) as anti-American liberals.
The attempt of the conspirators who followed McCarthy’s mob-like rallies was to undermine the Democratic Party by seeding suspicion and encouraging division by spreading lies and fear. Sound familiar?
In a 15 minute speech to Congress called the “Declaration of Conscience,” Sen. Smith exposed the mythical conspiracy of McCarthyism without ever mentioning Joe McCarthy by name. Instead of name calling, Senator Smith confronted the tactics McCarthy used to spread his lies.
In her message, she upheld the right of every American “to criticize, to protest, and to hold unpopular beliefs.” She cautioned her fellow Republicans not to “ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny — Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”
Republicans would eventually participate in rebuking the fear tactics of McCarthy and in marginalizing his following.
It would be nice if Republicans today would stand up to Trump’s conspiratorial tactics and fear-mongering as Republicans then stood up to McCarthy’s tactics. What was wrong then is also wrong now. We shouldn’t expect less of our elected leaders now than we did then.
McCarthy dismissed Ms. Smith by calling her and her supporters “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”
Later as McCarthy’s career ended and the Scare evaporated for the lie that it was, Smith’s career was just beginning. She was elected to four terms in both the House and the Senate and is one of Maine’s greatest political figures. McCarthy was the one dismissed as Donald Trump will one day be dismissed by history for the charlatans they are.
What we are witnessing today with Donald Trump is eerily similar to McCarthyism. The frenzy of hatred and fear of immigrants and “others” is appealing to a number of Americans who, for whatever reason, choose to believe the propaganda and lies spread by the President and his loyalists.
This time, unlike during the McCarthy era, there is no Senator Margaret Chase Smith and no party leadership willing to stand up to Donald Trump’s racist rallies and hateful rhetoric. This time, there’s no “Declaration of Conscience.” Only silence from the Republican Party.
In the absence of leadership, the party appears to be willing to stand aside and allow the president of the United States to flood the political arena with an ocean of adolescent tweets and lies while the political culture percolates with anger, hostility and intolerance.
As Americans, we sense that something is very wrong. We know that unmoored power in the hands of an unfit leader who, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is “of limited cognitive ability and of generally dubious character,” is dangerous.
We’re aware that our Congress has laid down; beaten and paralyzed at making changes and reforms in response to issues like gun laws, health care, the environment and immigration. We can feel that we’re in trouble.
America could benefit from some real leaders like Margaret Chase Smith who are not afraid to stand up for the principles of democracy. We need our president to lead, not lie and we need a leader who will stand alongside our allies for those principles both at home and abroad. We need to rise up out of the fog of fear and hatred and find our conscience again, before we forget who we are.
Mary Holway is a writer and retired social worker. She lives in Southwest Harbor.