If you want to speak in broad strokes, Joseph McCarthy was brought down by two men: Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welch. Murrow put in the work. He launched a sustained attack on McCarthy and his antics by highlighting the awfulness of them on his popular show. It was a bold and brave move, one that not too many people were willing to make at the time, and it is why it seems like every journalism school in the world is named the Edward R. Murrow School of Journalism.
Joseph Welch’s hit to McCarthy wasn’t as planned or as long-term. In 1954 Joseph McCarthy was investigating the Army for Communist influences. Welch was a Boston lawyer chosen to represent the Army. On the 30th day of the hearings Welch challenged Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief counsel, to provide the US Attorney General with McCarthy’s list of 130 Communists and subversives before sundown. McCarthy stepped in and said if he was so concerned about Communists, maybe Welch should consider his own house.
But McCarthy chose to address the Chairman, Senator Karl Mundt (R-SD), instead of Welch, demanding that they not be ridiculous. He claimed that Welch knew, because McCarthy had explained it to him, that the FBI had all of this information, and that all he could do at this point was to try and publicly expose them. McCarthy used a particular figure here – apostrophe. Instead of addressing an audience that is absent, however, McCarthy used a third party to address his primary audience. Apostrophe is common enough in hearings and is used to create some kind of neutral ground – the third party is the mediator. This was meant to be a caustic reminder to Welch, but McCarthy chose not to even speak to Welch but to speak to the Chairman instead. This provided a sense of formality, and it served to distance himself from his undesirable sparring partner. Ultimately, he implied that Welch was simply being obtuse. Welch, however, did not take the bait. He simply returned to demanding more and more exact information and asking for Cohn’s accountability in the fight against these supposed Communist infiltrators.
Cohn and Welch went back and forth for a bit, with neither one really making great strides, until McCarthy stepped in again. Once again, McCarthy employed the apostrophe. He informed the Chairman, and all who were listening that he thought they should inform Welch that Welch was a part of the conspiracy. Welch employed Communists. McCarthy used Welch’s own words against him, trying to get Welch to incriminate himself again and again, but Welch would not let McCarthy wrestle those words away and use them as a tool against him. Just as Welch had asked Cohn to quickly and efficiently address the known Communist problem, McCarthy turned on Welch demanding the same thing. McCarthy also tried to take over the encounter by sheer time of possession – McCarthy, as was his practice, tried to turn the hearing into a bully pulpit for himself and not let others get a word in edgewise. His first argument was that Welch employed a man, Fred Fisher, who was a member of the “legal bulwark,” a phrase he used repeatedly, of the Communist Party. McCarthy equivocated on Welch’s specific role in the conspiracy. On the one hand he assumed that “Mr. Welch did not know of this young man at the time he recommended him as the assistant counsel for this committee,” but within a matter of sentences called Welch a phony because of his demand to “get every Communist out of government out before sundown.” McCarthy seemed to have forgotten his surroundings – in this hearing he was not giving a monologue, and his target was not a frightened victim. Welch was a clever and quick-witted lawyer who was well researched and well-prepared and made sure that each of McCarthy’s mistakes were used against him in the narrative he gave in response.
McCarthy’s accusations got both more insulting and convoluted as he moved forward. He claimed on the one hand that he was certain that Welch would not help the Communist cause, but he was clearly not on the up and up – he was an actor who was making a mockery of these hearings. But his most serious accusation was that Welch was ignorant of the extent of the conspiracy. Welch simply did not understand precisely how dangerous the enemy was, and he was therefore aiding the enemy by taking Communism too lightly. The conspiracy, he argued, was so vast that Welch could not grapple with its seriousness. Welch could not be trusted to competently deal with the conspiracy.
At this point both Chairman Mundt and Welch had enough of McCarthy’s ranting. Mundt bypassed McCarthy altogether and assured Welch that he knew Welch never recommended Fisher for this committee, and Welch tried respond to these accusations, but McCarthy tried to butt in. Welch, clearly annoyed, began to borrow McCarthy’s own tactics against him. He used McCarthy’s words, and the exchange took on an edgier tone:
Mr. Welch: Senator McCarthy, I did not know – Senator, sometimes you say “May I have your attention?”
Senator McCarthy: I am listening to you. I can listen with one ear.
Mr. Welch: This time I want you to listen with both.
Mr. Welch: Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Fred Fisher is a young man who went to the Harvard Law School and came into my firm and is starting what looks to be a brilliant career with us.
Mr. Welch: Little did I dream you could be so reckless and cruel as to do an injury to that lad. It is true he is still with Hale & Dorr. It is true that he will continue to be with Hale & Dorr. It is, I regret to say, equally true that I fear he shall always bear a scar needlessly inflicted by you. If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty, I will do so. I like to think I am a gentleman, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me.
McCarthy’s response was less than convincing. He tried to co-opt Welch’s words and began to repeat his charge against Fisher. McCarthy would not let the issue go.
Mr. Welch: Senator, may we not drop this? We know he belonged to the Lawyers Guild, and Mr. Cohn nods his head at me. I did you, I think, no personal injury, Mr. Cohn.
Mr. Cohn: No, sir.
Mr. Welch: I meant to do you no personal injury, and if I did, beg your pardon. Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?
And with that it became clear to the enraptured audience watching via television that no, Senator McCarthy did, in fact, not have any decency. It was a turning point in his career. Soon after he was censured, and his political career fell into disrepute as quickly as it had skyrocketed into stardom.
The McCarthy hearings were part of a long tradition of conspiratorial thinking that has historically taken root in the American psyche. In 1963 Richard Hofstadter described it as the paranoid style. He said it was most apparent in the extreme right wing of American politics of his day and showed how much political leverage could be gotten out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.
He spoke of the paranoid style much as one might speak of a style of art or music. It is a way of seeing the world and expressing oneself. He didn’t mean paranoia in the clinical sense, but that in the paranoid style the feeling of persecution is central and is systematized in grand conspiracy theories. Someone who is paranoid thinks the world is out to get them, someone who represents the paranoid style thinks evil forces are against a nation, a culture, or a way of life, so it not only affects themselves, but millions of others. A victim of the paranoid style sees their passions as unselfish and patriotic, even more rational, and therefore has intense feelings of righteousness and moral indignation.
A classic, and obviously silly example is the conspiracy theory that adding fluoride to drinking water is a socialist conspiracy. The theory goes that introducing fluoride into the drinking water is an attempt by scientists and corrupt politicians to poison us and rot out our brains to make us more susceptible to the evils of Marxism. Any rational person can see this is nonsense. But this theory had adherents from all walks of life, and as we will see momentarily, modern readers and listeners are no more immune to this kind of thinking.
But sometimes the conspiracies are less “silly.” Has American not had TWO Red Scares? The word McCarthyism is synonymous with an unjustified witch hunt for a reason. People’s lives were ruined in these conspiracy-driven movements. When enough people become scared and feel their way of life is threatened, they can hold the rest of the nation hostage for a time.
Hofstadter said of the right-wing leaders of his day that they felt dispossessed. America had been taken away from them and their kind and they were determined to repossess it and prevent the final act of destruction and subversion. American had been eaten away by “cosmopolitans and intellectuals;” competitive capitalism had been undermined by the forces of socialism and communism; and national security and independence had been destroyed by treasonous plots, both by outsiders and from powerful agents within.
Enemies were the media and major public figures. They weren’t fighting shadowy, unknown figures but recognizable, public ones. There were no mistakes here and there: there were acts of treason; there was no incompetence; there was malice; all leading to a plan to topple the United States.
Hofstadter said that the basic elements of contemporary right wing though could be reduced to three pillars: 1) There was a sustained conspiracy, running for more than a generation, to undermine capitalism, bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and pave the way for socialism or communism; 2) The top echelons of the U.S. government had been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy was now dominated by sinister people determined to sell out American national interests; 3) the Country was infused with a network of Communist agents so that all institutions – religion, education, the press, the media, government – were engaged in an effort to stop the resistance of loyal Americans.
For this conspiracy theorist time is always running out. It is always a crucial time. This conspiracist is a militant leader. Since what is at stake is always a fight between absolute good and absolute evil there is no room for compromise. Nothing but complete victory will do. The enemy must be eliminated.
Hofstadter says, “This enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman: sinister, ubiquitous, powerful. cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He is a free, active, demonic agent. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history himself. or deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced the paranoid’s interpretation of history is in this sense distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he directs the public mind through ‘managed news’; he bas unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction… he is gaining a stranglehold on the educational system…”
The enemy of those taken in by the paranoid style is totalizing and must be destroyed.
The enemy was also much too liberated to be trusted. The enemy was sexually free and morally liberated. They were murderous and harmful to children.
Finally, Hofstadter concludes, “In American experience, ethnic and religious conflict, with their threat of the submergence of whole systems of values, have plainly been the major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but elsewhere class conflicts have also mobilized such energies. The paranoid tendency is aroused by a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular political interest-perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of their demands-cannot make themselves felt in the political process. Feeling that they have no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception of the world of power as omnipotent, sinister, and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power -and this through distorting lenses-and have little chance to observe its actual machinery.”
Hofstadter’s observations on the paranoid style in the 1960s may ring parlously true in 2021. We live in a world defined by conspiracy rhetoric. QAnon has moved from the fringes to the mainstream with alarming speed, and much of what Hofstadter observed decades ago remains true, if not amped up to 11.
I don’t know if Hofstadter could have imagined a world in which conspiracy theorists would have tried to take over the capitol building and overthrow an election, but he definitely described the outlook and tenets of the far-right wing of today as well as of sixty years ago.
What remains to be seen is how the conservative establishment will respond to this dangerous element within their ranks.
In the 1950s, when it became clear that Senator Joseph McCarthy had gone too far, the Republicans turned on him. He fell out of favor, lost his power, much of his popularity, and became a pariah within the party.
In the 1960s, William F. Buckley and the National Review worked to push the John Birch Society to the fringes of the Republican party and made them obsolete (though some argue they made a resurgence in the 21st century).
When the GOP ran Barry Goldwater, bringing the extreme right wing to the fore, against LBJ the American people repudiated that move and elected Johnson in a landslide.
Over the past few decades there have been multiple efforts from right wing, paranoid style-type conspiracy theorists to take the helm of American politics. They have either been thwarted by their own party or by the American people.
What are we looking at this time?
The right wing lost the election. By a lot. And conspiracy theorists tried to overthrow that election in a violent uprising. And it is becoming more and more clear that extremist and fringe theories have infiltrated the GOP. One only has to look at Marjorie Taylor Green to see just how far astray the GOP has gone.
In the past there have been people of good will who have done the right thing and brought the party back into a semi-reasonable way of thinking. There were those who censured McCarthy. There were those who ostracized the John Birch Society. In the past there have been Republicans who have said, “No, this is not my party. Enough is enough.”
And now the GOP faces another existential moment. Will they be able to say to those who would bring them down that there is no room for that kind of hostility and paranoia? That insurrection and violence have no place on their political platform? Will the Republicans be able to salvage their party or is the party of Lincoln dead?
Right now the prospects do not look good. Hofstadter talked about a small group that felt wronged, but has that small group taken over the mainstream?
QAnon believes that Washington is run by pedophiles and those that eat babies and drink their blood. This is the level of paranoia we are fighting. On a slightly lesser level, 1/3 of the country has rejected the results of the election and no longer believes in the legitimacy of the government. For a government that gets its power from the consent of the governed that is a REALLY big deal.
Will the Republicans have the fortitude to take their own to task over these wild accusations and unacceptable actions? Are there enough among them to demand of each other that they have decency?
We’ve got just a few weeks to find out.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.