The Long, Uphill Struggle to Bring Down a Demagogue

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Susan Collins of Maine, a rare pro-choice Republican senator, said last weekend that she isn't worried that President Donald Trump's next appointment to the Supreme Court might vote to upend the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing abortion rights. 

It's no shock that Collins is already shrinking from a fight. She hasn't raised a stink over much of anything: corruption, demagogy, Russian sabotage, young children shipped far from their immigrant parents without explanation or recourse

The lone senator who stands up for principle, shouting truth into a furious wind, is an American staple. Mr. Smith, the esteemed senator from Hollywood, did it in Frank Capra's "Mister Smith Goes to Washington." 

Real-life senators have taken iconic stands as well, including Collins's Republican predecessor from her home state of Maine, Senator Margaret Chase Smith. The circumstances of Smith's 1950 "Declaration of Conscience" on the Senate floor are worth contemplating in light of present circumstance. 

Smith's speech was a response to Senator Joseph McCarthy's panic-mongering about communists he falsely claimed to have found burrowing in the U.S. government and in pretty much any industry he chose to torment. But Smith’s speech wasn't a response only to that. It was also a response to what she later called "mental paralysis and muteness" about McCarthy in the Senate itself. Smith, a freshman senator and the body’s sole female, had been hoping a more established leader would take on McCarthy's cruel calumnies. None did. The cowardice was bipartisan.

Her speech has been anthologized and revered. It's a middling piece of work remarkable mostly for the bravery it took to deliver it. Yet it's hard to credit the speech with much effect. McCarthy had launched his anti-communist crusade only four months prior, in Wheeling, West Virginia. His reckless ride, manufacturing lies and destroying careers and reputations for fun and political profit, lasted another four and a half years. 

I reread Richard Rovere's classic McCarthy biography in 2016, because Trump so vividly calls McCarthy to mind. (McCarthy, though Twitterless, responded to Smith and six Senate colleagues who publicly supported her "Declaration" by denigrating them as "Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.")

I recently returned to Rovere's book and was struck, page after page, by descriptions of "a cheap politician of vulgar, flamboyant ways" that sound expressly dedicated to the 45th president. Like Trump, McCarthy was improvisational rather than strategic, casual in accounting for funds that flowed to his cause but ended up in his pocket, a "galvanizer of mobs" and a prodigious, unrestrained liar who "kicked for the groin" when cornered. 

And like McCarthy, Trump, too, has pricked the consciences of principled leaders. In January, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake stood up in the Senate and gave a speech denouncing Trump. Flake's declaration of conscience was at least as eloquent as Smith's, and even less sparing. He condemned Trump's "sustained attack on the truth" and his damaging "assaults on our institutions."

But Flake's rhetorical trail was quickly buried beneath the daily chaos of Trumpism itself. Flake's colleagues shrugged and moved on. The news chased other calumnies and absurdities. The opportunity to build a sustained public case against Trump was lost. 

Perhaps Flake's speech, like Smith's, came too soon in the demagogy cycle. But Flake, who announced his retirement rather than campaign for re-election as an anti-Trumper in a party with all the discernment of a cult of personality, will leave Congress in January. John McCain, the other Republican senator with a known conscience to declare, is dying of brain cancer. 

With rare exceptions, Democrats don’t fear Trump as they once feared McCarthy; only Republicans do. But without a majority in at least one house of Congress, Democrats can do little to blunt the effects of his malice. 

Speaking last year with my Bloomberg colleague Tyler Cowen, Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska made a quick but surely knowing reference to Smith's "Declaration of Conscience" against McCarthy. "The speech that she gave on the Senate floor when McCarthyism was just being tolerated, it’s a really special speech," Sasse said. "Everybody should go back and read it."

The senator had to recognize the loaded import of his reference. But a year has passed since then. Trump's hold on Republicans is stronger, the party's will to defy him weaker. 

In 1954, Joseph Welch, the army lawyer whose dramatic clash with McCarthy presaged the demagogue's fall, filled the role of decency triumphing over evil. Months after Welch delivered his blow, when it was safe to come out of hiding, the Senate censured McCarthy.

As Flake was to Smith, perhaps special counsel Robert Mueller will be to Welch. Or perhaps history will not echo so neatly. In that case, someone, millions of someones, will have to stand up this November to be democracy's protector. Because if there is a moral to this story, it's that the Republicans in Washington will protect only themselves. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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