Politicians have long tried to paint themselves as the modern day incarnation of their party’s former heroes. Everyone fights to be labeled the new Reagan or the next Kennedy, who were themselves the new Lincoln or the next Roosevelt, all of whom were just the latest incarnation of Washington and the founders. It lends credence to the old adage that history never repeats itself, but it does rhyme.
But the glorification of partisan forerunners bypasses less known but nonetheless important party scions and dismisses the ignominies of the past. We ignore our history at our peril in today’s political climate, which harbors frighteningly familiar echoes of the past.
Sixty-eight years ago today, one of the most influential yet underappreciated speeches of the modern era was delivered on the Senate floor. It came from a voice that was not well known at the time, belonging to a woman who is only occasionally remembered by the Republican party at times of convenience: Senator Margaret Chase Smith. And it came at a time—the beginnings of the Red Scare—when her party was losing its way.
Dubbed the “Declaration of Conscience,” Smith’s speech was revelatory.
Just a few months prior, in February of 1950, a largely unknown Wisconsin Senator named Joseph McCarthy waved a paper on stage and boldly declared that he held the name of 205 communists who had infiltrated the State Department. The ensuing shock and fright provided McCarthy a meteoric rise to prominence.
People caved to McCarthy in fear that he would publicly accuse them of communist sympathies. Even without a shred of evidence, he could ruin careers. He often turned his ire to journalists at his raucous public rallies. He even assaulted a reporter once. He drove his supporters to believe fevered conspiracies about communists in the closet, while silencing the truth through wild, slanderous accusations. He was brutally effective, and many of his Republican colleagues embraced, if reluctantly, his bombast and deceit..
Margaret Chase Smith shared McCarthy’s concerns that Communists might infiltrate the government. Yet, after months of asking for proof, she realized that there was none. And unlike many of her GOP colleagues, Senator Smith wasn’t willing to debase herself and the institution she served by engaging in McCarthyism. So on June 1st she took to the floor, standing mere feet from Senator McCarthy, to deliver her Declaration of Conscience. In it, she reiterated her commitment to her party, but also warned them against the destructiveness of their path.
“I don’t want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the four horsemen of calumny—fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear,” Smith declared.
Margaret Chase Smith’s words are every bit as relevant today as they were in 1950. GOP leaders have forgotten the lessons of McCarthy’s disgrace, turning once again to the destructive allure of the four horsemen. President Trump tweets daily, leveraging tools of deceit to rally his base and distract from investigations into his campaign and close associates.
If we lived in the world painted by the president’s twitter account, it would be a frightening place indeed. We get a look at this potemkin dystopia daily, as his false claims are echoed and amplified by a fear-driven media machine comprised of personalities like Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Dan Bongino, and Alex Jones. It’s a surreal mixture of anti-immigrant scapegoating and impossible conspiracies of shadowy anti-american infiltrators undermining the country from the ranks of our Department of Justice. Like McCarthy, the president and his media backers are waving a blank paper before our noses, declaring he has proof of conspiracy that almost never materializes.
But the modern McCarthyism neither begins nor ends with Trump. Among the ranks of Congressional Republicans are a litany of elected representatives clamoring to outdo one another in sycophantic regurgitation of Trump’s deceit. So far, the lead horse is House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. Nunes has fully embraced the McCarthy model of fear and slander. From his stunning but false accusation that the FBI wiretapped and unmasked Trump campaign staff, to his memo on supposed FISA abuse which flatly misled about the warrant process, he has repeatedly driven the baseless narrative of a “deep state” working against the president and the country.
As in the case of McCarthy, Nunes isn’t acting alone. When Margaret Smith gave her stirring rebuttal to McCarthyism, six other Republicans signed her Declaration of Conscience. Today you would be hard pressed to name six Republicans in all of Congress who would sign such a declaration. The allure of political momentum rooted in fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear again proves too tempting.
So where is the modern Margaret Smith?
Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake come to mind, speaking out against the assault on democratic norms even as their service comes to an end. Senator Ben Sasse has also stood up at times. Recently, Trey Gowdy has been vocal in debunking the President’s ludicrous claims that the Justice Department ‘spied’ on his campaign. It may be that Gowdy’s willingness to stand up against McCarthy-like attacks on the DoJ is a crack in the GOP’s foundation of calumny.
Or it may still be that the current GOP is ill-equipped to provide that commitment to conscience. Either way, the modern incarnation of Margaret Chase Smith might very well be on the horizon. We should look for her spirit this November, and hold both incumbents and challengers to her high standard. It will be up to us, the citizens, constituents and voters, to make our own Declaration of Conscience, and reject the calumny and conspiracy of the modern McCarthyism.
Mindy Finn is the co-founder of pro-democracy organization Stand Up Republic and the founder of Empowered Women. She is also a former campaign aide to the Bush and Romney presidential campaigns as well as the vice presidential running mate for Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin.