The very-public controversy between Donald Trump and Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of Captain Humayun Khan, an American soldier who died more than a decade ago in Iraq, has been widely commented upon and there is little I can add. Donald Trump’s outrageous comments have thus far had little effect on his Teflon-like appeal to some voters, many of them bigots, but he may have gone too far with this one.
It’s okay with some voters that Trump voices their unspoken, secret attitudes about Hispanics, Muslims, Blacks, and a whole host of “other” people, but Gold Star families—people who have lost sons and daughters through wartime service—are apparently off-limits. Trump, goes the reasoning, should have just kept his big mouth shut and ignored Khan’s speech at the DNC. But he is too thin-skinned, reactive, and narcissistic for that. “Is this the kind of leader,” they ask, “who can deal thoughtfully with our messy, complicated, often-hostile world?”
POLITICO and other critics compare Trump’s reaction to a famed turning point for McCarthyism in the 1950s. Grilled by then-Senator Joseph McCarthy at a congressional hearing as part of the Wisconsin Republican’s crusade to root out “Communist sympathizers,” then-Army counsel Joseph N. Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Those cutting words effectively ended the career of Senator Joe McCarthy. For four years, McCarthy had enjoyed a kind of immunity as he smeared anyone he pleased in his national witch hunt for Communist sympathizers. But in the spring of 1954, during hearings on supposed Army infiltrators that were broadcast on the new medium of television, McCarthy casually sought to destroy Welch, a young lawyer, an esteemed Harvard-trained lawyer, and fellow Republican. When McCarthy suggested the junior attorney had Communist sympathies, the courtly Welch sank his head in despair, then looked McCarthy in the eye and excoriated him with those immortal words. Senator McCarthy never recovered.
For the first time, the bully had been called out in public by someone whose integrity was unquestionable. The audience in the Senate chamber burst into applause. Coverage of the event was wildly supportive of Welch, and sharply critical of McCarthy. Within weeks, McCarthy was forced to bring the hearings to a close. His speeches over the summer, once front page news, were delivered to empty Senate chambers. McCarthy, who had enjoyed positive support of half the country in January 1954, saw a fall to the low 30s in subsequent polls. Within months, his one-time allies had deserted him, and in December he was overwhelming rebuked and censured by the Senate in a vote of 67-22.
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