A Year In the Death 1/7/21
This was not the post I had planned for today’s article in this series. But like many Americans, I was shocked, saddened, and sickened by the events in our nation’s capital yesterday — specifically the breaching of the U.S. Capitol. And has been the case since I began this series a week ago, I naturally thought about the events in the context of death and dying.
Because bodies are not the only things that die — political movements die as well. And yesterday we may have witnessed the death of Trumpism.
Not right away, of course. I hold no illusions that the President’s most ardent supporters are going to abandon him. On the contrary, many of them undoubtedly were energized by the acts of violence and insurrection we witnessed in D.C. yesterday.
But among the vast majority of Americans who are not beholden by strong ties to either of this nation’s two major political parties? I think history will show they pronounced Trumpism dead at approximately 2:15 PM EST on Wednesday, January 6, 2021 when the domestic terrorists breached Capitol security.
There are many historical precedents I could draw on to illustrate the exact moment various U.S. political movements either began to expire or outright died. But I’ll focus on just one example, for the following reasons:
- Its remarkable similarities to Trumpism.
- Although it occurred almost 65 years ago, it contains a powerful personal link to Donald Trump that is so unbelievable I think Hollywood power brokers would reject it as too improbable of a story line if you pitched it to them.
But I’m getting ahead of myself…
In the early 1950s, America was either being captivated by (or held hostage by, depending on your perspective) a bombastic, narcissistic Republican politician. This man thrived on media attention. He hated scripted speeches — preferring instead to bombard the media with wild, unsubstantiated claims of wrong doings directed at the nation in general or him specifically. And he regularly threatened — and then used his power to enact — devastating retribution upon anyone who disagreed with him.
Who was this forerunner to the 45th President of the United States? Joseph McCarthy.
For almost four years, the brash Wisconsin Senator stirred up anti-Communist and homophobic sentiments in the country — especially after he began formal Senate hearings on the topic in 1953 as head of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. McCarthy and his Subcommittee’s hearings ruined many innocent peoples’ lives — all the while enjoying nearly unchallenged power from both Democratic and Republican politicians too intimidated by, if not outright terrified of, McCarthy and his supporters. (Harvard law dean Ervin Griswold once described McCarthy as “judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one.”)
The McCarthyism movement was born. And it flourished across the United States until June 9, 1954 — the date McCarthyism effectively died. Thanks to a Boston lawyer named Joseph N. Welch.
Welch had been hired by the U.S. Army to defend itself against charges by McCarthy that their security was too lax at top-secret military bases. During the nationally televised U.S. Army vs. McCarthy hearings that day, Welch uttered these now famous words to the Senator, in defense of a young lawyer on Welch’s staff who had been personally and viciously attacked by McCarthy:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Little did I dream you would be so reckless and cruel to do an injury to that lad…If it were in my power to forgive you for your reckless cruelty I would do so. I like to think that I am a gentle man, but your forgiveness will have to come from someone other than me. [At this point, McCarthy tried to interrupt, but Welch raised his voice and spoke over him.] 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 while McCarthyism didn’t die overnight, Welch’s words seemed to have broken the Senator’s spell of invincibility. Average Americans began turning against him. That shift of public opinion encouraged fellow Senators, including prominent members of his own Party, to finally stand up to him. And he was censured by the Senate before the year was out. Only three years later — on Thursday, May 2, 1957 — the hard-drinking McCarthy would die at Bethesda Naval Hospital at the age of 49.
Fast forward to the events of yesterday and into early this morning.
As I watched the events unfolding in Washington, D.C. yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t help but wonder if the television coverage of them would be the death of Trumpism — just like the televised moment on June 9, 1954 was the death of McCarthyism. By the evening, as Republican after Republican began turning on the President, culminating with the relatively easy confirmation of President-Elect Biden’s Electoral College victory after Congress reconvened, I was almost certain we had witnessed the death of Trumpism.
I certainly hope so — for any number of political and patriotic reasons. But also for the sense of historical symmetry to the death of McCarthyism.
Because Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer during his face off with Joseph N. Welch that June day in 1954 was a brash young man named Roy M. Cohn. You may have heard of him…he went on to be the celebrated personal attorney and highly visible “fixer” for a young New York real-estate mogul named Donald J. Trump.
As political satirist Will Durst is so fond of saying, “You can’t make this shit up.”
This is part of a year-long series I’ve entitled “A Year in the Death.” As I discussed in my first entry on January 1, I am going to contemplate and write about death each day of 2021. Some days, my thoughts and writings may be detailed essays. On others, they may be little more than the contemplation of a quote about death or a piece of art representing death or dying. Also, I may not share every daily contemplation with you, reserving my thoughts to my private journal. But I am committed to the practice and invite you to follow along throughout the course of the year.