‘A Joe McCarthy Moment’
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
“Donald Trump now looks set to be the Republican presidential nominee. So for those of us appalled by this prospect — what are we supposed to do? Well, not what the leaders of the Republican Party are doing. They’re going down meekly and hoping for a quiet convention. They seem blithely unaware that this is a Joe McCarthy moment. People will be judged by where they stood at this time. Those who walked with Trump will be tainted forever after . . .”
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Herewith a dissent from those sentiments of David Brooks. We don’t aim to disparage Mr. Brooks himself. He’s a friend and a sage of moderate conservatism (and a wonderful wordsmith). We favor neither meekness nor a “quiet convention,” as he puts it. Nor need we defend any paper trail of the Sun in respect of Senator McCarthy, for the original Sun went out of business four years before the Wisconsinite was censured by the Senate.
We are, though, veteran enough to know that history is a judge of short memory and fickle temperament. And we just don’t fear being on history’s wrong side. Was the Kennedy family tainted forever for having “walked with” — to put it mildly, as Ira Stoll’s book “JFK, Conservative” reminds us — McCarthy (godfather of Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter)? Was William F. Buckley tainted forever by having defended Old Joe in “McCarthy and His Enemies”?
It seems like only yesterday, the Left was lecturing the Vietnam War hawks how they’d be trapped on the wrong side of history. After the communists conquered Indochina, though, they set up such a slaughter that even Joan Baez came around to realizing just how fickle history can be. Just the other day, no less a figure than the president of Harvard, Drew Faust, herself a historian of the first water, went to West Point to pay homage to the Army of the United States.
The fact is that those who once jeered at returning GIs are now ashamed of having done so. It was only a few years ago that a Budweiser ad featuring GIs being applauded in an airport became a marker of the new moment. Now both Hillary Clinton, who voted for the Iraq war but changed her mind, and Donald Trump, who was against it, are lining up on the side of history that they think is right. We’re happy to lurk on the “wrong” side of it.
President Obama is constantly talking about the right side of history. Nor are we the only one marking the absurdity of the concept; the Atlantic issued a marvelous piece a year and half ago pointing out that by then the President had referred to the “right side of history” 15 times and the “wrong side of history” another 13 times (his aides had by then invoked it another 16 times). Columnist Jonah Goldberg made a terrific video on this head.
Immigration? None of the candidates — not even the moderates — are lining up with those of us who have been on the open immigration side of the debate, the side that reckons immigration is essentially self-regulating. The gold standard? That famous University of Chicago poll of economists turned up no support for it. Those of us trapped on what is alleged to be the wrong side of history — or facing a Joe McCarthy moment — take comfort, however wan, from the fact that history hasn’t spoken.
Or that history could be a polygon. What happens if one is on the wrong side of history on one question only to be on the right side of history on another question? Or what would happen if Jos. McCarthy was wrong in his methods but right on the communists? No doubt he would have taken some satisfaction in the collapse of the Soviet Union, a moment that vindicated Ronald Reagan who, after all, stood on history’s wrong side on just about everything — until history went to the polls.
The point is not that there is no right or wrong in American politics — or even that Donald Trump deserves support if he wins the nomination he seeks. It is merely to suggest that it’s myopic to suggest that everyone who “walked with” Mr. Trump him will be tainted like those who walked with McCarthy. Even those who walked with McCarthy weren’t tainted forever, as JFK proved. Mr. Trump has changed so much over the years — “evolved,” to use President Obama’s phrase in respect of his own errors — that Mr. Trump may not walk with himself before this is over.