Red lines had been crossed, insults against numerous groups hurled, anti-elite charges of being out of touch advanced, accusations of treachery and selling the country out to subversives and foreigners made, repeatedly and with seemingly little political consequence, but the end came when there was a concerted attack on one of America’s most revered institutions – the US Army. This was part of the downfall of US Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1953-4; he had gone too far, was out of control, and bringing elite anti-communism, a mainstay of cold war America’s justification for global expansion, into disrepute. Could it also be the beginning of the end of Republican contender, Donald Trump’s, presidential campaign? Has he gone too far even for hard-core right-wing Republicans who have fostered the very political culture from which Trumpism sprang? And, with the turning and defanging of Bernie Sanders’s leftist assault on Wall St, has American politics returned to normalcy, with the establishment firmly back in the cockpit?
Anti-communist US Senator Joseph McCarthy had decided, in discussions with that other Machiavellian Richard M. Nixon, that his road to fame and possibly the White House lay in exposing the communist takeover of America. From the boy scouts and girl guides, to the Protestant church to the White House, America was riddled with corruption and weakened by communist fifth-columns, and he was going to “take our country back”, as it were. Adding to a broad anti-communist and anti-liberal movement, which included the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), McCarthy went after practically every organisation in America, except the KKK, FBI and the GOP, and wreaked havoc among federal employees, thousands of whom lost their jobs, were blacklisted, or worse. He spoke, the media amplified his message by largely uncritical reporting, and heads rolled. He seemed invincible, his witch-finder-general role popular, and road to the White House assured. President Eisenhower frowned upon but refused to condemn or repudiate McCarthy; he happily tolerated, and supported, the construction of an existential Soviet threat as the basis of a foreign policy of anti-communist containment.
Yet, McCarthy’s censure was on the grounds of conduct unbecoming a US senator – ungentlemanly behaviour, not on the pain and suffering he caused untold numbers of people. The GOP had had enough of McCarthy once his fiery anti-communism, once a powerful tool against the Democrats, had brought anti-communism itself into disrepute. He was out of control and took the rap. The man was disowned, but the anti-Red campaign continued. McCarthyism without McCarthy.
Trump’s attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan in response the DNC speech of the father of a soldier son killed in action in Iraq, and subsequently on the son’s mother as silenced by the father’s Islamic beliefs, has led to outrage in general and among some Republicans as well. But although many Republican leaders have criticised Trump they have largely refused to repudiate him as their party’s candidate.
Trump’s defence against Khan’s accusation that he the GOP’s nominee had sacrificed nothing for his country – he’s created thousands of jobs – rang hollow. Khan called for him to step down from the election race, as unfit to lead America, followed by President Obama’s own invitation to the GOP to jettison Trump as their candidate.
Trump’s retaliatory attack on the Khans follows disrespect for the Vietnam war record of Senator John McCain, who’d spent several years as a prisoner of war. And his subsequent trivialisation of a purple heart from an admiring veteran of the Iraq war. But, McCain has yet to reject Trump in an election year and a tight race to retain his own Arizona senate seat.
As polls show Trump’s slump behind a 10-11% lead for Hillary Clinton, and a concerted attack from the Right from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, anti-Trump forces are renewed; Clinton and Republican senators and representatives are now more openly challenging Trump’s stance on Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine, assertiveness in Syria; there are murmurs about the GOP’s rules on replacing their duly elected nominee. Adding fuel to fire, Trump alienated even more Republicans by initially failing to endorse the candidacies of Republican senators and GOP leaders Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell although his VP running mate, Mike Pence, publicly voiced his support for the leaders. It’s all looking like a shambles of their own making.
Reinforcing their usual political allies, Republican donors from corporate America are pulling the plug on the Trump campaign – the billionaire Koch brothers remain unconvinced that Trump can be tamed by the GOP or Pence, and are refusing to donate their fortunes to Trump’s faltering bid for the presidency. Meg Whitman of Hewlett Packard and many others have been recruited by the Clinton campaign to both denounce Trump and back Hillary, adding another GOP donor’s scalp to their tally, having already reeled in Michael Bloomberg. Republicans like former Reagan-Bush appointee, Frank Lavin, are reassured by the conservatism of the Democratic National Convention and Clinton’s selection of Senator Tim Kaine as running mate. Commented Lavin: “I have an increasing comfort level with Hillary Clinton…. She’s not going to be bossed around by the Bernie Sanders wing of the party.” A Republicans for Hillary Group appears imminent, pulling together existing smaller initiatives.
Yet, figures for June and July indicate a major surge in small donations to Trump’s campaign. His grass-roots’ support among America’s economically-disenfranchised, looked-down-upon nationalist and ethno-centric element of the white working class seems to be holding; but even they might not like Trump’s disrespect for military service. Rural southern whites join the US military in droves. But, as so powerfully explained in J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, Trump is the only candidate to speak their language and of their desperate plight.
The GOP donors’ and Democrats’ pincer movement appears to be gaining momentum with dire implications for the Trump campaign but also for the proclaimed radicalism of the Democrats (“the most radical platform in the history of the party”), trying to hold on to millions of Bernie Sanders’s voters. Trump’s anti-establishment credentials remain intact, while his political credibility is increasingly tattered among sceptical Republicans. Clinton’s base in the establishment, despite numerous anti-corporate passages in the party’s manifesto – now more apparently a sop to the powerful but defanged Sanders movement – seems stronger than ever.
The centre-ground, ever the preserve of the self-declared ‘moderate’ establishment, appears to be holding, but skewed heavily to the Right, defying both the Sanders revolution and Trump’s attack on elite power and its global over-reach.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London
He tweets from @USEmpire