It is something of a general maxim that political leaders rely upon the short term memory of the public to continue in their roles, even after exposure of horrendous behavior. Faith, however, in the collective sensibility of that Great Unwashed constituency, strongly suggests that such offenses, sooner or later, receive payback.
In June 1954, Congress was engaged in hearings alleging Communist infiltration into the US Army, convened by Sen. Joseph “tail gunner” McCarthy (R-WI). The Badger State senator was an unrestrained anti-Communist whose counsel during the proceedings was Roy Cohn, later an attorney in the employ of Donald Trump. Joseph Welch was counsel to the Army and during one pitted interchange with McCarthy, who had attempted to attack a young attorney in Welch’s firm, Welch responded:
Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. . . . Little did I dream you could be so reckless and so cruel. . . . Have you no sense of decency, sir?
Among other absent qualities, honor and decency have been lost in the nation’s civil discourse. Perhaps worse, however, these positive qualities have been replaced by the kink of cruelty and recklessness demonstrated by the Wisconsin senator. At the same time, it is not possible to identify an apology or retraction for such behavior.
In the late 1950s, William F. Buckley, the intellectual doyen of American conservatism, produced editorials for his National Review that unabashedly supported white supremacist ideology, writing at one point:
Sometimes, it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way, and the society will regress; sometimes, the numerical [white] minority cannot prevail except by violence; then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.
At the end of the 1950s, he had come to conclude that “there are no scientific grounds for assuming congenital Negro disabilities. The problem is not biological, but cultural and educational.” By 1963, following the bombing at a Birmingham church taking the lives of four young children, Buckley’s outlook began to shift and he supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In later years, he also denounced right-wing “kooks” and anti-Semites. While never formally or fully relenting his racial opinions, his later writings reflected more enlightened ones.
The absence of a more direct apology or renunciation of views is not a requirement of the public but, at the same time, that collective mind is capable of sensing changes and responding accordingly.
The absence of a more direct apology or renunciation of views is not a requirement of the public but, at the same time, that collective mind is capable of sensing changes and responding accordingly. In the current climate, there is not only the absence of honor and decency, there is the “double down” response. To hell with shame or regret; repeat as often as possible the offensive conduct.
This week in Charlottesville, Virginia, defendant members of the deadly Unite the Right rally in August 2017 determined that the courtroom was a natural bully pulpit from which to advocate their obnoxious, racist beliefs. One can only imagine the effect and impact upon the jury.
Matt Schlapp, a prominent Virginia Republican, head of CPAC, and founder of Catholics4Trump, journeyed to Arizona to promote the alleged fraudulent vote of a dead woman whose husband appeared in videos in behalf of the GOP. Recently, the husband pled guilty to voting with his wife’s ballot. No apologies for being hoodwinked or for hoodwinking the public.
Alex Jones, who famously defamed the deaths of the Sandy Hook children, defaulted for the fourth time to defend his broadcasts, alleging that the deaths were staged.
Steve Bannon, previously indicted for felony fraud and pardoned by Trump, has countered that the congressional criminal contempt indictment against him has been directed at the wrong person and he bragged that he will go on the offensive. That bravado will be tested.
The antics of Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar (R) promoting an animated video depicting the sword slaying of a congressional colleague and President Biden have brought forth a censure motion from the House membership. Gosar has defended the action as a symbolic metaphor for immigration policy. The successful censure added the Arizona representative to the Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) list of members without committee assignments. Greene had advocated violence against political colleagues.
Among other American values that tend to boost mavericks and contrarians are those that lend a sympathetic view to honor and decency, notwithstanding political affiliation.
Among other American values that tend to boost mavericks and contrarians are those that lend a sympathetic view to honor and decency, notwithstanding political affiliation. John McCain and Colin Powell embodied these ideals, demonstrating that Republicanism does not require a suicidal adherence to ideology such as that that doomed Senator McCarthy. Honor and decency can co-exist with political belief, and are not implacably beholden to cruelty, recklessness, and shamelessness to appeal to constituencies.