Beware the lessons of Joe McCarthy and his house of lies

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., celebrate with fellow Democrats during an enrollment ceremony for the American Rescue Plan at the U.S. Capitol on March 10. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., celebrate with fellow Democrats during an enrollment ceremony for the American Rescue Plan at the U.S. Capitol on March 10. File Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

May 17 (UPI) -- If Charles Dickens' best of times could be magically transplanted to the United States, what would that world look like? It is an understatement that Republicans and Democrats have diametrically opposed views on virtually every issue. Hence, it is self-evident how Republicans and Democrats would see the best of times.

For Republicans, the radically progressive Democratic agenda for re-engineering American society through the $6 trillion American Rescue, Jobs and Families Plans would be defeated and rolled back. Challengers to Donald Trump's domination of the party, such as Liz Cheney, would be consigned to political Siberia and, as a result, with a Trump-approved slate of candidates, Republicans win back both houses of Congress in 2022. In the meantime, a scorched earth policy would deny the Biden administration any further political victories.


For Democrats, the best of times is the exact reverse. Whether through parliamentary maneuvers or other means, the thrust of President Joe Biden's jobs and families bills would pass. Whether through the courts, Cheney or Republicans realizing no party can survive on lies and falsehoods, Trump and his influence would be neutered, and the Grand Old Party would once again become the GOP.

In foreign policy, Biden's stand on making this a competition between democracies and autocracies and defending the rules-based liberal order would become a rallying cry to check Chinese and Russian ambitions and actions. And once the COVID-19 pandemic ended, in large measure through widespread vaccinations, as happened after the 1918-29 Spanish flu, the nation embarked on a second period of explosive economic growth, this time without the crash of 1929.

Clearly, this best of times is more Panglossian than Dickensian and is the least likely of futures. Realistically, given a nation irreversibly divided almost 50/50 on every issue and a Congress that lacks civility and compromise, from a totally objective, non-partisan perspective, what is the best that might happen?

In all likelihood, the administration's highly ambitious plans will be defeated by Republicans through the filibuster in the Senate or by outside private sector lobbying to prevent passage in both Houses. As a result, the critically needed infrastructure programs would languish or be underfunded. In all likelihood, absent a political miracle, Dickens' worst of times would seem a far more likely set of outcomes.


Republicans will prove more loyal to Trump than to the traditional values of the GOP and the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. And Trumpistas would be nominated to run for the House in 2022.

In this environment, Democrats would become even more hostile to Republicans. Congress would break down, incapable of meeting the nation's needs. Yet, two better outcomes are not inconceivable. Both have roots in history

First, Cheney and other conservative Republicans could prevail. While the Big Lie of Biden losing the election remains convincing to a majority of Republicans for the time being, political structures based on delusions or lies are impossible to sustain. Greece and Rome fell in part because of both. Adolph Hitler's lie about Aryan dominance and the Soviet Union's dependence on dismissing or lying about the weaknesses of its economy and the virtues of communism largely caused the implosion.

At some point, Republicans might come to their senses, although it will take a smoking cannon to break Trump's stranglehold on the party. While the parallel is not exact, ultimately, Republican senators finally censured and drove Joe McCarthy from office. He had for years based his influence on outright lies about numbers of communists serving in high office. Perhaps it was no accident that Roy Cohn, Trump's major mentor, was McCarthy's chief legal counsel.


Second, it appears that COVID-19 is waning. Given government spending and the seemingly unstoppable rise of stock markets, it is exceedingly likely that another boom is in the offing that even a paralyzed government cannot prevent matching that of the Roaring '20s. If history repeats or rhymes, the best of times would be an economic renaissance. That would correct a great deal of social and economic inequalities and disparities.

Republicans and Democrats should review this history. The fall of McCarthy and his house of lies may be relevant. And for Democrats, a booming economy, if properly channeled, could achieve much of Biden's aspirations regarding modernizing infrastructure and investing in families. These indeed could be the best of times.

The challenge, of course, is to follow the advice of someone who today hardly would be considered a Republican -- Abraham Lincoln -- and allow "our better angels" to flourish.Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book, "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became Looming Existential Dangers to a Divided Nation and the World at Large."

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


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