Until recently, it had been Sen. Joseph McCarthy who was the poster child for the thuggish impulse that occasionally rears its head in America — ebbing here, flowing there, but always present. If he has accomplished nothing else, President Donald Trump has supplanted McCarthy as the embodiment of the American thug, rising and reigning with the help of those who either thrill to his bullying or lack the courage to challenge it.
McCarthy's principal tools were dishonesty and viciousness, and he wielded them freely for over three years before Americans finally decided they had had enough. The turning point was unexpected. During Senate hearings in 1954, Boston attorney Joseph Welch responded to McCarthy's savaging of a young lawyer who had once joined a legal services organization that defended alleged Communists by posing to McCarthy this simple, almost naive question: "Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?" McCarthy had been bullying innocent people for years, so it is unclear why Welch's gentle appeal to "decency" triggered a sudden shift in public opinion against him.
Trump may have self-administered a takedown with his untethered, false insinuation that former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough murdered a former staffer in 2001. This, of course, is pure junk, Trump's specialty. The autopsy conducted on the staffer, a young woman who was happily married to a man who still misses her dearly today, confirmed that she died when a heart condition caused her to fall and hit her head. Scarborough was 800 miles away. His only "crime" is criticizing Trump, including by pointing out — go figure — that he has little regard for the truth.
Illustrating the point, Trump has tweeted repeatedly that the "case" should be "re-opened," making McCarthy look scrupulous by comparison. It is bad enough that Trump has defamed Scarborough; he has also inflicted deep pain on the woman's family, who has been begging him to stop trashing her — to no avail.
Republican Sen. Mitt Romney called Trump's accusation "vile" and "baseless". "Enough already," Romney tweeted, speaking for every decent American. The conservative Wall Street Journal called Trump's accusation "ugly even for him." The president, it editorialized, "is debasing his office, and he's hurting the country in doing so." Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger stated the all too obvious, tweeting, "Completely unfounded conspiracy. Just stop."
Trump could care less. He knows that most of his base finds his pathology electrifying rather than loathsome. But pathology is what drives this presidency. For instance, Trump has settled on "Sleepy Joe" as a derisive moniker for former Vice President Joe Biden. It is both a witless insult and a curious one from a president who sits by himself in his residence until it is nearly time for lunch, flipping cable television channels and machine-gunning tweets that read as though they were composed by a third grader. His insult is the more ironic where Trump not only lacks the energy to read intelligence briefs but also, by all accounts, possesses neither the capacity nor the inclination to read anything at all. Indeed, if watching him struggle while attempting to read the cards placed for him on the presidential podium is any indication, our president's very ability to read is open to earnest debate.
To say that Joe Biden easily surpasses Trump in the mental acuity department is to damn Biden with faint praise, but the same is also obviously true on the physical side of the ledger. This is what makes Trump's insults so peculiar. Biden is physically fit, while Trump — how shall we put this — is not. It does not look as though Donald Trump has done a situp since the second Eisenhower administration, but that has not stopped him from continually deriding others' physical appearance.
Last week, Rush Limbaugh summed up what Donald Trump is about, and he meant it as a compliment. "Trump is just throwing gasoline on a fire, and he's loving watching the flames," said Limbaugh admiringly.
Just what you want in a president of the United States.
Jeff Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.
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