Somebody is going to do this to Donald Trump tonight:
The only question is who, and perhaps how many. It worked before, and it could work again. It may be too late for this strategem, though.
If you don’t recognize the incident, one of the first live TV moments to enter history and have a major impact on national politics, here is the background:
It came at the height of the Cold War, and the fear of Communist Russia was as palpable as it was toxic. Being publicly associated with the Communist Party was a ticket to personal and professional destruction, and many politicians wielded the accusation as a weapon of mass destruction. The Hollywood Blacklist was the archetype of many such lists that kept many Americans who were socialists or merely liberals virtually unemployable in the military, the State Department, police and businesses. Dark times.
Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy used red-baiting to become the most famous, polarizing, popular, controversial—and powerful— American politician not named Eisenhower. In 1954, two commercial TV networks broadcast live the hearings investigating McCarthy’s allegations against Army officers, and the counter-allegations that McCarthy and his aide, Roy Cohn, had pressured the Army to give preferential treatment to a Cohn’s friend, later revealed to be his gay lover. (See: “Angels in America”) 80 million Americans watched the first ever broadcast of Congressional hearings, riveted.
Joseph Welch, a prominent Boston attorney, agreed to serve as the Army’s legal counsel in the hearings. He knew, as the GOP contenders should know, that the only effective way to shame and expose a bully and a miscreant is to do it directly to his face. Welch waited for days, playing the quiet, respectful professional as McCarthy ranted and grandstanded. Then he saw his chance.
On June 9, 1954, McCarthy declared that Fred Fisher, a young lawyer from Welch’s own law firm, had once been a member of the National Lawyers Guild, a civil rights group that J. Edgar Hoover had called a communist front because its attorneys had represente suspected communists. Welch, choking with emotion, it seemed, indignantly defended his colleague while deriding McCarthy:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. … Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
The chamber’s audience applauded. The public’s infatuation with McCarthy was shattered, and emboldened by the collapse of public support for him, McCarthy’s colleagues in the Senate censured him for inappropriate conduct. McCarthy’s power evaporated, and the anti-Communist hysteria joined him in a shadowy corner of U.S. history.
Accounts of Welch’s master stroke always call it “spontaneous,” but it was not. Like any canny lawyer, Welch was prepared. He had his words memorized, rehearsed and ready, and he had even set a trap: Welch had already publicly acknowledged Fisher’s involvement in the National Lawyers Guild. He assumed McCarthy would bring it up, and he could hardly be dumbstruck that the Senator would repeat what he himself had acknowledged. But Welch also knew most of the public was unaware that he had set a trap, so when McCarthy mentioned Fisher, Welch took aim and blasted away.
Will the same tactic work on Trump? It should: it would have worked in the first debate. Now, it may not, because many Welches will not be as effective as a single one, and I would not be surprised if several of Trump’s competitors will have a Welchism rehearsed. It also won’t work if the wrong Welch jumps in first, or if he blows his delivery. (Welch was quite an actor.)
We shall see. If someone doesn’t at least try it, none of these 15 non-Trumps are smart enough to be President.