On June 1, 1950, Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith took the floor of the Senate to address what she described as “a serous national condition. It is a national feeling of fear and frustration that could result in national suicide and the end of everything that we Americans hold dear.”
Her concern was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s attacks on American citizens as communists or fascists. Today, we face similar attacks on American citizens and institutions from a reckless president, but where is the Republican response?
With the support of six other Republicans, Senator Smith delivered a “Declaration of Conscience” criticizing the statements and tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Among Senator Smith’s indictment were the following points:
We are Republicans. But we are Americans first. It is as Americans that we express our concern with the growing confusion that threatens the security and stability of our country.
Certain elements of the Republican Party have materially added to this confusion in the hopes of riding the Republican Party to victory through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance. There are enough mistakes of the Democrats for Republicans to criticize constructively without resorting to political smears.
To this extent, Democrats and Republicans alike have unwittingly, but undeniably, played directly into the Communist design of “confuse, divide, and conquer.”
It is high time that we stopped thinking politically as Republicans and Democrats about elections and started thinking patriotically as Americans about national security based on individual freedom. It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques—techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.
In just 10 months in office, President Trump has also attacked, divided and threatened American democracy to a far greater degree than Senator McCarthy. And of, course, as president, Trump has far more power than the Wisconsin senator did at the peak of his influence.
So, who can cabin Trump’s overreaches and misconduct? As in 1950, no single group of people is better positioned to preserve our national values than Republican senators. Democrats are in the minority and their objections are dismissed as sour grapes over a lost election. House Republicans have a large majority in a body where a simple majority can pass legislation and they are more in line with Trump’s worldview.
That puts the responsibility squarely on Senate Republicans in the body that was originally intended to serve as the “saucer that cools the coffee,” to protect the nation from the short-term passions of the time. Seven similar Senate Republicans of conscience could literally save democracy by standing up for an open legislative process and against Trump when he attacks individual Americans and our national institutions and values. In fact, several Republicans have at one time or another questioned Trump’s competence to govern or distanced themselves from his methods and views—including Senators Flake, McCain, Corker, Collins, Sasse, Murkowski, and Graham. Flake and Corker have chosen to end their political careers rather than accept Trump as their leader. Collins, McCain and Murkowski took enormous heat for refusing to support Trump and the Republicans’ number one priority, repeal of Obamacare. Flake renounced Trump’s tactics eloquently on the Senate floor and Senator McCain called for a return to “regular order,” an open legislative process that requires bipartisan cooperation.
They have all paid a price for their resistance. Trump has personally insulted and humiliated each of them. His response no doubt has played a role in limiting outspoken opposition from other senators. As Corker has suggested, the vast majority of Senate Republicans understand Trump is unfit to be president. In essence, he has said that the President (would-be emperor) has no clothes. The seven are just the ones who have had the courage to point it out.
What the seven haven’t done is emulate Senator Smith by making it clear—together—that Trump’s actions represent a clear and present danger to our democracy, one that requires that they act on the premise that, “We are Republicans, but we are Americans first.” On the contrary, every one except Corker worked with Trump and voted for tax legislation that was crammed though the Senate without any semblance of normal legislative process.
If they act together, these Republicans can save the nation from Trump’s deepening autocracy. If they do not and American democracy goes down, it will be to their everlasting shame that they knew the danger but lacked the principles and courage to stand up.
December 15, the day the Bill of Rights was adopted 226 years ago, is rapidly approaching. Wouldn’t it be fine if these seven honored the day by emulating Senator Smith and her six fellow Republicans with an updated Declaration of Conscience?