Sixty-five years ago, America faced the challenge of a snarling demagogue, who captured the imagination of millions of people by fusing legitimate fears of external enemies with the cultural, regional, and race/ethnic resentments of people who disliked the changing nature of postwar America. Then, as now, this demagogue could draw upon fed off of a general weariness with worthy but imperfect and occasionally complacent liberal political leaders, weary with the grind of military stalemates and inconclusive long wars.
Then, as now, the demagogue had apologists and enablers who wanted to see him defeated, but who would not take the risks or bear the political costs of confronting him. Then, as now, his opponents were divided and hesitant in their efforts to formulate an effective response. They debated among themselves whether and how they should distinguish the demagogue as an individual figure from the Republican Party and the specific constituencies that gave him a congenial home.
Of course, history doesn’t repeat itself. Donald Trump is no Joe McCarthy. For one thing, President Eisenhower and other Republican gatekeepers never allowed McCarthy anywhere near their party’s nomination for president. For another, America is a much more cosmopolitan and diverse nation in 2016 than it was after the Korean war.
History does sometimes rhyme. Thursday night’s festivities and the Democratic National Convention brought an unexpected echo. The occasion was a speech by a 65-year-old immigration lawyer I had never seen before: Khizr Khan, of Charlottesville Virginia, whose son Humayun, a decorated US Army Captain, was killed at age 27 by a suicide bomber in Iraq. The elder Mr. Khan came to America in 1980. He has spent more than half of his life in the U.S. His oldest son founded a biotech company where his younger son now works.
Mr. Khan brings a quiet gravity that reminds me of many Muslim colleagues with whom I have crossed paths in public health. Visit any safety-net clinic in Michigan or Illinois. You’ll likely meet men and women ministering to the sick and to the poor whose background and bearing bear obvious similarity to the Khans’.
Mr. Khan brought no written speech to the DNC. He didn’t load anything into the TelePrompTer. He brought only his personal eloquence, and his proud memories of his deceased son. In barely six minutes, this grieving father delivered the blistering response Donald Trump deserved: Khan dispatched Trump’s bluster with an anger made more powerful by its utter lack of the usual political rehearsal and polish:
Let me ask you: have you even read the United States constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy. [he pulls it out] In this document, look for the words ‘liberty’ and ‘equal protection of law’.
Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America.
You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.
We cannot solve our problems by building walls, sowing division. We are stronger together.
Khan’s words called to mind another unexpected moment, when another dignified lawyer rebuked Senator Joe McCarthy more than sixty years ago for smearing the reputation of a junior associate on national television.
Welch wounded McCarthy deeply with his famous question: Have you no sense of decency, Sir.
Khan’s genuine anger–“You have sacrificed nothing and no one”—provided an equally unexpected, electrifying moment.
Like Joseph Welch, Mr. Khan exposed the political and personal ugliness of Trump’s rhetoric and behavior. In every way, the Khan family is the antithesis of Trump’s snarling rhetoric. That family’s life experience puts the lie to the anti-immigrant demagoguery bubbling over this election year.
And like Joseph McCarthy, Donald Trump didn’t seem to comprehend what was at stake, or the conclusions millions of us will draw about him as a person from this exchange. Instead, Trump confirmed every item in Khan’s indictment with his own, nearly impossibly boorish and tone-deaf response.
When Maureen Dowd asked him about Khan’s comments, here is Trump’s response: “I’d like to hear his wife say something.” For the record, Mrs. Khan has said that she becomes quite emotional when discussing her deceased son. But she has thanked America for “listening to my husband’s and my heart.”
PS…. Great minds. James Fallows over at the Atlantic.