A McCarthy Moment for Donald Trump — And The GOP

Terrance Heath

Donald Trump’s response to a well deserved rebuke form the parents of a Muslim-American war hero should lead Republicans to ask whether their candidate has, at long last, no sense of decency.

It was a moment that shook the Democratic convention. With his wife Ghazala by his side, 65-year-old immigration lawyer, Khizr Khan, of Charlotte, Va., delivered the stinging rebuke that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has had coming since the moment he kicked of his presidential bid with an attack on immigrants, and called for a ban on Muslims entering the United States, following the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. The Khans mere presence on the stage, with the image of their son Humayun — a posthumously decorated Army captain, killed by suicide bomber in Iraq 12 years ago — looming on the screen above them was an effective repudiation of Trump’s rhetoric.

Then, with no written speech nor the guidance of the Teleprompter, Kahn spoke from the heart about his family’s emigration from the United Arab Emirates in 1980, and his memories of a son who sacrifice his life in the service of his country. Khan then delivered a blistering response to Trump’s xenophobic, fear mongering rhetoric. “Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?” he demanded. “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.”

As Harold Pollack wrote in the Washington Post, Khan’s words echoed an exchange that brought down another American demagogue more than 50 years ago, when special counsel the Army Joe Welch lashed out at Sen. Joseph McCarthy on live television. Fueled by national fears of insidious outsiders, for several years McCarthy waged a crusade to purge suspected communists and homosexuals from every level of government service, leaving ruined lives reputations in his wake. Welch, outraged by McCarthy’s cruel, gratuitous attack on the reputation of a young lawyer at his Boston firm, finally asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” The televised exchange sparked a decline in McCarthy’s public support.

A different candidate might have maintained a dignified silence, other than to honor the young Khan’s service, and sympathize with his parents’ grief. Trump, however, remained true to form, and his surrogates followed his example.

Despite Khizr Khan’s challenge, during a CNN interview, that Republicans have a “moral obligation” to repudiate Trump, the response from Republicans has been someone mixed.

  • A spokeswoman for House Speaker Paul Ryan issues a statement, without mentioning Trump’s name, saying, “The speaker has made clear many times that he rejects this idea, and himself has talked about how Muslim Americans have made the ultimate sacrifice for this country.”
  • Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called Capt. Humayun Khan “an American hero,” in a statement on Sunday. “I agree with the (Khans) and families across the country that a travel ban on all members of a religion is simply contrary to American values,” McConnell added.
  • Without mentioning Trump by name, Ohio governor John Kasich tweeted that, “honor and respect” are the only ways to discuss Gold Star families.
  • Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war, praised Capt. Khan as “an example of true American greatness,” in a statement on Monday. McCain added, “It is time for Donald Trump to set the example for our country and the future of the Republican Party. While our Party has bestowed upon him the nomination, it is not accompanied by unfettered license to defame those who are the best among us.”
  • Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who served in combat as a Marine, condemned Trump. “Having served in Iraq, I’m deeply offended when Donald Trump fails to honor the sacrifices of all our brave soldiers who were lost in that war,” Coffman said.
  • “Just when I think, Trump can’t possibly be a bigger jerk, he proves me wrong, tweeted Republican strategist An Navarro, calling Trump’s statements about the Khans ”gross”

Missing in most of the Republican responses is a repudiation of Trump himself. Despite his attacks on the Khans, and their condemnation of those attacks, Republicans are still supporting Trump’s campaign. At a campaign stop in Ohio on Sunday, Hillary Clinton, gave voice to the thoughts of many Americans horrified by Trump’s attack on a Gold Star family. “To launch an attack as he did on Captain Khan’s mother, a Gold Star mother, who stood there on that stage with her husband honoring the sacrifice of their son,” Clinton told reporters in Ashland, Ohio, “I don’t know where the bounds are. I don’t know where the bottom is.”

How low will Donald Trump go? It’s a shorter version of the question Joe Welch posed to Joseph McCarthy more than 60 years ago: Has he no sense of decency left?

Republicans run the risk of having voters pose the same question about their party. It’s possible there is no “bottom.” There may be no limit to how low Trump will go. But he will almost certainly take the GOP down with him.

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