Whatever may be the truth or falsehood of President Trump’s Saturday tweets he clearly has no idea what he’s talking about.
Imagine, for the sake of argument, that in tracking the alleged Russian interference in the recent election, some form of “surveillance” was authorized somewhere in the Obama administration. It is far from inconceivable. The FBI Director, who should know, has declared that Trump is wrong, though given his own reckless meddling in the recent campaign, his authority is radically diminished.
What is not in doubt is that Trump’s choice of terms demonstrates his ignorance. His “tweets” charge President Obama with “McCarthyism” and “wiretapping” and label him “sick.” Even if these unsupported charges were true, the labels he uses are nonsensical
“Wiretapping,” for instance, is of fading usefulness in the world of satellites, drones and digital hacking. A wiretap, properly speaking, is a listening device attached to a land-line. It can be placed in either of only two ways: by breaking and entering, or with the connivance of a telephone company. If Trump were a serious follower of the news he would be aware of the noisy battles that followed 9/11, when telephone companies were found to be secretly and perhaps illegally collaborating in the surveillance of U. S. citizens, and as usual, in the name of “national security.”
Then, there is “McCarthyism,” Trump’s companion charge. Even if Obama had somehow “wiretapped” telephones in Trump Tower, that would not constitute McCarthyism in any recognizable historic sense. The despicable political vice called “McCarthyism” flourished from 1954, when Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin gained control of an obscure Senate subcommittee and turned it into his personal inquisition.
McCarthy’s intimidating abuse of power lasted for three years, before he was brought down by Lyndon Johnson, then majority leader in the Senate. It consisted of defamatory, often dubious or false charges (Trump’s specialty as well, as in his long insistence that Obama was was an unconstitutional president).
McCarthy’s special brand of demagoguery usually had to do with alleged subversion. His demagoguery carried him far before he took on the U. S. Army and in so doing exhausted President Eisenhower’s patience and passivity. McCarthy’s target in that misstep was the base commander of an Army dentist at Fort Monmouth, N. J., who, he said, was “unfit to wear the uniform.” McCarthy raised the cry, “who promoted Peress?” the name of the hapless dentist. (Actually, under the draft law his promotion to captain was automatic.) As Sen. Flanders of Vermont unforgettably put it, McCarthy “donned his war-paint” and “returned with the scalp of a pink dentist.” McCarthy’s exposure and downfall as a fraud and demagogue soon followed.
As for Trump’s blanket charge of “sickness,” there was never a sign of it in the Obama White House. It tempts resort to psychobabble as a form of self-projection.
If in the present political landscape there is one figure who may remind Americans with unsavory memories of Sen. Joe McCarthy, it may be the new man at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. His specialty seems to be the derogation of racial and religious minorities and women. Like McCarthy, he transmits rumor and hearsay wholesale and habitually besmirches the reputation of others. Obama, who has shown him undeserved courtesy, continues to be an obsessive target. For years, Trump questioned Obama’s presidential eligibility; now he has new charges, also without a shred of proof.
It is ever true: “Who robs my purse steals trash....But he who filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and leaves me poor indeed.”
It is disgraceful that a Chief Executive advertises such obsessions. Perhaps he should return to the management of golf courses and casinos.
Contributing columnist Edwin M. Yoder Jr. of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.