In 1954, Joseph Welch, a lawyer in the Army-McCarthy hearings, famously posed the following question to U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy after the latter tried to smear a young lawyer as a some-time communist: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Most historians would agree that Welch’s now legendary query, broadcast on national television, played a role in terminating the senator’s demagogic reign of terror. As a historian myself and a longtime resident of McCarthy’s home neighborhood of Appleton, Wisconsin, and in light of our current demagogue-in-chief’s most recent indecency — a bigoted assault on four duly elected members of Congress who happen to be women of color — I think it’s high time that the Democrats dust off Welch’s playbook.
Welch’s intervention seems to have marked an emotional tipping point for many Americans for whom lacking “a sense of decency” induced a profound sense of shame. That has not changed, I think, which is one reason that the Age of Trump has left so many of us feeling deeply abashed by who we seem to have become as a people. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a conservative, has recently quoted a Pew Research Center poll that cites “large majorities of Americans who say ‘Trump’s comments often or sometimes make them feel concerned (76%), confused (70%), embarrassed (69%) and exhausted (67%).’”
Trump’s only genuine political talent has been his ability to convey a story, in hyper-masculinized terms, about American nationality, victory and wealth. To defeat him, a counter-narrative framed around decency might work especially well.
Decency is exclusive to no gender, race, sexual orientation or political party. Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren might all be said to exude an air of decency. So too might the likes of John McCain and Mitt Romney, not to mention such previous Republican presidents as Dwight Eisenhower. Unlike such easily "feminized" values as empathy and kindness, decency conjures an old-fashioned but gender-neutral sense of principled nobility — a willingness to play fair even in the midst of heated competition. One can imagine a Democratic candidate pointing to McCain’s decency during the 2008 election in his well-known rejoinder to the elderly white woman who identified Barack Obama as an “Arab” at a campaign rally. Indeed, McCain’s fair-minded, if slightly bigoted, response was telling: “No, ma’am, he’s a decent family man and citizen…”
Those who champion “decency,” in other words, might be strong — even warrior-like — but remain wedded to values that transcend the pleasures of victory. Decency requires that winning not be the only thing.
To call for a return to decency would be to make the election about what kind of people we want to be, rather than about the current political and cultural divide. Nobody — not even Trump and his much-ballyhooed base — wants to be labeled “indecent.” Indecency, as suggested above, is a source of shame. Synonyms for “indecent” include “coarse,” “crude,” “lewd” and “licentious” — common descriptors all of Donald Trump and his enablers. Thus, to suggest that we must return to decency is to suggest that the Trump White House is fundamentally indecent, which is hardly in doubt. The list of political notables on both sides of the aisle — and the Atlantic — who have publicly denounced Trump for his lack of decency (some citing Sen. McCarthy) include former Bush speech writer David Frum, Meghan McCain, Washington Post opinion writer Richard Cohen, and French President Emmanuel Macron. But Democrats must not let this truism remain “baked into the cake” as part of the Trump package. They must not be afraid to call that package what it is: indecent, and hence toxic to the body politic.
Trump’s most infamous crimes against decency — the Access Hollywood tape, the Charlottesville “good people on both sides” remark, his suggestion that he (and others) would accept opposition research from foreign foes, his overseeing of internment camp conditions on our southern border — should be cited repeatedly by the Democrats. Decency, moreover, may easily be tied to any Democratic policy position, be it immigration, race, health care, the wealth gap, sexual orientation or the embrace of the indecent abroad — the Putins, the Kim Jon Uns, the killers of Kashoggi — in favor of the decent democratic allies by whose side we have stood since World War II.
The Democrats should, of course, tout the appeal to decency as a universal American value, but should harbor no illusions about winning back Trump’s base. These voters are lost to the Fox News propaganda machine. And while they must relentlessly beat the bushes to bring out their own base, Democrats should assume that the election will be decided by independents and persuadable Republicans who might place national decency over party. For such voters, the moral and emotional resonance of decency — as opposed to moderation or even civility, both of which can be read as “soft” — might prove potent. The term supersedes the left-wing identity politics that many of these voters deplore and it strikes a nonpartisan chord of American strength and exceptionalism.
A decent America, Democrats must insist, is the strong, proud, morally engaged America that the world esteemed before the Age of Trump and will again esteem after it.
Political campaigns are by their very nature divisive. The Democratic campaign must divide the electorate, at least implicitly, not by opposing red to blue, Republican to Democrat, conservative to liberal, or any other ideological or cultural "us" to "them," but rather by opposing the decent to the indecent. Democrats should invite the voters to ask on which side of that line they want to envision themselves.
Paul M. Cohen is a professor of history and the Patricia Hamar Boldt Professor of Liberal Studies at Lawrence University in Appleton.
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