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It’s Time for Another Declaration of Conscience

Margaret Chase Smith’s classic speech turns 70—and the GOP should use the occasion for some serious soul-searching.
by Jim Swift
June 1, 2020
It’s Time for Another Declaration of Conscience
Senator Margaret Chase Smith, Republican of Maine, in 1949, her first year in office.

Seventy years ago today, freshman senator Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican from Maine, gave the most consequential speech of her career. Here’s how the Senate historian’s office tells it:

As Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine boarded the Senate subway, she encountered the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. “Margaret, you look very serious,” he said. “Are you going to make a speech?” Without hesitation, Smith replied: “Yes, and you will not like it!”

This speech, delivered almost a year and a half after she came to the Senate, was Smith’s first speech on the Senate floor. She was no neophyte as a legislator; she had served in the House for nearly a decade before her election to the Senate in 1948—which made her, incidentally, the first woman to serve in both houses of Congress. But by tradition, new senators did not speak on the floor until, after many months of waiting, they gave their “maiden speeches.”

McCarthy, of course, is today remembered as a Senate bully who abused his power in his efforts to investigate Communists—real and alleged—and drag them before the world’s greatest deliberative body to answer for their sins. He was still just getting started by this point in 1950; he gave his first famous speech, the one in which he waved a list of 205 supposed Communists in the State Department, earlier that year. Over the next four years, he would be one of the dominant figures in the Red Scare before his eventual disgrace.

The parallels between McCarthyism and Trumpism are striking—although, in keeping with the times, Trumpian show trials take place on Twitter and the echo chamber of conservative opinionating on cable, talk radio, and the web.

It’s worth your time to read Smith’s entire speech (which took her about 15 minutes to deliver). But there are aspects worth highlighting as they apply to the politics of today.

Mr. President, I would like to speak briefly and simply about a serious 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. It is a condition that comes from the lack of effective leadership either in the legislative branch or the executive branch of our government.

As our own Congress continues its slow, do-little glidepath to the contentious 2020 elections, and as President Trump tweets while our cities burn, our national feeling is certainly one of fear and frustration.

“I speak as a Republican. I speak as a woman. I speak as a United States senator. I speak as an American,” Smith said. The first of five topics she tackled was how the Senate had become “a forum of hate and character assassination.”

I don’t think I need to tell you, dear reader, that we have problems with hate and character assassination in our politics today, and they start at the top. But it’s corrupted political discourse all the way down—not just down to the level of senators and representatives, but down to local officials. Smith’s intent was basically to indict McCarthy (without naming him) for lobbing accusations from the safety of the Senate. “Whether it be a criminal prosecution in court or a character prosecution in the Senate,” Smith said, “there is little practical distinction when the life of a person has been ruined.” Today, it’s the attack machine of the president, his official defenders in the administration, his apologists in conservative media, and his followers in social media who seek to destroy anyone who stands against him.

Smith next tackles “the basic principles of Americanism.” It amounts to a succinct explanation of the “liberal” side of what makes the United States a “liberal democracy”:

Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism.

The right to criticize.

The right to hold unpopular beliefs.

The right to protest.

The right of independent thought.

The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation or his right to a livelihood nor should he be in danger of losing his reputation or livelihood merely because he happens to know someone who holds unpopular beliefs.

Judging by that passage, Smith—who died in 1995, just shy of 100—would be horrified by today’s America. One need only log onto Twitter to see tribalist witch hunts going every which way. Usually, they’re tied to one of these “basic principles of Americanism.” Often, what people said was ill advised or stupid, but the responses are often also ill advised or stupid. People push for firings, retribution. Memories are long. Digital trench warfare goes on and on without end. Donald Trump didn’t create this dynamic, but there’s no doubt that day after day, he makes it worse.

And conservative critics of Trump and Trumpism today often fare about as well as Smith did. After her speech, McCarthy called her (and the six senators who signed onto her declaration) “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.” Just the sort of juvenile name-calling President Trump relishes.

Like McCarthy, Trump is able get away with smearing others because of a “nationwide distrust,” as Smith called it, one that creates a “strong suspicion that there may be something to the unproved, sensational accusations.”

Ask Joe Scarborough.

Since politicians, activists and pundits can only plausibly police their own, Smith offered “a challenge to the Republican party”:

Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of “know nothing, suspect everything” attitudes.

Smith then pointed out that her fellow Republicans were missing opportunities for substantive policy leadership—like fighting the “loose spending” and “loose programs” and ineffective global leadership of the Truman administration—by taking their divisive approach to politics. Sound familiar? Think of all the wasted time and lost opportunities during the last four years. How many “infrastructure weeks” have we had now?

The nation “sorely needs a Republican victory,” Smith said, but she did not “want to see the Republican party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry, and Smear.”

That list right there—fear, ignorance, bigotry, and smear—could well be the slogan of Trumpism.

Could the Republican party ride to victory on those four horses? Smith didn’t think so: “I doubt if the Republican party could do so, simply because I do not believe the American people will uphold any political party that puts political exploitation above national interest. Surely we Republicans are not that desperate for victory.”

Smith, as it happened, was wrong before she was right. Her Republican party increasingly did turn toward McCarthyism, and the party won both chambers of Congress and the presidency in 1952. (Eisenhower’s platform that year: “Korea, Communism, and Corruption.”) But within a couple of years, the country, and the leadership of the party, had sickened of McCarthyism, and in 1954 the Senate came around to censuring McCarthy. Three years after that he was dead.

The Senate, Smith warned, had become “a rendezvous for vilification, for selfish political gain at the sacrifice of individual reputations and national unity.”

It’s hard to imagine any of today’s Republican senators, save for perhaps Mitt Romney, doing what Smith did next: release a declaration of principles from herself and six colleagues. Here is the entirety of that declaration:

1. 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. Democrats and Republicans alike have contributed to that confusion.

2. The Democratic administration has initially created the confusion by its lack of effective leadership, by its contradictory grave warnings and optimistic assurances, by its complacency to the threat of communism here at home, by its oversensitiveness to rightful criticism, by its petty bitterness against its critics.

3. 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.

4. To this extent, Democrats and Republicans alike have unwittingly, but undeniably, played directly into the Communist design of “confuse, divide, and conquer.”

5. 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.

Five easy-to-understand principles that, with some updating, apply to the world of 2020 as much as they did in 1950. If you’re reading these and thinking “Yes, but…” then perhaps it’s too late for us to heed Smith’s warning.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.