Kevin McCarthyism: Why the GOP's culture war on the troops will end badly
MAGA Republicans could learn a lot from the fall of another notorious McCarthy.
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Today’s Republican Party could learn a lot from “Tailgunner” Joe McCarthy’s disastrous effort 70 years ago to treat the military as a right-wing political plaything.
During the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower prevented McCarthy, then a Republican senator from Wisconsin, from running the Republican Party over a political cliff by engulfing the Army in his reckless red baiting. Unfortunately, however, Joe’s namesake, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, along with several other GOP leaders, now seems determined to throw his party over the ledge.
In recent months, the far right — after spending years relentlessly attacking local school boards, public health agencies, and even Bud Light and Disney — has begun to direct its culture warring at the nation’s military, and particularly Black, women, and LGBTQ service members. Apart from both being dangerous to national security and morally abhorrent, history teaches that such a political attack on the military could backfire on the GOP, big time.
Tuberville drags the military into the culture war
Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville, perhaps the most embarrassing member of the Senate GOP caucus, was among the first Republicans to declare culture war on the nation’s military.
Tuberville responded to reports that some fascist groups have made inroads in the military by asserting that the armed forces should welcome white supremacists. According to Tuberville, “a white nationalist is simply ‘an American.’”
In addition to taking up the cause of protecting bigots in the military, Tuberville has spent the last several months endangering national security in order to attack the reproductive rights of service members.
In March, Tuberville began unilaterally blocking the confirmation of the Pentagon’s nominees for promotions throughout the military to protest a policy of granting leave to, and paying the travel expenses of, service members who need to leave the states where they are stationed to obtain abortion care. This came on the heels of the enactment of a wave of anti-reproductive rights laws by GOP-controlled states following the Dobbs decision.
At last count, Tuberville had blocked the confirmation of more than 260 such nominations, including the new commandant of the Marines, causing what Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently described as a “cascade” of damage to the military that is rippling throughout the “entire chain of command,” harming officers and their families alike. Austin has further stated that Tuberville’s blockade is making the nation’s adversaries happy, and has created a risk to national security.
In the face of this fiasco, one would expect savvy Republican leaders to distance themselves from Tuberville and his tactics, particularly given that the GOP has for decades devoted great effort to identifying the party with the nation’s military, and to seeking the votes of service members, their families, and veterans.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell did just that, and has publicly criticized Tuberville’s tactics. But Speaker McCarthy chose the opposite course, and decided to double down on the Tuberville strategy by declaring a full blown cultural assault on the nation’s military and those who serve in it.
McCarthy caves to extremists
The vehicle for McCarthy’s attack on the military is the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an $886 billion piece of legislation that includes the budget of, and sets forth the expenditures allowed to, the entire Defense Department. The annual bill is typically passed on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis. And that is just what happened this year in the House Armed Services Committee and full Senate after months of negotiations.
But immediately prior to a vote on the bill by the entire House, McCarthy allowed members of his caucus to add a veritable wish list of amendments that were transparently calculated to pander to every current right-wing preoccupation, and to antagonize, and outright harm, huge swaths of the nation’s service members.
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Predictably, the bill was amended to prevent the military services from reimbursing service members for the cost of travel required to obtain reproductive health and fertility care. But that’s only the beginning.
Mirroring policies advocated by Florida’s Ron DeSantis and other extremist governors, the bill would eviscerate diversity and inclusion programs in military services that increasingly rely upon recruiting and retaining non-white and female individuals. It would also bar service academies from engaging in affirmative action in admissions. Notably, even the Supreme Court’s right-wing supermajority expressly refused to take this step in its recent affirmative action decision, recognizing the “distinct interests that military academies may present.”
Additionally, the amendments were littered with gratuitous anti-LGBTQ provisions. Apart from barring coverage for gender affirming care, the GOP even included a ban on the flying of rainbow flags at military installations.
Taking another page from the DeSantis playbook, the GOP’s amendments also attempt to censor the libraries of military-run schools, banning so-called “radical gender ideology books”
In sum, the GOP rewrote the carefully negotiated NDAA in a manner patently designed to antagonize, and express antipathy, if not outright bigotry, toward virtually every non-white, non-straight, and non-male member of the armed forces. But history teaches that such attacks do not end well.
The lesson of Joe McCarthy
Soon after the end of World War II, with the rapid eruption of the Cold War, communism became the singular enemy of the United States, and was increasingly viewed as a threat by most Americans — liberals and conservatives alike.
But for the many on the right, the nation’s growing preoccupation with the red menace was an opportunity to go well beyond uncovering actual Russian agents, and to target liberals throughout the government who happened to be associated with FDR’s New Deal programs, which the GOP was still committed to reversing.
It was perhaps inevitable, then, that anticommunism would rapidly morph into what we today would describe as a culture war in which many Americans, most of whom had never even met a member of the Communist Party, would have to choose sides.
In 1950, in the midst of the rapidly growing anticommunist fervor, Joe McCarthy, then best known for his advocacy on behalf of Nazi war criminals, saw his political opportunity. He announced that he possessed a list of what he claimed to be 250 State Department employees who were purportedly “known communists.” McCarthy never released that list, and, when pressed, reduced the number of hidden reds in the nation’s diplomatic corps to 57. The absence of evidence supporting McCarthy’s claims, however, didn’t seem to matter. During the first half of the 1950s, he became a national figure, and an increasingly popular one.
Former General Dwight Eisenhower, who rode his reputation as the Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II into the White House as a Republican, was privately repulsed by McCarthy and some other excesses of the anticommunist mania. When, in the midst of the 1952 presidential campaign, McCarthy trained his sites on Eisenhower’s mentor, former General George C. Marshall, Eisenhower initially resolved to give a speech condemning McCarthy. But upon considering that McCarthy had become leader of a political phenomenon that was consuming much of the GOP base, Eisenhower ultimately decided to keep silent, and scrubbed any mention of Marshall or McCarthy from his campaign address.
In the face of the new president’s silence, McCarthy’s popularity only grew. By 1953, polls indicated that over half of Americans approved of McCarthy and his tactics, which relied heavily on guilt by association and innuendos that conveniently seemed to fall exclusively on political opponents of the GOP’s far right wing.
In 1954, then-President Eisenhower again stood by and permitted Edward Teller and other members of the security establishment who — aggrieved at Manhattan Project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer’s opposition to nihilistic plans to develop a hydrogen bomb — connived to engineer the stripping of Oppenheimer’s security clearance, based on trumped-up charges of disloyalty arising from his close associations with members of the Communist Party.
But then McCarthy made a fatal error. In 1954, he went beyond his reckless attacks on persons and governmental institutions associated with FDR and his pre-war New Deal and attempted an assault on the Army. When McCarthy declared he had evidence that the Army was laced with secret communists, the president saw his opening.
The military, and the Army in particular, was becoming an institution that mirrored the nation as a whole. Most draft-age men had served in the military during the Second World War or during the Korean War. That included historically large numbers of Black Americans, the result of President Truman’s formal order to end segregation in the military, an order that Eisenhower went on to enforce.
As a former five-star general, Eisenhower well knew that in attacking the Army, McCarthy had managed to place himself at odds with an institution that most Americans strongly identified with. Eisenhower recognized the opportunity and ordered the release of embarrassing information regarding McCarthy, including his efforts to obtain preferential treatment by the Army for his own assistant. And, in a shocking turnabout, planned at Eisenhower’s direction, hearings in the Senate (which McCarthy had long used as the stage for his own theatrical denunciations of enemies) became an inquisition of McCarthy himself.
Ultimately, again with pressure from the president, a number of GOP senators voted in favor of a resolution to censure McCarthy (which passed by a vote of 67-22 in December 1954), and the disgraced senator died of alcoholism a few years later. While the excesses of what history has now labeled McCarthyism continued well after the fall of its most famous practitioner, the Army-McCarthy hearings proved to be the beginning of the end of the McCarthy Era.
In retrospect, it is now clear why the Army-McCarthy hearings were such an important step in beginning to break the mania that was consuming the nation. For the first time, red baiting was shown for what it was — un-American — largely because most citizens saw McCarthy as unfairly targeting an institution, the military, that so many of them identified with.
Kevin McCarthy emulates Joe McCarthy, not Dwight Eisenhower
Kevin McCarthy, who was willing to endure the embarrassment of 15 ballots (and reportedly made secret deals) to secure his position as speaker, is known far more for his tolerance for self-abnegation than for his skill as a political strategist.
Like Joe, Kevin McCarthy has achieved his long-sought position of power by pandering to, and exploiting, a wave of increasing extremism, paranoia, and outright bigotry in his party. But also like Joe, Kevin may find himself (and possibly his slender House majority) undone by his own decision to extend his party’s culture war into an assault on the nation’s military.
Treating the military as a political plaything, much as DeSantis has done to Disney and as House Republicans have with the FBI, risks angering a wide swath of Americans, many of them otherwise supportive of the GOP. This is particularly true given that the composition of the military services is in a process of change at least as significant as that which occurred during Joe McCarthy’s time.
Nearly half of today’s military is non-white, 16 percent of service members are women, and roughly 79,000 are members of the LGBTQ community. And the GOP’s legislation is, at its core, also an institutional attack on the entirety of the armed forces — a conclusion underlined by the damage Tuberville is doing to military readiness every day. The GOP’s bet that it can get away with attacking large swaths of the military, much as it has attacked teachers and cartoon characters, may be a bad one.
Far from defending the military as Eisenhower did, Kevin McCarthy has taken the opposite approach, embracing extremist attacks on those who serve and demanding that nearly every GOP House member taint themselves by voting for a culture-warring bill that’s targeted like a weapon at large cohorts of the nation’s service members, many of whom are the daughters, sons, and spouses of GOP voters.
South Carolina Rep. Nancy Mace, herself a victim of sexual violence while attending a military academy, said she was “pissed” at members of her party for being “assholes” toward women, but went ahead and voted for the bill anyway. Other members of her caucus who were critical of the bill did the same, some (publicly or privately) declaring that their votes did not matter, because much of the bigoted and misogynistic measures will almost certainly be stripped out of the bill by a House/Senate conference committee. But these legislators miss the point entirely, as the message the GOP has been sending has been received, loud and clear.
This is all the more certain given that DeSantis — a rapidly failing, but still prominent, GOP presidential candidate — chose last month to incorporate the most deliberately antagonistic elements of the GOP’s NDAA bill into his campaign.
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Indeed, DeSantis chose to up the ante, baselessly declaring that the military services are advancing unqualified (“woke,” as he puts it) candidates for promotion, calling women service members forced to travel to obtain reproductive health services “abortion tourists” and suggesting that — if he wins the election — he will attempt to wholly ban transgender Americans from serving in the military. DeSantis’s declarations will, inevitably, pressure other Republican candidates to make the new culture war on the military part of their campaign platforms as well. DeSantis has also expressly endorsed Tuberville’s stonewalling of military promotions.
President Biden has, unsurprisingly, recognized the political hole the GOP is digging for itself by attacking the military, observing: “Tens of thousands of America’s daughters and sons are deployed around the world tonight keeping us safe from immense national security challenges. But the senator from Alabama [Tuberville] is not.” Yet, as explained, the GOP House caucus has, effectively, joined DeSantis in endorsing Tuberville’s nihilistic and politically irrational gambit.
For Joe McCarthy, uncovering actual communists was never the point; terrorizing the innocent and creating a culture of fear was. The same is true of the GOP’s culture warring. And when voters see their most treasured institutions, and even members of their own families, on the receiving end of such attacks, they won’t soon forget.
That’s it for today
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