New Yorker archive editor Erin Overbey presents a New Yorker classic, Arthur Miller’s “Why I Wrote ‘The Crucible’ ” In his 1996 retrospective, Miller explored how in 1950 McCarthy “was able to cow a legislative body comprised of accomplished, seasoned statesmen and women in less than a year.” If Miller were alive today he might be exploring how Trump was able to cow that same legislative body. The surface mechanics of how these two bullies operated are different in detail. But they both employ a fundamental sine qua non. The results were obvious yesterday when only one republican senator, Mitt Romney, had the courage, the conviction, to vote against Trump - and then he voted for only the first article on abuse of power, voting against the second article of impeachment, obstruction of congress. If there was nothing else obvious in the public record, it was Trump’s blanket stone-walling that prevented the House from getting testimony from those with first-hand knowledge of what Trump did and when he did it. And yet every single republican, including Romney, voted to acquit Trump of the obstruction charge. Cowed they were.
Here is Overbey’s article (with additional comments from your Scriber).
The playwright Arthur Miller once referred to theatre as “the art of the present tense.” Miller published more than thirty plays, in the course of nearly seven decades, including “A View from the Bridge” and “Death of a Salesman,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949. Between 1995 and 2002, he contributed six pieces to The New Yorker. His work is notable for its ability to confront large cultural themes in the most intimate, crystalline prose. In 1996, Miller published an essay in the magazine about the creation of his iconic drama “The Crucible,” and the period, during the nineteen-fifties, when Senator Joseph McCarthy helped generate a national firestorm by making widespread (and unsubstantiated) allegations of subversive activity against members of the U.S. government. McCarthy, Miller writes, appears almost comical in hindsight—“a self-aware performer keeping a straight face as he does his juicy threat-shtick.” Yet the senator from Wisconsin, employing an almost daily barrage of mudslinging and threats, was able to cow a legislative body comprised of accomplished, seasoned statesmen and women in less than a year. McCarthy’s threats and accusations had such a grip on the nation that otherwise sensible politicians and ordinary citizens were too unnerved to push back. “In those years, our thought processes were becoming so magical, so paranoid, that to imagine writing a play about this environment was like trying to pick one’s teeth with a ball of wool: I lacked the tools to illuminate miasma. Yet I kept being drawn back to it,” Miller writes. During his research, Miller discovered a historical parallel for the McCarthy scare, in the Salem witch trials of the seventeenth century. In the course of those trials, fear and paranoia spread like a fever, infecting the townspeople and unleashing a kind of mass frenzy. It was in this rich setting that Miller found a fitting backdrop for his parable about political persecution and demagoguery. The fever infecting Washington during his own time appeared all-consuming; no one wanted to speak out or stand up to McCarthy and his allies for fear that the senator’s ire would soon focus on him. During periods of political delirium, demagogues and other authoritarians can appear to be giants who hold unparalleled sway; yet in hindsight, Miller notes, even giants begin to look small. Miller’s great talent was his ability to see past the limitations of his own era, and to create a compelling work of art that vividly demonstrates what can occur when a political fever eventually breaks.
To borrow one of Trump’s (false) claims, there is indeed a witch-hunt underway. But that is Trump’s own version of the Salem witch trials updated in 1950 and now again in 2020. That is Trump’s political persecution of his “enemies” like former VP Joe Biden. Now, given given the senate’s cowardice, Trump is free to wreak vengeance on those who he believes have, as he said about Rep. Adam Schiff, "not paid the price, yet.”
In the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, Army attorney Joseph Welch confronted McCarthy this way:
“Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, “… You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
Overnight, McCarthy’s immense national popularity evaporated. [He was] censured by his Senate colleagues, ostracized by his party, and ignored by the press.
Substituting “Trump” for “McCarthy”, the answer is “no” - he has no sense of decency.
Unfortunately for our country, there are important differences between what happened to McCarthy and what is (not) happening to Trump. Trump was not censured by the senate (let alone convicted), not ostracized by Republicans, and not ignored by the press.