The new movie “Oppenheimer”, a worldwide smash box office success, brings back to our consciousness not only the development of the atomic bomb and all the moral dilemma associated with it but also the toxic political environment resulting from Joseph McCarthy’s notoriously unsupported public accusations of communist affiliations when he chaired the Senate Government Operations Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) in 1953-1954. It was the early 1950s, America was coming out of World War II, and much is different today, but some of the same tactics are now seemingly deployed by the House Judiciary Committee under the chairmanship of Congressman Jim Jordan.
They include using unproven biased testimony and witness intimidation during Trump’s impeachment proceedings. Such tactics proved immensely effective back in McCarthy’s time, as he rode the widespread hysteria that developed around a threat of communist activity in support of the then Soviet Union. He manipulated fears to his advantage and this resulted in stripping Oppenheimer of his crucial security clearance in June 1954 by a closed, and internal process of the US Atomic Energy Commission. The injustice remained until 2023, when the Biden Administration reversed that decision stating his clearance had been wrongly revoked.
It would seem that the tactics employed by McCarthy in the Senate and the leadership of the House Un-American Activities Committee are still alive and well. That this is the case is reflected in the House Select Sub-Committee on “Weaponization of the Federal Government”: Its hearings to date have supported highly controversial witnesses who have testified without allowing committee members to ask questions and assess the evidence and statements made.
It is therefore worthwhile to look more closely at the McCarthy Era experience and in particular this recent Congressional behavior and take the measure of the potential risks to citizen trust in the legislative branch of the U.S. Government.
Moreover, we should be aware that the problem can extend to the other two branches of government as well. In 1866, in a case entitled Ex Parte Milligan, and on a very different matter, the Supreme Court opined that the United States “has no right to expect that it will always have wise and humane rulers, sincerely attached to the principles of the Constitution”. While the focus was on the U.S. Presidency, this statement is applicable to all three branches of government.
The French political philosopher Joseph de Maitre said, “Every nation has the government it deserves”. The United States is at a crucial inflection point in charting its future course, as are many others.
Setting the context: The role of Congress
Throughout the history of the United States, Congress has played a crucial role in upholding democracy and ensuring the security of its citizens. The work of congressional committees has often been a subject of scrutiny, especially when it involves controversial investigations that touch on national security and loyalty to the nation.
There are similarities between Congressman Jim Jordan’s conduct of the House Judiciary Committee as its current chairman, and Senator McCarthy as chair of the Senate Government Operations Permanent Sub-Committee n Investigations (PSI), and those who were in charge of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the 1950s (it was only abolished in 1975).
Under vague mandates, these Subcommittee investigations touched on almost every aspect of American society. At the time the public’s perception was heavily influenced public perception, with major political impact. Conceivably it could be an indication of how the current House Select Sub-Committee will use its broad mandate in the future, and what kind of future impact it will have.
The investigations: Parallels between McCarthy and Jordan
Senator McCarthy used his position to target individuals or groups perceived as “Un-American“ threats, which broadly encompassed dangers to national security.
Different now with much of the focus on domestic social issues, Congressman Jordan is one of those who lead the attack against those considered “woke” (whatever that term means) or opposed to Presidential candidate Trump and his MAGA talking points, and supporters.
McCarthyism’s approach: In the early 1950s, Senator McCarthy and like-minded others claimed their main purpose was to uncover alleged communist sympathizers in various fields, including the federal government (State Department, U.S. Army, Government Printing Office), academia, media, and Hollywood.
They unrelentlessly pursued private citizens during public hearings which were televised and characterized by ultra-aggressive questioning, intimidation, and accusations, often without substantial evidence.
Jordan’s approach: In 2019 Congressman Jordan was given a place on the House Intelligence Committee for him to mount a fierce defense of then-President Trump during the second impeachment proceedings.
Jordan used this platform to unceasingly cast dispersions on the integrity of witnesses and undermine their credibility. These tactics have been brought to bear by Jordan, who is joined by other like-minded committee members, during the current House Select Sub-Committee hearings on the “Weaponization of the Federal Government”.
Effects on individuals
Televised and other media treatment of Congressional witnesses often has a major impact in shaping public perceptions of both those who testify and those who conduct the hearings.
McCarthy Attacks on Individuals: The Senate PSI Subcommittee hearings invoked fear and paranoia, and Senator McCarthy was the most vocal and visible public face, causing many of those “named” to face loss of employment, abandoned by friends, and ostracized by neighbors.
In fact, unsubstantiated accusations meant that innocent people were blacklisted, the careers ruined for professors, school teachers, writers, actors, and scientists, with some of the accused committing suicide.
Jordan’s witnesses: While so far not as extreme, some of the former Trump administration officials who spoke out at the impeachment hearings faced similar intense scrutiny and pressure. Jordan’s aim was to discredit their testimonies and paint them as politically motivated or lacking credibility. Witnesses faced public threats and harassment.
In the 2023 Jordan-led hearings, both career and political appointees are facing similar vilification, a recent example being the Director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, who was initially appointed by Trump.
Impact on the Body Politic
The effect of both Jordan’s and the McCarthyite actions extended well beyond the damage to individual reputations, and the confines of congressional hearings. The public gets its information, its “news” from a myriad of polarized information sources, accessible by anyone and everyone.
The McCarthy impact: McCarthy’s high profile not only captured the public’s attention with his understanding of the power of television, a new medium at the time, but he used it to create an atmosphere of fear and societal paranoia.
Widespread panic and moral panic permeated society, leading to the erosion of civil liberties, infringement on human rights, and the destruction of innocent careers.
The Jordan impact: Jordan’s combative style during the impeachment hearings and now the “Weaponization of the Federal Government” hearings contribute to a divisive political atmosphere, deepening mistrust in institutions and widening the partisan divide
Political Impact in the Past and Prospects in Future
McCarthyism’s legacy: While the attacks on individuals initially garnered support from many conservative politicians and constituents, its eventual downfall came with the realization that these investigations often relied on questionable tactics and unsubstantiated claims.
Their legacy is therefore one that remains a stain on American democracy, challenging the role and responsibility of congressional committees.
Jordan’s “potential” legacy: It is too early to tell whether Congressman Jordan’s influence is short or long-lasting. That said, he has already garnered significant attention in the political biosphere, in all forms of the media, and with the public.
Only events and time will tell if he becomes a significant polarizing figure.
We Need to Learn from the Past
Congressman Jim Jordan’s handling of the House Judiciary Committee and Sub-Committee to some degree, parallels McCarthy’s approach to destroying witnesses by heavy and unremitting attacks on their credibility.The modus vivendi was and is to aggressively investigate, discredit witnesses, and influence public perception, with political impact objectives.
Jordan’s actions and the consequences of his approach will be seen if it loses traction and attention or proves an effective modus operandi to orient and substantially damage public perceptions of government operations, and eventually, the reputation and integrity of Congress itself.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com. In the featured photo: U.S. Congressman Jim Jordan speaking with attendees at the 2021 AmericaFest at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Source: Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America (cc)