Sixty-five years ago, America faced the challenge of a snarling demagogue, who captured the imagination of millions by fusing legitimate fears of an external enemy with the cultural, regional and demographic resentments of people who disliked the changing nature of our postwar country. Then, as now, a demagogue could draw upon widespread weariness with imperfect and occasionally complacent liberal leaders, important or petty security scandals, the grind of military stalemate in an inconclusive long war.
Then, as now, the demagogue benefited from apologists and enablers who privately wanted him defeated, but who would not take risks or bear political costs to openly confront him. Then, as now, his political adversaries were divided and hesitant in their efforts to formulate an effective response. Then, as now, parts of the Republican Party gave a vicious demagogue a congenial political home.
Of course, history doesn’t repeat itself. Donald Trump is no Joe McCarthy. For one thing, President Eisenhower and other Republican gatekeepers never allowed McCarthy near their party’s nomination for president. For another, America is a far more cosmopolitan and diverse nation today than it was at the close of the Korean War.
But history does sometimes rhyme. The Democratic National Convention brought an unexpected echo of the McCarthy era. The occasion was a speech by the 65-year-old immigration lawyer Khizr Khan, of Charlottesville, Va. Khan’s son Humayun, a posthumously decorated Army captain, was killed by a suicide bomber in Iraq. The elder Khan immigrated in 1980. He has spent more than half of his life in the U.S. His oldest son founded a biotech company where his younger son now works.
Khan brought instead his personal eloquence, and his proud memories of a deceased son. In six minutes, the grieving father delivered the blistering response Donald Trump deserved: Khan dispatched Trump’s bluster with an anger made more powerful by its lack of political artifice or the usual focus-grouped finish.*
“Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery?” he asked. “Go look at the graves of brave patriots who died defending the United States of America. You will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”
Khan’s words call to mind another unexpected moment from more than 60 years ago, when another dignified lawyer rebuked Sen. Joe McCarthy.
Joe Welch, a lifelong Republican, was special counsel to the army and a partner at Hale and Dore. He was sitting in on a hearing about special treatment for a McCarthy aide. McCarthy was on the defensive, and he lashed out. On live TV, the senator accused Fred Fischer, Welch’s young associate, of belonging to a “Communist front organization,” the National Lawyers Guild.
Welch drew blood from McCarthy with his famous question: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
The question answered itself. It emboldened McCarthy’s enemies and gave new reasons for McCarthy’s prior defenders to move on. Welch cut through a national debate powered by fears of secret enemies in our midst. He called attention to McCarthy’s cruelty toward a single sympathetic person. In these early days of television, millions of Americans watched it live, and had never seen anything quite like it.
Khan’s genuine anger — “You have sacrificed nothing and no one” — provided an equally unexpected, electrifying moment. In every way, the Khan family rebuts Trump’s snarling rhetoric. Their life story puts the lie to the anti-immigrant demagoguery that bubbles over this election year.
Like McCarthy, Donald Trump did not seem chastened by the exchange. When New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd asked him about Khan’s speech, Trump replied, “I’d like to hear his wife say something.” On ABC, Trump added: “His wife, if you look at his wife, she was standing there. She had nothing to say. She probably, maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”
The ugly intimations are plain enough. For the record, Mrs. Khan participated in a heartbreaking MSNBC interview describing her grief at the loss of her son. She also thanked America for “listening to my husband’s and my heart.” And on July 31, she wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Post.
Like McCarthy, Trump derives political advantage from sheer shamelessness, his willingness to wildly attack others. Yet shamelessness creates vulnerabilities and blind spots, too. Trump’s words betray a strange, indecency toward two Gold Star parents grieving the loss of their son.
Millions of voters are tempted to embrace sweeping rhetoric directed against Muslim Americans and other minorities. That’s a reality of American life. But these attacks lose their potency when they’re directed not against abstraction but particular, sympathetic human beings. Americans saw for themselves that Khizr Khan is the better man, the better American, than Donald Trump ever will be.
A version of this article appeared on SameFact. It’s been updated to reflect that Khan did bring a written speech to the convention and that it was loaded into the teleprompter.