Watching the Trump Administration Unravel Is a Schadenfreude Delighttags: McCarthyism, Trump, Joe McCarthy
David P. Barash is professor of psychology emeritus at the University of Washington, and the author of numerous articles and books, including Peace and Conflict Studies, 4th ed. (with C. Webel, Sage, 2017), the forthcoming Approaches to Peace, 4th ed. (Oxford University Press, 2017), as well as Paradigms Lost: The Pain and Pleasure of Seeing Ourselves as We Really Are (Oxford University Press, 2018). With Judith Eve Lipton, he is currently researching a book taking issue with nuclear deterrence.
Trump can’t stop tweeting; fine for him, since he obviously doesn’t have anything important or beneficial for the country, or the world, to do with his time. In fact, I hope he keeps it up, or even increases his bizarre outbursts—especially given his current impeachable and perhaps criminal entanglements—insofar as this activity corresponds to the legal warning that fish mostly get hooked because they’ve opened their mouths. But what about me? I don’t tweet and have no legal liabilities, but having just retired from my university teaching job, I have many benevolent demands on my time: wife, children, six grandchildren, contributing to the anti-Trump resistance, as well as the maintenance of two horses, a goat, four dogs, four cats, a 10-acre farm, and several book projects underway. Yet I can’t seem to tear myself away from the ongoing legal-political-ethical-personal soap opera that has the Orange One at its center.
I’m reminded of one of my earliest clear memories, the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1953, which was the first such event televised. I vividly recall my mother glued to our TV, a large wood cabinet with a tiny black and white screen, for literally days on end. Once I even stayed home from school because she was so hooked by the unfolding drama that she forgot to take me there. It was the first of what was to become a periodic punctuation in many people’s news-watching lives: the launch of Sputnik, Kennedy’s assassination, the first moon landing, Watergate, the Anita Hill hearings, Clinton’s impeachment. But the Army-McCarthy hearings – precipitated when Tailgunner Joe went too far, and included the U. S. Army in his smear campaign – was the beginning, so engrossing that it gave rise to a song, “The Senator McCarthy Blues,” by the Atomic Platters. There doesn’t appear to be a YouTube clip of it, but the hilarious lyrics (including “Mommy, mommy, where’s the commie”) are retrievable here. The song also bespeaks the prevailing ethos of its time, with a man bemoaning that because his wife spends all her time glued to the hearings, dinner goes uncooked, the floor unwashed, and so forth.
Back to 2017 and my delight and fascination as the noose tightens around Trump’s neck so that if nothing else, his presidency and what I see as his loathsome policy agenda are both increasingly derailed. Why am I caught like this? Sure, I’m rooting for maximum disclosure, pain, embarrassment, and devastating fallout—political no less than legal—from this unfolding story. But it will play out without me, no differently than with. Maybe I’m just a sucker for a kind of newsworthy gossip (although I eschew anything about celebrity culture), or—more likely—having suffered genuine psychic trauma in the aftermath of the November, 2016 election, I’m currently soaking up the Trump Troubles as a kind of soothing schadenfreude.
My mother would have understood—she felt about McCarthy pretty much as I do about Trump. My father didn’t sing the “Senator McCarthy Blues” when the sink was full of dishes and the washer, with unwashed clothes; he watched the Army-McCarthy hearings, too, whenever he could, just as my wife, like me, spends too much time following the Trump Troubles, enjoying sarcastic comedy clips and devastating political cartoons.
The key similarity, of course, between the Army-McCarthy hearings and the current Trump Troubles, is that both represent appropriate responses of government reining in rogue politicians. McCarthy was a serious threat to democracy and to basic human decency; so is Trump. McCarthy, however, wasn't literally a threat to the whole planet; Trump is. But into each life, even in the aftermath of a dubious and disastrous election, and a grave danger to all that I hold dear, a little sun will occasionally shine, albeit in this case via grave difficulties for someone I thoroughly detest. And that's not all: when we want entertainment that is equally compelling and even more cheery, we can watch the return of Twin Peaks!
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