In "Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy," biographer Larry Tye recounts what one newspaper had to say about the man who until relatively recently held the award for the most dangerous despot in American history. "The simple truth," editorialized the Washington Post while the boozing con artist from Wisconsin was taking a wrecking ball to our democratic institutions, "is that what Ponzi was to finance and what fortune-telling is to science, Joseph McCarthy is to politics."
Former President Donald Trump has rewritten our national story in more ways than one. In his clinically notable dishonesty and in the threat he has posed and still poses to America's democracy and soul, Trump makes McCarthy look like Woodrow Wilson by comparison. The frantic attempt by Mar-a-Lago's answer to Mussolini to prevent Congress from learning about his role in the attempted coup d'etat on Jan. 6 illustrates the point.
Over the furious opposition of House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (no relation) and other Trump dependents, Congress established a committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, including its "facts, circumstances and causes." Here's a shocker: Trump and company really, really don't want the "facts, circumstances and causes" to be investigated. You don't need to be Albert Einstein, or even Alfred E. Neuman, to know why not.
So, when Congress began subpoenaing witnesses close to Trump who had knowledge of those facts, circumstances and causes, Trump did what you would expect: He directed them to disregard the subpoenas. Trump confidant and apparent putsch-plotter Steve Bannon was indicted last week for contempt of Congress for giving the middle finger to the committee. Former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, who also refused to comply, appears next aboard the Arraignment Express, and the committee's issuance of more subpoenas to assorted Trump courtiers seems likely to keep the grand jury plenty busy.
Meanwhile, Trump sued to block the National Archives from turning over to the committee records belonging to the federal government, requested because they bear directly on who did what to organize the mob attempting to overturn the presidential election, and who did what, or nothing, to stop the mob once the attack began. Trump's lawsuit is frivolous, eviscerated by a long line of Supreme Court precedent, but no matter. The idea is to bog the committee down in a lengthy judicial process that will stretch until January 2023, when the GOP is likely to take back control of the House of Representatives. Should that happen, presto! No more committee. No more investigation. No more subpoena. And no disclosure of the facts, circumstances and causes of the coup attempt.
Unsurprisingly, Trump lost the first round in the courts. And federal judge Tanya Chutkan lost no time conveying her disregard for Trump's argument that Congress lacked the authority to investigate Jan. 6, and that as a former president he had the right to hide his records from the public "in perpetuity." She informed Trump briskly that she was not buying what he was selling. "On January 6, 2021," she began her decision, "hundreds of rioters converged on the U.S. Capitol. They scaled walls, demolished barricades and smashed windows in a violent attempt to gain control of the building and stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election results." As for Trump World's risible hooey that this was just a little tourist visit, the judge begged to differ. "This unprecedented attempt to prevent the lawful transfer of power from one administration to the next caused property damage, injuries and death, and for the first time since the election of 1860, the transfer of executive power was distinctly not peaceful."
"Presidents are not kings, and (Trump) is not President," Judge Chutkan wrote. The problem is that roughly half the country thinks Trump actually is president and would happily have him as king. There is, in short, trouble in River City. Whether the would-be dictator gets away with hiding the truth will say a lot about just how bad that trouble gets.
Jeff Robbins, an attorney specializing in the First Amendment, is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.