This piece originally appeared as a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter.
Having just turned 94, I am aware that each day I spend as an American, in the company of loved ones, engaging with creative colleagues, and yes, swearing at the television news, is a gift. So maybe I owe Donald Trump, that human middle finger to the American Way, a bit of thanks for getting my heart pumping better than any exercise routine.
One benefit of having been around so long is that what may seem like ancient history is alive within me. Most of my fellow Americans do not personally remember World War II, in which the United States led the free world to defeat the forces of fascism in Europe and Asia. Like so many of my compatriots, I left college to enlist in that war. Unlike too many of them, I returned home safely after flying 52 combat missions. For that good fortune I can thank the Tuskegee airmen and others who flew escort and protected us during those bomb runs.
After the war, when I was a young writer hustling to make my way in show business, Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were on a rampage, targeting political opponents, people in the arts, and ordinary Americans. One of the real American heroes, who stood up to those who were pretending to be, was Joseph Welch, chief counsel for the U.S. Army when it became a McCarthy target. After McCarthy used a public hearing to drag the name of a young lawyer through the mud, Welch challenged his cruelty and recklessness. And in words that expressed what so many felt but feared to say, Welch asked, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
Those just might be the most famous words in American political history that were not uttered by a U.S. president. They didn’t change McCarthy, but they did help others find the strength to stand up to him.
The witch hunts and blacklists didn’t end overnight. One target was John Henry Faulk, a civil libertarian and folk humorist who fought a successful libel lawsuit that finally helped bring an end to blacklisting. In my recent memoir, written before Donald Trump had blessed us with his candidacy, I wrote of Faulk, “How do you not love a man who, in that East Texas drawl of his, says of some fatuous asshole in the news, ‘I’d like t’buy the somunabitch for what he’s worth and sell’m for what he thinks he’s worth!’” That would translate to selling for a billion dollars today the Trump you payed a nickel for yesterday.
I have little to add to what has been said about Trump’s cruel treatment of immigrants and other political targets or his relentless demeaning of anyone who challenges him. As painful as it was to watch Trump’s attacks on the family of a soldier who sacrificed his life so that others might live, it was even more revolting to watch him suggest that maybe “the Second Amendment people” could do something about a President Clinton and her judicial nominees. Trump is making it clear to Americans who he is; we need to pay attention and avoid the horrific mistake of making him our leader.
Trump is not the first demagogue we have faced; neither was McCarthy. One of the formative experiences of my youth was when, as a young child playing with my crystal radio set alone in my bedroom, I stumbled across Father Coughlin and learned that there were people in this country who hated Jews. But I also learned in civics classes that were held in grade school then (unfortunately not now) that people like Coughlin held ideas that were antithetical to those of our Founding Fathers and the Constitution they bequeathed us, ideas and ideals which we have strived to realize, and which have inspired so many generations of people from across the globe to make their way to our shores.
For all our continued flaws, we are a more decent nation than Donald Trump imagines. That’s why Joseph Welch’s words packed such a punch. And it is why Americans deserve more courage from their political leaders. As for Reince Priebus, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and others who have climbed on board the Trump train even though I have to believe their hearts knows better, it’s time they looked at themselves in the mirror and asked, “Have you left no sense of decency, Sirs, at long last?”
Norman Lear is a television and film producer and the founder of People For the American Way.