As Mark Twain once famously wrote, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes. ” I was reminded of that oft-repeated saying while watching the fourth day of hearings of the House Select Committee investigating the events of January 6th.
It was in the very last few minutes of the hearing that we heard chilling testimony from Wandrea ArShaye “Shaye” Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman. Shaye and Freeman, both election poll workers in Georgia during the 2020 election, were accused by Trump and Rudy Giuliani of processing fraudulent ballots on election night. The central conspiracy theory surrounding the two poll workers was that they passed USB drives between them that proved that there was election fraud. In one speech alone Trump referred to Freeman as a “voter scammer” and a “hustler” some 18 times.
When asked what Freeman handed Moss under the table that day, a frightened and emotional Moss replied, “a ginger mint.”
That moment reminded me of another Moss. In 1954, two years before I was born, Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly (my father) produced the “See It Now” documentary called “A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy.” During the Cold War, Sen. McCarthy spearheaded the “Red Scare” of anti-communist hysteria by baselessly accusing public figures of being Communist sympathizers – fanning national anxiety in the process.
The “See It Now” documentary series tackled numerous controversies of the 1950s, but their broadcast on May 9, 1954, focusing on McCarty’s anti-communist witch-hunt was a seminal piece of journalism highlighting how McCarthy’s actions had a damaging effect on American democracy. Widely praised, the broadcast produced by Murrow and my father played a key role in Sen. McCarthy’s downfall.
One week after the documentary aired, Annie Lee Moss, a low-level communications clerk in the US Army Signal Corp, was hauled in and wrongly accused of being a member of the Communist Party. When asked if she knew who Karl Marx was, Moss quietly replied, “Who’s that?”.
As the tide of public opinion turned, it became apparent McCarthy had overstepped. The illusion of McCarthy as a defender of American national security had shattered and he was now seen as a bullying demagogue. McCarthy eventually left the hearing, leaving his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, to take over. In a heated rebuke of McCarthy/Cohn, then-Senator John McClellan accused the inquisitors of “…convicting people by rumor, hearsay and innuendo…That is the evil of it.”
Today, we have seen equally evil behavior from the “Stop the Steal” story and its progenitors. We now know from thousands of interviews and video testimony – often from Trump’s inner circle and even his own family – that there was no evidence of election subversion. Even the then-Attorney General William Barr called such misinformation “bullshit.” Biden won the election fairly, and many of Trump’s closest advisers had told him so. However, despite the pleas of Barr and others, Trump turned to acolytes like John Eastman and Rudy Giuliani who plotted to overturn the result with falsehoods and baseless legal theories – one that even involved long-dead dictator Hugo Chavez.
The little stories, the ones about people like Shaye Moss and Annie Lee Moss before her, may seem less significant in the grand scheme of things. But their story matters. Shaye Moss and her mother have, in their own words, “had their lives turned upside down.” From the stress, Shaye gained 60 pounds and has not left her house in months. Her mother lost her business and was forced to move for fear she might lose her life.
Think of the other tragedies. The Capitol Police officers who took their own lives due to the trauma. The hundreds of the Jan 6th participants – many grievously misguided – who are now in jail, some for years to come. We’ve also learned that s V.P. Mike Pence was a mere 40 feet from those bent on hanging him.
In their totality, all of these stories paint a compelling picture, but alas, like Sen. McCarthy, Trump carries on with little regard for decency and the truth. His made-up charges of conspiracy and his factless assertions put people like Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger squarely in the crosshairs. So much so that armed protesters gathered outside his home. But Raffensperger and Mike Pence, despite their Republican allegiances, refused to break the law or their oath to the Constitution. Democracy barely survived.
The real danger of men like Trump and McCarthy is that the facts don’t seem to matter at all. They believe the end justifies the means and if some people lose their lives or their careers or their mental health along the way, so what?
I went to bed the other night thinking about Shaye Moss and her mom. They did not deserve what came to them. They did not deserve to have their lives upended for no reason at all other than Trump and his loyalists needing a target to direct all of their grievances toward
Joseph Welch was the lawyer for the US Army when McCarthy went after more than 100 accused communists in the infamous Army-McCarthy Hearings of 1954. When McCarthy went after Fred Fisher, a Harvard- educated lawyer who worked at Welch’s firm, Welch famously asked McCarthy, “Have you no decency sir? At long last, have you no decency?”
Shaye Moss and her mother Ruby Freeman would be well within their rights to ask that same question of Mr. Trump and his acolytes.