During World War II, Joseph McCarthy, then a young military intelligence officer with a U.S. Marine Corps dive-bomber unit, volunteered to fly combat missions as a tail gunner. Normally, wartime conditions for tail gunners were not for the faint of heart. But according to historians, the missions McCarthy flew were generally safe.
With no enemies in sight, McCarthy fired his weapon at non-strategic targets like palm trees. For these wartime “exploits,” the young Marine, who rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel following the war, earned his mock moniker, “Tail-Gunner Joe.”
More than a decade later, McCarthy was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican from Wisconsin. On Capitol Hill, he volunteered to lead a different mission, aimed at citizens and career State Department officials allegedly involved in communist plots to overthrow the U.S. government. In a time when the “Red Scare” was at its peak, McCarthy decided to leverage his career at the expense of hapless Americans, proving Tail-Gunner Joe’s penchant to waste ammunition firing at innocent targets was far from over.
Today, like the detritus of destroyed Chinese balloons, a new wave of nationalist paranoia threatens our borders. Propelled by social media, the conservative press, and QAnon conspiracy disciples, McCarthyism is emerging once again on Capitol Hill.
Nowhere else is this trend more apparent than in the U.S. House, where the GOP leadership has created a “Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government.” Chaired by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the newly formed investigative unit’s mission is to expose government plots that conspire against conservatives and their causes.
In a mission dear to the hearts of far-right members of Congress and akin to fears of the Deep State, the GOP intends to investigate agencies like the FBI and CIA who it believes are out to undermine MAGA and its agenda.
Not everyone is a fan of the new subcommittee, which consists of 12 Republicans and eight Democrats. The extensive investigative powers the GOP-led House awarded the subcommittee have led some observers to believe its work will be slowed or even stalled by lawsuits and court battles. The Justice Department, for example, may argue that sharing evidence with Congress in an ongoing criminal investigation could jeopardize prosecution.
The public is skeptical. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll revealed Americans, by a margin of 56 percent to 36 percent, believe the panel is “just an attempt to score political points.”
And in a statement blasting the creation of the panel, former House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) said it was “specifically designed to inject extremist politics into our justice system and shield the MAGA movement from the legal consequences of their actions.”
An early hearing of the weaponization panel appears to confirm Nadler’s suspicion. According to a Washington Post story on the Feb. 13 hearing, Republican lawmakers attempted to spin a theory that the FBI and other government officials “interfered with the 2020 election by getting social media companies… to suppress a… story about Hunter Biden’s laptop.” Subcommittee members provided no proof of their assertion, and former FBI and Twitter employees denied the accusation under oath.
In 1950, President Harry Truman characterized Joe McCarthy as the “best asset the Kremlin can have.” Roughly two years later, McCarthy’s demagoguery and his hold on the GOP weakened, ending with his death in 1957. But the mistrust and paranoia McCarthy embraced continue today, which is why the Select Committee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government recalls for many the saga of Tail-Gunner Joe.