Jeffrey Kahn: At SMU visit, Trump's foreign policy adviser was a modern-day Joe McCarthy

SMU Law Professor Jeffrey Kahn writes about an encounter with Joseph Schmitz, Donald Trump's foreign policy adviser.

SMU Associate Law Professor Jeffrey Kahn
Jeffrey Kahn

By Jeffrey Kahn
SMU law professor

Sen. Joe McCarthy built his name, and ruined it, by destroying the reputations of others. His M.O. was to insinuate guilt by linking his victims to people he had already brought down. 

I had the misfortune to hear a practitioner of the new McCarthyism when Joseph Schmitz — foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump — spoke at Southern Methodist University a year before Trump tapped him for his current position.

The encounter left me chilled. I had witnessed a ghost from McCarthy's staff.

Law students who organized Schmitz's talk had asked me to be the responding speaker for an event addressing the "impact of the communist worldview and the current state of affairs geopolitically with the west." 

In planning the match-up, I doubt the students looked past Schmitz's brightest credential: a stint as inspector general at the U.S. Department of Defense that ended with his resignation under mounting criticism led by Sen. Charles Grassley.

My scholarship, focused on American and Russian law, likely explained my invitation. Schmitz, a student organizer said, could offer "an insider's opinions" though also conceding, "this is a new topic area of presentation for him."

Despite my unfamiliarity with Schmitz, and a seemingly muddled event taking shape, I agreed to participate. The clash of ideas, after all, is the heart of a university.

I was stunned by what I heard.

Early in his rambling presentation, Schmitz held up a book, The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis — The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor, that would form the basis of his attack on President Obama. Soon, another book was raised: Marx and Satan. The poet Langston Hughes came in for smearing, his communist credentials duly noted. At one point, Schmitz declared that President Barack Obama was the second-most-revered person in China (after Mao, apparently).

Schmitz revealed himself an unrepentant McCarthyite. And not just in his obvious, if inarticulate, hatred of communism. His methods were similar, too. Recollecting his remarks, a single startling feature shines through. Schmitz never attacked a single specific policy advanced by Obama, nor a single presidential decision, action or statement. Only the president's connections to other people, often in the distant past, were his targets. 

Had we time-warped to the Red Scare of the 1950s? I had never seen anyone paint with as broad a brush or with as careless a hand.

When my turn came, I took time to describe the dangerous history we had just seen re-enacted. I asked the students to examine actual ideas - not accept smears of people with implied associations. And as for learning more about Langston Hughes, I suggested a good start would be to read some of his poetry (which Schmitz's talk gave no evidence that he had). 

Schmitz was all about insinuation and dark connections. He had little time for hard thinking, just cheap shots — a quality he evidently shares with his current boss. Trump has smeared Muslims and Mexicans. He has attacked Sen. John McCain and a federal judge he called a hater and falsely labeled foreign. 

Another Trump adviser, channeling McCarthy, claimed Hillary Clinton's State Department was "permeated at the highest levels" by Saudi spies and disloyal Americans, and attacked one of Clinton's aides with factless, fear-drenched defamation. Aspirants to Trump's entourage shout for return of the House Un-American Affairs Committee.

I never discuss my personal politics with students. It gets in the way of prying open difficult legal puzzles and evaluating arguments. I keep my conclusions out of view so that students can engage each other in an open forum.  

But at this turning point for our country, I want to be on record about where I stand. And who I stand against. 

I'm not surprised Trump would turn to a person like Schmitz, or that Schmitz would be attracted to Trump's obscene cult of personality.  

What foreign policy advice will Schmitz whisper into Trump's ear? I shudder to think what he might do in such a position of power.

report he co-authored declared, "The United States has been infiltrated and deeply influenced by an enemy within that is openly determined to replace the U.S. Constitution with shariah."

But for the very last word, Joe McCarthy could have penned that himself.

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