Newt Gingrich is a smart guy, Washington insiders will tell you. He's certainly smarter than Donald Trump, based on nothing more than vocabulary and the complexity of ideas he is able to comprehend. Newt is currently on Trump's vice-presidential shortlist, which makes sense if you believe what Trump's been saying about his veep pick for months now -- he wants someone with experience dealing with Congress. Newt, being a former Speaker of the House, certainly fits that bill better than most.
But Newt Gingrich's supposed smartness is rather indiscriminate, when examined closely. Newt has what he considers ten or twelve brilliant ideas each day, which he is in the habit of just tossing out for discussion. These ideas are presented in scattershot fashion, and most of them never go anywhere (even Newt admits this, when he's being honest with himself). However, every once in a while Newt will follow through on one of his proposals, so you can't just discount everything that comes out of his mouth.
Newt apparently woke up and just had what he considers another brilliant idea. Let's hope this becomes one of those that wither on the vine (rather than grow in influence), because it is truly a monstrously bad idea. Here's Newt, on Fox News, explaining his idea:
Let me go a step further, because remember, San Bernardino, Fort Hood, and Orlando involve American citizens. We're going to ultimately declare a war on Islamic supremacists and we're going to say, if you pledge allegiance to ISIS, you are a traitor and you have lost your citizenship. And we're going take much tougher positions. In the late 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt was faced with Nazi penetration in the United States. We originally created the House Un-American Activities Committee to go after Nazis. We passed several laws in 1938 and 1939 to go after Nazis and we made it illegal to help the Nazis. We're going to presently have to go take the similar steps here.
For those unfamiliar with the name, the House Un-American Activities Committee, or "HUAAC" (sometimes spelled "HUAC") was one of the most disgraceful episodes in all of American history. In fact, I consider the entire concept of the committee to be one of the most un-American and tyrannical overreaches of the federal government of (at the very least) the entire twentieth century. I'm not alone in this, either, as in 1959 none other than Harry Truman (after he left the presidency) called HUAAC the "most un-American thing in the country today." If you never learned about HUAAC in school, think Joe McCarthy and all the red-baiting anti-communist fervor. Think Hollywood blacklists. Think Japanese internment. Some of the most shameful events of the century either came straight out of HUAAC or were closely linked to the hysteria it generated.
The committee and its predecessors all were born out of war fever. The first came into being in 1919, to investigate German-Americans. Other early forerunner House committees investigated such "enemies of the state" as the American Civil Liberties Union. In 1938 the committee was revived to look into the Nazi threat. A report on Japanese-Americans soon followed (called the "Yellow Report," in those pre-politically correct days). This report argued the case for internment, based partly on the fact that Japanese-Americans had suspect loyalties due to their Buddhist faith. Anyone who is astonished that Donald Trump would go after an entire religion doesn't really know their own history, to put it bluntly.
Post-war, the committee (now officially named HUAAC) pivoted back to red-baiting. Communists were everywhere, apparently. They even might be (gasp!) lurking under your bed! This is not a gross overstatement of the hysteria which gripped the country in the days of Joe McCarthy. Red-baiting on HUAAC not only created the Hollywood blacklist, but also (just for good measure) served as the launchpad for Richard Nixon's political career. Notable Hollywood stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles had their careers destroyed by HUAAC.
Of course, they were discerning about which threats to American-ness they chose to target. From Wikipedia:
In 1946, the committee considered opening investigations into the Ku Klux Klan but decided against doing so, prompting white supremacist committee member John E. Rankin (D-Miss.) to remark, "After all, the KKK is an old American institution."
The desire to root out un-American influences wasn't limited to just HUAAC, it's worth noting. Joe McCarthy was a senator, and his hearings were held on the other side of the Capitol. In the 1950s, the Senate also had a committee that investigated the pernicious effects of comic books on America's youth (you just can't make this stuff up). It's kind of a stretch from Nazis (or even Commies) to comic books, but that stretch was indeed made, complete with testimony about how comics were a worse influence than even Adolph Hitler's propaganda machine.
In the 1960s, HUAAC also widened its scope. Suddenly the "enemies of America" became America's own youth. College campus organizations were targeted, anti-war groups were targeted, and the Youth International Party (the "Yippies") was targeted (both before and after the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago). Abbie Hoffman was, in fact, on his way to a HUAAC appearance when all the panic over him "wearing a U.S. flag" happened (he was actually wearing a flag motif shirt, not an actual flag, but this quickly got lost in all the hysterical outrage).
The concept of HUAAC was born of wartime fears. But when the wars were over, it conveniently became a tool to grill any person or any group that right-wingers disapproved of as being "un-American." This smear was a lot more potent than you might think -- not only were the person or group's ideology examined under a very skeptical public microscope, but their patriotism and national loyalty were also deemed suspect.
This is what Newt Gingrich thinks we need, right now.
HUAAC was renamed in 1969, and disappeared altogether by 1975. It deserves to stay dead. It should not be revived under any circumstance. We already have plenty of antiterrorism laws on the books, and if more are needed then Congress can pass them without the aid of a committee dedicated to political witch-hunting.
Newt is no fool -- he knows his history. So he likely knows full well what would happen to such a committee, especially if Republicans retain control of the House (and get to appoint committee chairs and members). First, it would focus on Islamic terrorist infiltrators in America. Then it would broaden its scope to include any "fellow travelers" (a phrase right out of the red-baiting era). This would likely lead in short order to investigating every mosque that was deemed suspect by its neighbors, anywhere in the country (remember the "Ground Zero mosque" hysteria?). If America ever got back into a boots-on-the-ground war again, with hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers in a Muslim land (a distinct possibility no matter who becomes president), then the committee would easily shift gears to begin investigations of any groups opposed to such a war (remember Code Pink and other anti-war groups being targeted, roughly 10-15 years ago?). Who knows where a new HUAAC would stop? Again, if controlled by Republicans, they could easily make the case that pretty much any liberal group they didn't agree with was, by their definition, "un-American."
This is why a new HUAAC is such a monstrously dangerous idea. Its very existence -- right there in the name of the committee for all to see -- would be to determine what was acceptably "American" and what was "un-American." That very concept is about as un-American as can be imagined. What gives some right-wing politician (or, for that matter, some left-wing politician) the right to determine what is acceptably "American" and what is not? You won't find that anywhere in the text of the Constitution, that's for sure.
America has cycled through this debate many times, almost all of them with a war threat looming or an actual war being fought. The first was in a war fever in the 1790s, in fact, and led to the Alien and Sedition Acts (the very first of several such monstrously un-American and shameful pieces of legislation in our history). One draft of these acts would have given the president sole discretion over which immigrants would be allowed into the U.S., and which should be summarily deported. Again, Donald Trump's immigration ideas are not exactly unprecedented in our history.
We've already got several House committees dedicated to witch-hunts. Trey Gowdy's investigation into Benghazi springs immediately to mind. These would be a walk in the park compared to a permanent committee designed to ferret out "un-American activities." Imagine who would chair such a committee -- Steve King, maybe, or Jeb Hensarling? No matter who got the plum assignment, it's easy to see that whatever the stated reason for the reinstitution of the committee would almost immediately be overreached. The committee would soon be targeting anyone it had a mind to, and it's a pretty safe bet that wouldn't include the Bundy family out West, or any other right-wing group that openly defied federal law or advocated for the overthrow of the current national government.
The country is already divided politically. Giving the House of Representatives a mandate to harass anyone they feel like certainly isn't going to help. The very concept of a "House Un-American Activities Committee" is about as un-American as you can get. I would urge all who value the Constitution and who also remember the days of Joe McCarthy to speak out forcefully against Newt Gingrich's idea of reviving HUAAC. Let's all hope this is one of those ideas Newt continually spews forth which will die before it even gains any traction. HUAAC is not going to stop a single lone-wolf terrorist attack. It's not going to solve the problem Newt identified. And it most certainly will expand its scope almost immediately to include anyone Republicans take a dislike to -- Planned Parenthood, for example, or ACORN, or any number of other organizations they don't agree with. Journalists printing stories from documents leaked by whistleblowers would almost certainly be on that list, somewhere.
HUAAC, thankfully, is dead -- and therefore wasn't involved in these recent political battles. Bringing it back would be monstrously dangerous to American democracy. Newt's suggestion, to me, is even more horrifying than anything Donald Trump has yet proposed -- and that's a low bar indeed.
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