Ever since evidence of Donald Trump’s strange and murky ties to Russia entered the public debate, skeptics have dismissed the issue as “McCarthyism.” The charge originated on the left, from sources like the Nation and Glenn Greenwald, to the libertarian right, and finally migrated to Trump and his supporters. The president, they charge, is the victim of a smear campaign harkening back to the most notorious demagogue in American history. “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory,” tweeted the president Saturday. “Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!” Devin Nunes, the chairman of the committee tasked with investigating (or, alternatively, not investigating) the Russia scandal, has dismissed the issue in similar terms. “I have to have some evidence that some American actually had contact with Russians,” Nunes proclaimed last month, “and I don’t have that now. This is almost like McCarthyism revisited.”
That we do have evidence of Americans having actual contact with Russians — quite a lot of evidence about quite a lot of Americans in Trump’s orbit — ought to be a clue that “McCarthyism” is not the most apt analogy. Indeed, it is a much closer description for the methods used by Trump himself.
Since “McCarthyism” means different things to different people, a brief reminder of just what Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy did may be helpful. During and after World War II, conservative Republicans considered Franklin Roosevelt’s domestic and foreign policies socialistic and un-American. Conservative critics linked the two criticisms together: Roosevelt had enlarged the role of the federal government, and he and his successor, Harry Truman, had cooperated with the Soviets during and after the war. At times his coalition included some communist spies, a fact that gave enough surface plausibility for McCarthy to claim that the New Deal under Roosevelt and Truman was fundamentally a communist conspiracy.
McCarthyism was a series of specific lies in service of the larger conceptual lie. The specific lies insisted that the federal government was honeycombed with Soviet spies who were colluding openly with the Democratic Party. The larger lie was an attempt to erase the distinction between communists and New Deal Democrats, whose points of contact were short-lived and minimal, and by the postwar era had grown deeply estranged as Harry Truman confronted the U.S.S.R. McCarthy and his allies, of course, viewed it just the other way around. To them, the partnership between the New Deal and communism was a larger truth, which justified McCarthy’s smaller lies.
There are certainly some parallels between the charges made by McCarthy then and the charges made against Trump now. Both involve accusations of improper ties to Russia, and both rely on parsing evidence that is not wholly public. And it is also true that, if you search the internet, you can find some unfounded or even silly claims being made against Trump. This is a big country, after all.
That said, the differences overwhelm the similarities. The differences begin with the factual basis. If McCarthy had limited his accusations to cases where he had some solid basis for suspicion — like Alger Hiss, a State Department employee who really was a Soviet spy — then “McCarthyism” would not be a word. To apply the term “McCarthyism” to any suspicion of hidden or inappropriate relations with a hostile foreign power is to dilute the term beyond any useful meaning. The case for concern about Trump’s relationship with Russia does not rely on conspiracy thinking. There is an extensive public record.
It is the parallels between McCarthy and Trump, rather than McCarthy and Trump’s adversaries, that are most compelling. As some have noted, Trump was literally mentored by Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s right-hand man. Trump, like McCarthy, alleges the existence of a shadowy cabal of government bureaucrats to which he attributes near unlimited power. Representative Steve King’s plea for Trump to “purge Leftists from executive branch before disloyal, illegal & treasonist acts sink us” is indistinguishable from McCarthy’s plan. Had the phrase “deep state” been in general circulation 70 years ago, one can only imagine what McCarthy could have done with it.
Trump, like McCarthy, uses reckless accusations to whip his supporters into a frenzy and disorient his foes. A White House official, speaking to Mike Allen, inadvertently let slip Trump’s most McCarthyite quality: his indifference to truth. “The president just has a great nose for these things,” the official told Allen. “It’s the bureaucratic leaks — the deep state — that bother him most. Even if it turns out not to be true that they surveilled Trump Tower, he will have a very good point to make about the level of sabotage coming from Obama holdovers.” The giveaway is “even if it turns out not to be true.” Trump didn’t float this scenario as a possibility, he asserted it as fact. But like every conspiracy theory he has floated — from Obama’s allegedly forged birth certificate to Rafael Cruz’s alleged role in the Kennedy assassination — the facts of the case have no relevance to Trump.
Another parallel is the relationship between the two demagogues and their party. Few conservatives wanted to defend McCarthy flat-out. He was too buffoonish and unpredictable. Yet they found him useful. He was raising important issues, changing the terms of the debate, rallying the kinds of people they wished to see engaged in public life, and above all, making the right enemies. The style of anti-anti-Trump polemic that has become fashionable on the right is precisely the tone that conservative intellectuals took toward McCarthy. Leading voices of the right like Irving Kristol and William F. Buckley defended McCarthy as a necessary evil who raised the vital anti-communist issue, exposed the failings of the Democratic Party, and, while he may have gone too far here and there, was the subject of hysterical overreaction by fussy liberal elites. Indeed, conservatives still occasionally trot out defenses of McCarthy. Steve Bannon did it in 2013.
Trump and McCarthy both captured the passions of the conservative base in a way no other Republican politician of their time had managed. They channeled populist, anti-intellectual paranoia that frightened elites in both parties by threatening to tear apart the structures of republican government. The main way that the two men differ should not come as comfort: It is that McCarthy was a senator and an insurgent within his party, and Trump is the president who commands his.