At times throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has described various antagonists as forms of “McCarthyism.” The Obama administration’s imagined wiretap of his office, the Mueller investigation, the House Judiciary Committee probe into his finances, and actress Debra Messing’s request that donors at a Trump fundraiser be identified — they all reminded Trump of the notorious red-baiting Wisconsin senator.
Trump obviously has no principled opposition to smear tactics or casually accusing his domestic opponents of working on behalf of American enemies. In recent days, he has circulated mocked-up images of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer wearing Muslim garb in front of an Iranian flag, and told rallygoers that he declined to brief Congress on the attack on Qasem Soleimani because Adam Schiff supposedly would have betrayed the government by revealing the plan. Trump baselessly accuses his critics of treason so casually it barely makes news any more, a feat even McCarthy couldn’t manage.
Yet for all the frequency with which his name is invoked, McCarthy’s rise and fall has received surprisingly little attention as a historical Rosetta Stone. McCarthy is surely the closest parallel to Trump that can be found in post-war history. Those who recall the period of social terror he helped unleash would be the least surprised at another right-wing demagogue’s rise to power. Thinking about McCarthy’s era in juxtaposition to Trump’s should change the way we think about both.
Both McCarthy’s allies and his most left-wing opponents found it convenient in his time to define McCarthyism as merely intense anti-communism (the former because it justified McCarthy, and the latter because it discredited all anti-communism.) But when McCarthy arrived in Washington after World War II, both parties agreed completely on the evil of communism, and agreed generally that at least some communist spies had managed to gain access to government secrets. What split the parties was Republican efforts not only to exaggerate the scope of the security problems, but to associate the entire liberal project with communism.
After Harry Truman’s 1948 reelection, Republicans were staring at twenty straight years of Democratic administrations. The permanent minority status that today’s frantic conservatives discern in the demographic future appeared very real to the right-wingers of that era. The communist infiltration charge appeared to be their salvation. Communist infiltration in Washington would explain why Franklin Roosevelt had allowed the Soviets to occupy half of Europe and communists to take over China (events many conservatives could not fathom would be beyond America’s power to control.) It could even discredit the entire New Deal as being a stalking horse for Moscow, just as the right had claimed all along.
McCarthy began his career calling himself a supporter of the New Deal, but he was really more of a political opportunist. His first opportunity to run for statewide office required the support of Wisconsin’s conservative, anti–New Deal Republicans, and McCarthy quickly molded himself to his new constituency. McCarthy was hardly the first Republican to smear his opponent as a communist. What made him so terrifyingly successful was his political style.
McCarthy was a serial liar, often frustrating his staffers by departing from whatever text they had prepared for him. “If we give this to the senator … he will blow it up to proportions which cannot be supported,” fretted one staffer. And while erratic and uncontrollable, McCarthy managed to commandeer hyperbolic press coverage, simply because the very fact of his sinister accusations was objectively newsworthy and attracted attention from readers. Reporters were well aware that McCarthy was manipulating them, and they brooded over his ability to turn their principles of journalistic objectivity against them. One paper experimented with banning all McCarthy stories from the front page. Much like the Huffington Post’s short-lived policy of exiling Trump coverage to the entertainment section, it did not take.
When the press subjected McCarthy’s lies to scrutiny, he would lash out viciously, often likening the papers in question to the Daily Worker, the communist party organ. These assaults were calculated to train his supporters to distrust any claim not made by McCarthy himself. In private, McCarthy often cozied up to the reporters he savaged in public. “If you show a newspaper as unfriendly and having a reason for being antagonistic, you can take a lot of the sting out of what it says about you,” he confessed privately to a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal, “I think you can convince a lot of people that they can’t believe what they read in the Journal.”
McCarthy’s commitment to bury any critic with counteraccusations intimidated many of his critics into silence. “I don’t answer charges; I make them,” he liked to say, and his counterpunching could force anybody who stood up to him to defend whatever weak point McCarthy could locate.
Many of the stylistic similarities between McCarthy and Donald Trump can be attributed to their shared link with Roy Cohn, who served as the closest adviser to both men in their formative years. But what is perhaps more illuminating than their shared methods is the eerily familiar response McCarthy provoked across the political spectrum.
McCarthy’s crude populism repelled educated voters in both parties, making him the subject of private disdain and ridicule among elites in both parties. But it gave him an allure to the (white) working class voters, some of them Democrats, that fellow Republicans could not match. The core of his support was widely seen as impervious to reason or any amount of proof that he was lying. “Even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children,” pollster George Gallup remarked privately, “they would probably still go along with him,” anticipating Trump’s famous “5th Avenue” boast.
McCarthy also benefited from a backlash that observers of the Trump era will recognize instantly. McCarthy’s demagoguery terrified his opponents, many of whom targeted him with smears of their own. Liberals incessantly compared him with Adolf Hitler. Many conservatives who blanched at McCarthy’s tactics nonetheless found themselves more agitated by the excesses of his critics. “They charged that the righteous people who condemned his name-calling were the same people who called him a Nazi, a jackal and a thug …” recounts David Oshinsky in his 1983 biography, “A Conspiracy So Immense” (from which many of the details in this article are taken), “the people who yelled loudest at his ‘dirty’ tactics were the same people who spread rumors about his alleged homosexuality and hired spies to infiltrate his office.” Anti-anti-McCarthyism became a powerful glue for the right.
Oshinsky’s history makes it painfully clear how little appetite Republicans had for confrontation with McCarthy. For all their private disdain for his lies, and fears that his lack of discipline would hurt the party, they regarded him as a net asset for the GOP, and feared incurring the wrath of his cult-like followers. “Occasionally a moderate Republican voice would be raised, but with little real effect,” he writes, “The frustrating truth was that the men with the power to blunt McCarthy — Bob Taft, perhaps, or J. Edgar Hoover — were not inclined to do so. They generally viewed him as a political asset, a patriot, or sometimes both.”
Of course Republicans did eventually abandon him. Their eventual split was symbolized by the Yankee Republican lawyer Joseph Welch scolding, “Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last?” But the complacent lesson that the fever broke, and the system worked, overlooks how contingent McCarthy’s fall really was. It was happenstance that McCarthy was a serious alcoholic, whose brief political peak was inevitably shortened by a rapid physical disintegration and early death.
It was also mere chance that turned him into a liability for his party. McCarthy’s peak came under President Truman, a Democrat. Republicans had an interest in undermining the legitimacy of the Roosevelt-Truman foreign policy, and implying Truman’s foreign policy failures had been engineered by a cabal of communist spies. McCarthy’s smears were merely a wilder version of a standard Republican tactic. But when Republican Dwight Eisenhower took office in 1953, it no longer served their goals to charge the executive branch was crawling with reds. Republicans begged McCarthy to confine his investigations to previous, Democratic administrations. But doing so robbed his crusade of its vitality. The single factor that eventually drove Republicans to withdraw their support from McCarthy (and even then, mostly in quiet) was that he was undermining a Republican administration rather than a Democratic one.
To look again at McCarthy’s rise in the Trump era is to discard the comforting fiction that his demise was preordained, or that his brief rise was a temporary outbreak of Cold War hysteria. Perhaps McCarthy’s professed cause was anti-communism only because communism was the proximate political target of his era’s conservatives. Modern conservatives whipped themselves into smaller panics that Clinton’s sexual license would destroy morality, and later that Obama’s deficit spending would turn America into Greece. That they now revere a philanderer who doubled the deficit during a recovery should make us skeptical about the putative sources of their panic. Was the red panic any different? Trump has shown us that American right’s hunger for authoritarian populism can be fashioned to terrorism, immigration, or other enemies.
With modern eyes, we can see the opportunity McCarthy exploited has perhaps been there all along. The surprising thing about his career is not how such a dangerous liar amassed such power so quickly when his fellow partisans understood his true nature, but why it took so long for the next McCarthy to come along.
McCarthy’s career explains so much about the response by the political system to a right-wing demagogue — the fear he caused, the loyalty he inspired, the nervous submission of the center-right, and the rationalizations produced on his behalf. There is just one, very large mystery McCarthy’s career does not answer about all this. What happens if Joe McCarthy is not a senator, but instead president of the United States?