Every American should be asking themselves if Trump is trying to be the new McCarthy, because one was more than enough.
There is something hauntingly familiar about the scenes of chaos and violence surrounding Trump’s rallies – they mirror the tyranny of the billionaire’s heroes, and he continues holding campaign-style rallies over a year into his administration.
Like his heroes, Trump demonstrates the kind of narcissism that autocratic strongmen have exhibited throughout history—and unsurprisingly, it doesn’t have a lot to do with the democratic process.
McCarthyism, name given to the period of time in American history that saw Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy produce a series of investigations and hearings during the 1950s in an effort to expose supposed communist infiltration of various areas of the U.S. government. The term has since become a byname for defamation of character or reputation by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.
Biography reports that “undaunted” by his “shortcomings, McCarthy cast himself as an unrelenting patriot and protector of the American ideal. On the other side of the argument, his detractors claimed McCarthy was on a witch hunt and used his power to trample civil liberties and greatly damage the careers of leftists, intellectuals and artists.”
Described as “the dean of the anti-anti-Communist historians” by noted historian Ronald Radosh, Professor Ellen Schrecker published a book titled “The Age of McCarthyism” in 1994. A portion of that book (pages 92-94) describes some of the lasting effects of McCarthyism – many of which chillingly parallel concerns surrounding Trump’s possible legacy.
For instance, Schrecker wrote of McCarthy’s impact on national health care, writing:
In the realm of social policy, for example, McCarthyism may have aborted much-needed reforms. As the nation’s politics swung to the right after World War II, the federal government abandoned the unfinished agenda of the New Deal. Measures like national health insurance, a social reform embraced by the rest of the industrialized world, simply fell by the wayside.
The Atlantic published an article in July of 2015 titled: “The New McCarthyism of Donald Trump,” exploring the parallels between Trump and McCarthy.
First, McCarthy, like Trump, was an opportunist, not a zealot. Although the Wisconsin senator later grew famous hunting communists, communists in the Milwaukee branch of the Congress of Industrial Organizations played a key role in his initial Senate victory in 1946.
In his search for scapegoats, Trump has proved ideologically flexible too. In 1988, when he first publicly mulled a presidential campaign, the scapegoat du jour was Japan, whose economy appeared to be overtaking America’s.
When Trump flirted with a presidential campaign again in 2000, he played the centrist. He was leaving the GOP for Ross Perot’s Reform Party, he announced, because “the Republicans are just too crazy right.” He even attacked his likely Reform Party opponent, Pat Buchanan, for being anti-black.
In the Obama era, however, Trump has discovered the power of racial and ethnic grievances himself.
A large part of Trump’s approach to President Obama centered around his seeming fascination with the birther movement. As the Atlantic explained:
Like McCarthy during the red scare, Trump saw his opening. “I have people that have been studying [Obama’s birth certificate] and they cannot believe what they’re finding,” Trump declared in 2011. “If he wasn’t born in this country, which is a real possibility…then he has pulled one of the great cons in the history of politics.” Trump also implied that Obama was a beneficiary of affirmative action. “I heard he was a terrible student, terrible,” the real estate mogul mused. “How does a bad student go to Columbia and then to Harvard? I’m thinking about it, I’m certainly looking into it. Let him show his records.”
Here are some other examples of parallels between Trump and McCarthy that we explored in an article published in January 2016 titled “Mentored By An Aide To Joseph McCarthy – Donald Trump Embodies The Tyranny Of His Heroes.”
- Trump vows to vilify and crush those who dare speak out against him – “If someone screws you, screw them back.“
- He mocks those others admire – “[John McCain]’s not a war hero. He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured, okay? I hate to tell you.“
- He admires and extols the worst of human values and nature – mentored by former McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn and praising tyrants like North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Far be it for him to praise the likes of Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela – “What a sad thing that the memory of Nelson Mandela will be stained by the phony sign language moron who is in every picture at funeral!“
- And here’s Trump’s take on contrition…. remorse – “When we go in church and I drink the little wine, which is about the only wine I drink, and I eat the little cracker — I guess that’s a form of asking forgiveness.“
The Atlantic concluded their 2015 article with the chilling warning:
One key lesson from both Trump and McCarthy’s demagoguery is that it was not inevitable. Both men would have happily taken up some other cause had it offered them a path to fame and power. It was their own party, and political elites more generally, who bred the hostility and fear that they exploited. It’s fine that Republicans are today denouncing Trump for his comments about John McCain. But until more Republicans confront the demonization of Mexican immigrants into which Trump has tapped, until they summon their outrage on behalf of people who don’t look or vote like them, someone else in the Trump/McCarthy mold will come along sooner or later. It’s only a matter of time.
McCarthy’s ultimate defeat does provide some hope. As the Encyclopedia Britannica explains:
McCarthyism both reached its peak and began its decline during the “McCarthy hearings”: 36 days of televised investigative hearings led by McCarthy in 1954…. The hearings reached their climax when McCarthy suggested that the Army’s lawyer, Joseph Welch, had employed a man who at one time had belonged to a communist front group. Welch’s rebuke to the senator—“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”—discredited McCarthy and helped to turn the tide of public opinion against him. Moreover, McCarthy was also eventually undermined significantly by the incisive and skillful criticism of a journalist, Edward R. Murrow. Murrow’s devastating television editorial about McCarthy, carried out on his show, See It Now, cemented him as the premier journalist of the time. McCarthy was censured for his conduct by the Senate, and in 1957 he died. While McCarthyism proper ended with the Senator’s downfall, the term still has currency in modern political discourse.
With any luck, Trump will dig his own grave as McCarthy did during the infamous Army hearings; and with any luck, a new Edward R. Murrow or a new Joseph Welch will stand up to Trump and end his regressive regime.
We leave you with Murrow’s most powerful anti-McCarthy broadcast which was aired in March 1954,