Nearly 70 years after Joseph McCarthy produced his first list of alleged government subversives at a West Virginia Republican banquet, the Wisconsin senator still haunts us. As historians and others ransack the American past searching for predecessors of our current president, McCarthy’s name often tops the list—but usually for the wrong reasons.
Even though the Donald doesn’t drink and “Tail-Gunner Joe” was a lush who died of liver failure, the two men are similar in many trivial and not-so-trivial ways. Like McCarthy, Trump is a sociopathic personality whose aberrant behavior facilitated a right-wing campaign against core democratic values.
Consistency is neither man’s hobgoblin. As blatant opportunists, neither was or is loyal to anything beyond themselves. After initially flirting with the social liberalism of their day, both switched parties and ideologies. During his early career as a judge in Appleton, Wisconsin, McCarthy was criticized for granting the quickest divorces around (at a moment when divorce was still considered scandalous, something reserved for abandoned women and film stars). While in his pre-Republican mode, Trump was a self-professed New York Democrat who was once, as he told Meet the Press in 1999, “very pro-choice.”
The two men have a remarkably similar relationship with the truth. McCarthy, like many politicians, exaggerated his wartime record while publicizing his ever-changing lists of—was it 81, 57, 205?—Communists in the State Department. No need here to detail Trump’s prevarications. The Washington Post says it’s an average of six or seven a day. Denial is his default mode.
In this, Trump may well have been following the advice of McCarthy’s former staffer, the notorious legal sleaze Roy Cohn, whose good connections and tainted ethics enabled him to service both McCarthy’s irresponsible allegations as well as the current president’s unprincipled business dealings.
Like Trump, McCarthy had, in the words of Boston lawyer Joseph Welch at the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, “no sense of decency.” The Wisconsin senator cared little about the human damage his reckless accusations caused. When he chaired his congressional investigations of supposed Communists in the government, he would bully witnesses, destroy their lives and livelihoods, and then, when the cameras were off, turn on the charm and hug their lawyers. Trump, as we know, has mocked a disabled reporter, compared immigrants to animals, and boasted about sexually assaulting women.
McCarthy, like the current president, played the media with panache. The press loved him. He fed its members juicy stories. They asked few questions. How could they? McCarthy tended to release his most sensational charges so late in the day no one could fact-check them before they made the front page.
Yet, to focus so heavily on the aberrant behavior of the two men is to distort the stakes.
McCarthy and Trump, though certainly worthy of condemnation, were and are but the public face of more serious problems within the American polity. The fixation of the media on their antics, as Eric Alterman’s recent column shows, not only diverts us from those problems, but also makes it harder to deal with them.
Just as McCarthy did, Trump now operates within a polarized political world in which partisan advantage frequently overwhelms the common good. Though presenting themselves as populists, the two men actually front for the Republican Party’s business-friendly establishments of their eras. Their outrageous conduct allowed and still allows the GOP to conceal its program of dismantling the New Deal and, in Trump’s case, President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as well.
Ironically, given the damage they would cause, both men came late to the political agendas they pushed. The xenophobic and socially conservative campaign against the welfare state, the environment, and the most vulnerable members of society that Trump so blatantly abets had been decades in the making before his presidential run (as Nancy MacLean so brilliantly explains in her recent book, Democracy in Chains).
Similarly, McCarthy signed on to the anti-Communist crusade a few years after it had begun. His tactics were only a more flamboyant version of the scenario that Republican politicians had been disseminating ever since President Harry Truman’s surprise reelection in 1948 revealed that the electorate still supported the New Deal. At that point, since the GOP needed a new program, its leaders took advantage of the public insecurity that accompanied the Cold War and turned to red-baiting. They blamed the Soviet Union’s supposed victories on subversives within the Democratic administration. Communists in government, so they said, had given the bomb to Moscow and “lost” China to Mao.
McCarthy amplified that message. Instead of following President Richard Nixon’s successful tactic of leaking FBI files, he simply lied—encouraged, it should be noted, by some the GOP’s most highly respected politicians. “If one case doesn’t work out,” the Senate’s leading Republican, Robert Taft, advised his colleague, “bring up another.” And so, he did. And another. And another.
McCarthy’s wild allegations flummoxed the White House. After all, Truman and his Cold War liberal allies had already enlisted in the anti-Communist cause. Because they needed to convince the American public to provide the resources for the foreign aid and beefed-up military deemed essential for waging the Cold War, they demonized the Soviet enemy and its American appendage, the small, isolated, but legal, Communist Party.
Thus, some three or four years before Joe McCarthy appeared on the scene to give his name to the crusade against domestic Communists, Truman and his allies were already pushing to eliminate from American life the party and all the ideas, individuals, and institutions associated with Communism and the left.
They were not alone. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and similar congressional investigating committees, state and local politicians, right-wing journalists, and, most importantly, J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI all helped out, pushing the loyalty programs, blacklists, and criminal prosecutions that soon spread throughout American society.
The liberal establishment did not resist the purges. Instead, in response to pressure from the right, it turned against the left. It seemed more important to its members to avoid being labeled “soft on Communism” than to defend the Bill of Rights and the welfare state. Their timidity in the face of the Republicans’ red-baiting merely increased the power of the witch hunters.
But the liberals did oppose McCarthy. They just did so in a way that diverted attention from the real danger. They attacked the Wisconsin senator as an individual, rather than as the face of a broader wave of political repression. Their own anti-Communism had undermined the integrity and effectiveness of their alleged opposition to what they branded as “McCarthyism.” They focused their campaign on the unscrupulous charges against “innocent” liberals. As long as McCarthy et al. picked their targets correctly, many (though by no means all) moderates and liberals simply looked away. In fact, it was not until the Wisconsin senator turned on the conservative establishment that his outrageous activities brought him down.
But the damage that McCarthy—the “ism,” not the man—wreaked on the American polity remains. Its main legacy is a narrowed political spectrum in which egalitarianism is suspect and blinkered politicians and journalists focus on political minutiae while blaming “both sides” for the inequities that deform our society.
A similar process is at play today. While the pundits stew about Trump’s every scam and Twitter, they overlook the way the current regime and its judicial and legislative allies are incrementally hollowing out the democratic state.
Admittedly, Robert Mueller’s document drops cannot be ignored. They may, in fact, provide a tool for resolving the immediate crisis. Like McCarthy, Trump may become so unpalatable to the American public that the Republican establishment may finally abandon him. When that happens, we will no doubt be treated to the standard celebration of how “the system worked.” But unless we keep our eye on the structural issues involved—as we did not after Watergate or McCarthy’s demise—the current assault on the public sector will simply go underground temporarily to resurface when the present furor abates.
Trump’s erratic behavior endangers all living creatures. But, except for the encouragement that his crudity and flagrant racism have given to contemporary fascism, it is clear that the president did not write the script for his administration’s all-too-successful onslaught against the common good. That accomplishment is the product of decades of well-funded right-wing organizing and institution-building. The inevitable backlash against Trump may provide an opportunity to change our political discourse. But without a long-term commitment to intensive grassroots organizing, that chance to reclaim the United States from bigots and oligarchs may fade away. It has done so before.