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Saturday, September 21, 2019

Trump's real analog

The political figure from American history whom Donald Trump most resembles, it seems to me, is Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, who for a little more than four years--from February 1950 until the middle of 1954--terrorized Washington and much of the country with accusations of Communist conspiracies in the State Department, in other parts of the Truman Administration, and inside the Democratic Party.  The chief counsel of McCarthy's Senate Permanent Investigations Subcommittee, Roy Cohn, later became associated with Trump in the 1970s and 1980s, and Trump credits him with a good deal of influence upon him.  I thought of all this as I read the stories about Trump's apparent conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and read the transcript of Rudi Giuliani's interview with Chris Cuomo.   Trump  employs essentially the same tactics as McCarthy, and seems to me to be, in important ways, the same kind of person.  That he has risen much further, alas, shows how much American political life has deteriorated over the last 70 years or so.

McCarthy burst upon the scene in February 1950, at a Lincoln Day Republican dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, when he claimed to have evidence that more than 200 card carrying Communists were working at the State Department.  He had been elected four years earlier during a Republican sweep, thanks in part to complicated maneuverings within Massachusetts politics that even led to his receiving the support of the small Communist party.  The state was then very liberal and he needed an issue for his impending re-election. Communism became it.

Trump. of course, burst onto the national political scene in the summer of 2015 with his sensational claims about illegal immigrants, but his real similarity to McCarthy emerged when he had to respond to allegations that his campaign had worked with Russian intelligence during 2016.  Having "discovered" more than 200 non-existent Communists in the State Department, McCarthy treated all the opposition to him as evidence of how vast the Communist conspiracy was.  When he was challenged--for instance, by Senator Milward Tydings of Maryland, whose Foreign Relations subcommittee found his charges baseless later in 1950--he argued that his challengers were working for the Communists themselves--and he managed to secure Tydings's defeat, in his bid for a fifth Senate term, in November 1950, when Republicans made big gains again.  After that the Republican Party adopted McCarthy in much the same way that it has now adopted Trump.  With very rare exceptions, such as Senator Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Republicans decided that he was too big an asset to discard, and too much of a threat to oppose.   In 1952, when General Dwight Eisenhower won the Republican nomination, Ike planned during a campaign swing through Wisconsin to refer favorably to his old boss, General George Marshall, whom McCarthy had accused of treasonously handing China over to the Communists on the floor of the Senate.  His political handlers talked him into deleting it.  Richard Nixon, who had begun beating the Communist treachery drum well before McCarthy, regarded him as an important ally.

The election of Eisenhower deprived McCarthy of a Democratic target at the White House, and the Republican assumption of the control of the Senate gave him a powerful committee chairmanship.  Pushed by Cohn, McCarthy continued looking for Communists within the government even though it was now in his own party's hands.  Looking for Communists within the U.S. Army, he stumbled upon an Army dentist named Irving Peress, who had been discharged after he refused to answer routine questions about membership in organizations deemed subversive.  While this action against him was pending, however, he had been routinely promoted from captain to major, and "Who promoted Peress?" became McCarthy's rallying cry.  In the meantime, another committee staffer, David Schine--who had gone on investigative trips with the gay Roy Cohn--was drafted into the US Army.  McCarthy's office, it turned out, had tried to intercede with his commanders on numerous occasions to get him special treatment.  That led to another set of Senate hearings that eventually led to McCarthy's downfall.

Trump's response to the whistle blower's accusations about his phone conversation with President Zelensky last month, in which he apparently demanded that Zelensky pursue an investigation of Joe Biden's son Hunter, who had worked with a Ukrainian bank, comes right from McCarthy's playbook.  Circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine for several months this summer to pressure Zelensky to go after Hunter Biden.  Before the content of the phone call leaked, however, Rudy Giuliani, playing the role of Roy Cohn, went on television to accuse Biden, essentially, of doing what Trump had done: of threatening to withhold aid from Ukraine if a previous president did not fire a particular prosecutor who, Giuliani claims without evidence, was investigating his son.  This was (and still is) of course the Trump team's tactic towards the Russia investigation as well: to insist that it was Hillary Clinton, not Trump and his minions, who colluded with the Russians to win the election. Both Trump and McCarthy seem to believe that attack is not simply the best defense, it's the only defense.

Going a layer deeper, I would suggest that the things McCarthy and Trump have done suggest another similarity: a total lack of commitment to, or respect for, anything but their own narcissistic self-image as superheroes fighting a hostile world.  McCarthy didn't care about the enormous damage he did to the State Department, the Army, and America's image abroad, provided that it got him more ink.   Trump in the same way has no respect for fundamental laws and principles of American government as he wages his endless struggle against his enemies.  That is why he was willing to try to conspire with a foreign government to try to destroy a political opponent, validating the charge that he had to fight with respect to Russia for two years.  Since Zelensky might help him, it was Zelensky's duty to do so.  Turning to him parallels what Trump did in the 1990s, when he turned to Deutsche Bank, a foreign entity, for credit, because American banks, burned by his successive bankruptcies, wouldn't lend to him any longer.  He sees himself, not simply as an American, but as Donald Trump, international superstar, the equal of men like Putin, Zi, and Kim Jong Un.  They can give him the stature that the reality based community here in the US denies him.

Sadly, Trump disposes of considerably more resources than McCarthy did in his own struggle for survival.  McCarthy had allies in the press and on the radio, but they did not compare in their reach to Fox News, Trump's own private ministry of propaganda.  While McCarthy had considerable influence within the Republican Party, he could not compete with a Republican President who had returned the GOP to power in a landslide, and who had more to offer his fellow Senators than he did.  Trump has essentially no Republican opposition.  Many Senate Republicans cut McCarthy loose and destroyed him in a censure vote in 1954 because they found it politically wise to do so.  It seems inconceivable to me that that will happen to Trump before the 2020 election.

Only the American voter, it seems, can drive Trump out of office.  Here the McCarthy parallel offers some hope.  Even at his peak, he was never nearly as popular in Wisconsin as many assumed.  When he stood for re-election in 1952 he defeated an almost unknown opponent by a plurality of 113,000 votes, while Eisenhower carried the state over Stevenson by 358,000 votes.  This week, every general election trial heat poll--including Fox News's--shows Trump trailing all three of the leading Democratic candidates.  Trump's election in 2016, however close it may have been, proved that the American political system had ceased to function for the public good.  The signs are that the public will be willing to take a first step in restoring it, by voting  him out of office.


Bozon said...

Great stuff.
Trump and McCarthy.
It has become a real pig's breakfast in American politics.

I just want to note a few things about the McCarthy era.

Interestingly, Christopher Andrew said that McCarthy arguably performed the role, albeit unconsciously, of the KGB's most successful Cold War Agent of influence.

Roy Cohn, a Jewish Democrat, prosecuted the Rosenbergs, also Jews, who were as guilty of espionage and fully deserved their deaths as the day is long. As did so many other Soviet agents who evaded that fate. That Cohn was a queer and died of AIDS is neither here nor there. McCarthy wasn't going after queers but rather communists.

The State Department was lousy with them, as was Treasury, and most of the rest of the Roosevelt administration as well, regardless of McCarthy's antics or your scepticism.

As Andrew notes, in The Secret World, p. 672, McCarthy's witch hunt made liberal opinion naively sceptical of the reality of the Soviet intelligence offensive (both the past and the future), for the remainder of the Cold War.

McCarthy's estimate, when he burst on the scene, having discovered 200 card carrying Communists in the State Department, was probably actually an understatement. See for example Venona books, Haunted Wood, The Mitrokhin Archive, etc.

All the best

CrocodileChuck said...

"to insist that it was Hillary Clinton, not Trump and his minions, who colluded with the Russians to win the election"

John Podesta, Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, commissioned the Steele dossier.

What more proof [regarding collusion with the Russians] do you need?

Energyflow said...

Communism is nowadays relatively popular with Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and AOC leading the way. If Trump represents a more traditional line then he has evefy right to believe as he likes. Politics can certainly be dirty on every side. Power plays seem similar as people have same playbook starting with 'Art of War' by Tsun Tzu. At War college tactics are taught to officers. They apply them equally. One does not accuse them of being evil or the enemy for using such a tactic. Nonsensical argument to smear opponent on your part. Logical fallacy of some sort. Change is needed but what I cannot tell. Certainly democrats ruling brought no better. Generally only power hungry sociopaths take up politics anyway. Who can we trust?

David Kaiser said...

You are mistaken, Crocodile Chuck. Republicans originally commissioned the Steele dossier.

David Kaiser said...

Bozon, I believe you are mistaken on several points. The Venona book certainly did not confirm 200 Communists in the State Department. It is well documented that McCarthy never discovered a single Communist--everyone he named had either already been named by some one else, or wasn't a Communist. And it's certainly news to me that Roy Cohn was ever a Democrat. Or that Ethel Rosenberg, who never did any spying, deserved execution.

Bozon said...

Thanks for this note.

Not that McCarthy did a good job, but it would have often been difficult to prove someone not a communist, but you seem able to see those cases. I guess that proof must have come out somehow.

I only read one of the main books on Venona, and part of another. They were not so much about mere communists, but did discussed at some points the use of the much more numerous communists by actual Soviet agents and American traitors. It is these numerous communists everywhere in government that I was referring to, not actual agents like White at Treasury, or Hiss, etc.

I forget the sources, but Venona books and or Haunted Wood confirmed that both Rosenbergs were deeply involved in espionage for a long time together. The Venona material seems incontrovertible where it identifies an agent where doubt had previously existed.

They were singled out for execution, when perhaps fifty or a hundred others richly deserved it too.

See Venona project, Wikipedia, for reference to Venona project discussion of Ethel as a spy accessory, recruiter of atomic espionage personnel, and traitor.

There is no doubt that she deserved the death she got.

All the best

Bozon said...

Apparently, McCarthy hired Cohn over Robert Kennedy.
Cohn's father was a very well connected New York Supreme Court Justice, and very active in Democratic politics.
I don't know what Cohn's political alignment actually was, but had assumed that it was Deomcratic. I could be wrong.
All the best