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.