On Wednesday morning, about 140 Congressmen and about a dozen Senators planned to argue in effect, that Joe Biden had not really been elected President. Well after midnight that night, the House and Senate certified Biden's election. Now, three days later, the impeachment of Trump is almost certain, he has been forever banned from Twitter, several key cabinet members have quit, Mike Pence is under pressure to invoke the 25th amendment, and his two foremost Senatorial defenders face pressure to resign. Trump's spectacular fall, parallel to his extraordinary rise, confirms the parallel between his career and the most famous demagogue of the last century, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin. That parallel is worth exploring.
One important parallel relates to their personalities. McCarthy was an alcoholic who died in 1957 of liver failure, just three years after his political downfall Trump does not drink, but it occurred to me the other day that he is a perfect example of what some therapists call a "dry drunk"--someone who displays all the instability, narcissism, and continual rage of an alcoholic without drinking. I googled this association and was astonished to find only a few hits, although one of them was this excellent article by a 12-step veteran. The question of why such people can exert such a hold on those around them--and in some cases, on the broader public as well--remains open.
Let us first review the key details of McCarthy's career. A judge in Wisconsin, he reached the Senate in the Republican sweep of 1946 thanks in part to a split in his own party. He made no real impression in Washington for three years. Then, in February 1950, in a Lincoln Day dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, he announced that he had evidence that 205 members of the Communist Party were working at the State Department. This was what Trump's ghostwriter for The Art of the Deal called "truthful hyperbole." The evidence was simply a letter written by the Secretary of State to Congress in 1946, explaining that extensive security investigations had led to a "recommendation against permanent employment" for 284 employees of which 79 had been "separated from the service." McCarthy had subtracted 79 from 284, assumed without evidence that the rest still worked there, and converted them into Communist Party members.
Like Trump with his rants about NAFTA and immigration, McCarthy was building on a foundation of actual facts. Alger Hiss, once a high State Department official, had recently been convicted of perjury for denying that he was a Communist spy. We know now thanks to Venona intercepts that the Soviet spy network within the government was much larger than anyone realized at the time. McCarthy, however, never added anything to what was already known. He accused many people of Communist ties in the next four years, but he never uncovered a single Communist himself. Everyone he identified had either already been so identified, like Hiss, or was innocent of the charge.
In addition, McCarthy, like Trump, tapped into the enormous resentment of large parts of the American people against the eastern (now bicoastal) elite, which seemed to feel that it knew best for everyone, and had led the nation into the Second World War and was about to lead it into the Korean War,. Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State who became McCarthy's no. 1 target, symbolized that elite then in exactly the same way that Hillary Clinton came to symbolize it in the 2010s. And just as the tide was running somewhat against the Democratic Party in 2016 after eight years in power, it was running against the Democrats in 1950-2 after nearly twenty years in power. After McCarthy's initial charges, a subcommittee of the Senate led by four term Senator Millard Tydings of Maryland, a Democrat, investigated them and found them baseless. McCarthy threw everything he had against Tydings in his campaign for re-election that fall, including a faked photo of Tydings with the head of the US Communist Party, and Tydings lost his seat. McCarthy also developed the same symbiotic relationship with the press that Trump has: although they knew most of what he said was false, they felt they had to report it--and he sold a lot of newspapers. And he used the Senate floor the way Trump has used Twitter, blasting anyone who dared to stand up to him as a witting or unwitting dupe of the Communist conspiracy behind the cloak of Congressional immunity.
Like all such historical comparisons, this one illuminates the differences between two time periods, as well as the similarities between the main actors. McCarthy became a national figure and the center of controversy as a junior US Senator because of one speech in a small city in the heartland. No sitting Senator today could get 1/10 as much attention from anything he or she said or did on the floor of the Senate or off of it, because we no longer take our politics so seriously,. Trump on the other hand became a national figure with a personal following no other Republican candidate in 2016 could match thanks to reality TV. Radio personalities like Father Coughlin on the right and Drew Pearson on the left had enormous followings in the 1930s and 1940s, but none of them ever tried to parlay their stature into high office. And no one ever regarded McCarthy as a serious presidential candidate--even the man himself.
Still crucially, McCarthy, like Trump, quickly got the active help and support of most of the Republican establishment, who welcomed a new weapon against the hated Democrats and thought that they could control him. Senator Robert Taft, the Mitch McConnell of the day, told McCarthy to keep swinging for the fences--"if one case doesn't work, try another." Senator Richard Nixon, who had already made his name from the Hiss case, became a staunch ally. Dwight Eisenhower kowtowed to him in his 1952 campaign for President. McCarthy had accused General George Marshall of having handed China to the Communists, and Eisenhower planned to defend Marshall--who had made Eisenhower's career--in a campaign stop in Wisconsin. Campaign operatives talked him out of it. Trump took longer to win the support of the Republican establishment, but by 2018 they were firmly in his pocket, and loyally defended him in his impeachment trial, at enormous cost to the nation, in 2019. Eisenhower won in a landslide, and the Republicans narrowly regained control of the Congress. That gave McCarthy an important committee chairmanship.
Over the next year McCarthy turned out to be just as dangerous to a Republican administration as to a Democratic one. His subcommittee on investigations continued terrorizing various government agencies with phony investigations, including the Voice of America, the US Information Agency, and the Army Signal Corps at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. That last investigation led to the Army-McCarthy hearings in the spring of 1954 and to his downfall.
The sources of McCarthy's political demise also make for interesting comparisons. One key episode was Edward R. Murrow's masterful attack upon him on CBS, beautifully dramatized nearly 20 years ago by George Clooney in Good Night and Good Luck,. Fourteen years later Walter Cronkhite used his comparable prestige to help turn public opinion against the Vietnam War, but there is no nonpartisan television personality today with anything like that degree of respect. Another big factor in the McCarthy hearings--at least as important as Joseph Welch's famous monologue--was the revelation that one of his staffers, Roy Cohn, had constantly interceded with Army authorities to try to get special treatment for his good friend and fellow staffer G. David Schine after Schine was drafted. Every young American man had been subject to the draft for most of the last fourteen years in 1954, and they and their families were accustomed to standing up for their equal rights. Now we have lost that sense of shared service, shared sacrifice, and common rights. Trump was a draft avoider, and proud of it.
The televised hearings showed McCarthy to the country as he really was, and the Republican Party now recognized him as an embarrassment with Congressional elections just months away. They agreed to a new, bipartisan committee which majority leader Lyndon Johnson handpicked to ensure McCarthy's downfall. The committee found that he had brought disrepute upon the Senate recommended his censure. While the issue was hanging fire, the Republicans lost their majorities in the House and Senate in the Congressional election. A month later, the Senate "condemned" McCarthy by a vote of 67-22. The parallels to Trump's downfall are almost exact. Like McCarthy, he had turned against leaders of his own party after they failed to back his attempt to steal the election. He had been heard browbeating the Georgia Secretary of State--a Republican-- and his own Vice President in the same way that McCarthy had publicly blasted an Army general before his committee. And last Tuesday, the day before the storming of the Capitol, Trump had cost the Republicans their Senate majority. When he once again did the indefensible on Wednesday, they had no reason to defend him.
As Richard Rovere pointed out more than sixty years ago in his masterful polemic, Senator Joe McCarthy, McCarthy still had plenty of resources to work with early in 1955--including, like Trump, a devoted following of millions of Americans. But he fell apart because he could not live with defeat, and because most of the press now ignored him and he could no longer secure the attention he craved. In another hopeful sign, "McCarthyism" died with him. Anti-Communist smears soon became unfashionable, the Supreme Court reversed itself on at least one key point, and within five years the Hollywood blacklist was broken. Indications suggest that Trump is staring at the same fate. He now seems certain to be impeached and Mitch McConnell seems to be seriously considering convicting him to make sure that he cannot run for President again. Much worse, for Trump personally, he has lost his Twitter platform, apparently forever. (The major social media platforms have at least temporarily become the gatekeepers that define unacceptable speech, just as the major newspapers and tv networks were in the 1950s.) He will probably try to create some new platform but anyone who can help him will come under enormous pressure not to. He has evidently contemplated living abroad, and I will not be surprised if he does. Whether the tone of our politics will change remains to be seen.
Yet despite their parallel fates, the comparison of Trump and McCarthy still shows how much worse off we are in 2021 than in 1955. McCarthy was never a serious candidate for higher office; Trump became President. Between the 1950s and the 2020s, our political elites lost the confidence of the American people, and until they get it back we remain in grave danger. The great crisis of 1929-45 gave us Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and then the whole generation of GI politicians from JFK through George H. W. Bush. Not a single comparable political or military figure has emerged from the crisis of the last twenty years. Trump won election because he realized that tens of millions of Americans rejected the bipartisan political consensus on issues like trade, immigration, and the shape of our economy. He did not, of course, do anything to really help his voters, but they, and many Democrats as well, still feel the same way. Our greatest task still lies ahead.