Like Joseph McCarthy in the early 1950s, Donald Trump has become the standard bearer of the right wing of the Republican Party. Both rose to prominence by pushing conspiracy theories. McCarthy argued that the State Department and the whole federal government were full of Communists, while Trump began the new phase of his career by suggesting that President Obama was not born in Hawaii, and continues to hint that the President has some unexplained connection to Islam. Both surprised the Republican party and the nation by the resonance their extreme claims found in the heartland—even among many working class Democrats, as well as Republicans. And ultimately, both became involved in a confrontation with their own party. McCarthy’s confrontation led to his downfall. The last phase of Trump’s confrontation with his party establishment began last week, and its outcome remains uncertain.
When Joseph McCarthy, a junior Senator from Wisconsin, announced in February 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia that he had a list of Communists knowingly employed by the State Department, he created a sensation. Like Donald Trump, McCarthy made one sweeping charge after another—none of which ever proved to be true. But despite numerous newspaper stories and Congressional investigations debunking his charges, his popularity only seemed to grow. He proved himself a national political power in the Congressional elections of 1950, when he helped defeat several relatively liberal candidates. The leadership of the Republican Party, increasingly desperate after nearly 20 years out of power, encouraged his attacks, and in the 1952 campaign, Dwight Eisenhower refused to repudiate McCarthy or anything that he had said. The Republicans won control of Congress as well as the White House that year, and McCarthy became the chairman of a powerful Senate committee.
McCarthy by this time had developed a tactic of not only accusing various left-wingers of Communist associations, but also of arguing that anyone who opposed him was a witting or unwitting dupe of the Communist conspiracy. With the Republicans back in office, their leadership expected McCarthy to confine his attacks to Democrats—but such was not to be the case. McCarthy and his Senate staff, led by Roy Cohn—later a friend of Donald Trump’s—continued finding supposed Communist influence in various government agencies. Then they stumbled upon the case of an Army dentist, Captain Irving Peress, who had refused to answer questions about his political affiliations before entering the Army. It took some months for the Army to discharge him as politically undesirable, and before it had done so, Peress was routinely promoted to major. McCarthy immediately announced that this proved a Communist conspiracy within the Army, dedicated to harboring and promoting subversives. He demanded that the Army furnish the names of everyone involved in the promotion and publicly berated the Secretary of the Army. This led to the televised “Army-McCarthy hearings,” which finally discredited him. A plurality of the Republicans in the Senate joined in censuring his conduct, and he never recovered. He died less than three years later.
Trump’s appointment of Steven Bannon of breitbnart.com to run his presidential campaign represents a final break with the Republican establishment. With only a few exceptions such as the elder members of the Bush family, that establishment had rallied around Trump for the same reason that leading Republicans failed to confront McCarthy: he has too much popular appeal, especially among their own base. Since the convention the papers have been filled with hopeful stories about Trump’s possible “pivot,” his transformation into a normal, respectable presidential candidate who would do what the party elders wanted. According to a New York Times story that evidently stung Trump, his own campaign leadership asked him to change his strategy a couple of weeks ago in an “intervention”—but he refused. (Oddly, while McCarthy was an alcoholic, Trump reportedly does not drink at all.) Instead, Trump hired Bannon, a leading figure within the populist, ultra-right faction of the Republicans represented by Breitbart, the Drudge report, and Rush Limbaugh. Just as McCarthy began to accuse the Eisenhower Administration, too, of coddling Communists, Bannon and company have labelled mainstream Republicans as RINOS, Republicans in name only. Bannon was a key figure in the primary defeat of Republican House Whip Eric Cantor in 2014, and he supported Paul Ryan’s primary opponent this year. Trump has in effect signaled the Republican Party, from Paul Ryan on down, that if he is elected they will either toe his line or face the wrath of Trump voters.
That Trump actually secured the Republican nomination shows how weak the party leadership has become. McCarthy was a national political power for four years, but he did not run for President I952 or seek the vice-presidential nomination and there was never any evidence that he could have secured the nomination. Trump, on the other hand, made short work of this year’s leading Republicans, none of whom came close to matching his appeal. He is now trailing Hillary Clinton by substantial margins in the polls, however, and the appointment of Bannon, I suspect, will start a hemorrhage of leading Republicans from his campaign. They will turn against Trump, I suspect, for the same reason the Republicans turned against McCarthy in 1954—because their own political survival is at stake. That will not be the last of Trump or the forces he represents. The Frankenstein the Republican leadership helped to create in the Bill Clinton and Obama Administrations is too large and healthy to be slain quickly. But if Trump loses very badly, it may turn out that this new eruption of the paranoid style of American politics—a term coined in response to McCarthy—has passed its peak.