He built . . . a coalition of the aggrieved—of men and women not deranged but affronted by various tendencies over the previous two or three decades . . .
That’s political reporter Richard Rovere in his 1958 classic, “Senator Joe McCarthy.” I hate to draw an analogy between McCarthy and Donald Trump because it seems so obvious . . . but I happened to be reading Rovere’s book and came across so many passages that reminded me of Trump, I had to share.
Here are a few:
He was a fertile innovator, a first-rate organizer and galvanizer of mobs, a skilled manipulator of public opinion, and something like a genius at that essential American strategy: publicity.
Intimations, allegations, accusations of treason were the meat upon which this Caesar fed. He could never swear off.
The Gallup Poll once tested his strength in various occupational groups and found that he had more admirers among manual workers than in any other category—and fewest among business and professional people.
Because McCarthyism had no real grit and substance as a doctrine and no organization, it is difficult to deal with as a movement. Adherence was of many different sorts. There were those who accepted McCarthy’s leadership and would have been happy to see him President. There were others who were indifferent to his person but receptive to what he had to say about government. There were others still who put no particular stock in what he had to say and even believed it largely nonsense but felt that he was valuable anyway.
McCarthy drew into his following most of the zanies and zombies and compulsive haters who had followed earlier and lesser demagogues in the fascist and semifascist movements of the thirties and forties. . . . But this was really the least part of it. McCarthy went far beyond the world of the daft and the frenzied—or, to put the matter another way, that world was greatly enlarged while he was about.
In his following, there were many people who counted for quite a bit in American life—some because of wealth and power, some because of intelligence and political sophistication. He was an immediate hit among the Texas oilmen, many of whom were figures as bizarre and adventurous in the world of commerce and finance as he was in the world of finance. . . . And there were intellectuals and intellectuals manque whose notions of Realpolitik had room for just such a man of action as McCarthy.
L’etat, c’est moi, legibus solutus, and I Am the Law. He and the country were one and the same, synonymous and interchangeable.
We see echoes of this, not merely in Trump’s own statements, but from his supporters. For example, this from Scott Adams (sorry!): “Trump supporters don’t have any bad feelings about patriotic Americans such as myself,” which works pretty well if by “patriotic Americans” you exclude various patriotic Americans such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Gonzalo Curiel, and various news reporters.
Back to Rovere:
It was a striking feature of McCarthy’s victories, of the surrenders he collected, that they were mostly won in battels over matters of an almost comic insignificance. His causes celebres were causes ridicules. . . .
Yet the antic features of McCarthyism were essential ones. For McCarthyism was, among other things, but perhaps foremost among them, a headlong flight from reality. It elevated the ridiculous and ridiculed the important. It outraged common sense and held common sense to be outrageous. It confused the categories of form and value. It made sages of screwballs and accused wise men of being fools. It diverted attention from the moment and fixed it on the past, which it distorted almost beyond recognition.
On the ravages of demagogy and its flight from reality, Thucydides wrote:
The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things but was changed by them at they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be courage, prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. . . . He who succeeded in a plot was deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft was he who detected one.
McCarthy, then, was of the classic breed. For all the black arts that he practiced, his natural endowments and his cultivated skills were of the very highest order. His tongue was loose and always wagging; he would say anything that came into his head and worry later, if at all, about defending what he had said.
There has never been the slightest reason to suppose that he took what he said seriously or that he believed any of the nonsense he spread.
He was a vulgarian by method as well as, probably, by instinct. . . . If he did not dissemble much, if he did little to hide from the world the sort of human being he was, it was because he had the shrewdness to see that this was not in his case necessary. . . . In general, the thing he valued was his reputation for toughness, ruthlessness, even brutality. . . . And this sort of thing was always well received by his followers.
While other politicians would seek to conceal a weakness for liquor or wenching or gambling, McCarthy tended to exploit, even to exaggerate, these wayward tastes. He was glad to have everyone believe he was a drinker of heroic attainments, a passionate lover of horseflesh, a Clausewitz of the poker table, and a man to whom everything presentable in skirts was catnip. (When a good-looking woman appeared as committee witness, McCarthy, leering, would instruct counsel “to get her telephone number for me” as well as the address for the record.)
And we’re still only on page 52.
The characteristics that Trump particularly seems to share with McCarthy are boastfulness and self-focus; willingness to boldly lie about important things and, perhaps more important, escalate rather than backing down after the lie is caught; a willingness to attack respected figures; and a fundamental frivolousness, a sense that they are not taking all this very seriously.
There are differences, the biggest being, I think, that McCarthy had a lot of political power while Trump has none. One of the most chilling things described in Rovere’s book is how much influence the senator from Wisconsin had in government operations and foreign policy.
Here’s Rovere: “One of his most striking instruments was a secret seditionist cabal he had organized within the government. This was a network of government servants and members of the armed forces (“the Loyal American Underground,” some of the proud, defiant members called themselves) who, in disregard for their oaths of office and the terms of their contracts with the taxpayers, reported directly to McCarthy and gave him their first loyalty.”
I don’t think Trump has that. He’s got a lot of internet blog commenters and maybe the support of Vladimir Putin and the Russian secret service, but I haven’t heard of a network of supporters within the U.S. government.
Another difference is that McCarthy’s thing was communism, whereas Trump’s thing is racism and sexism.
And McCarthy was more popular than Trump. Here’s Rovere:
In January 1954, when the record was pretty well all in and the worst as well as the best was known, the researches of the Gallup Poll indicated that 50 per cent of the American people had a generally “favorable opinion” of him and felt that he was serving the country in useful ways. Twenty-one per cent drew a blank—“no opinion” The conscious, though not necessarily active, opposition—those with an “unfavorable opinion”—was 29 per cent. A “favorable opinion” did not make a man a McCarthyite, and millions were shortly to revise their view to his disadvantage. But an opposition of only 29 per cent is not much to count on, and it was small wonder that his contemporaries feared him.
In contrast, Trump is viewed favorably by 34% of survey respondents and unfavorably by 58%—I just looked it up. This does not guarantee a general election loss—Hillary Clinton’s favorable/unfavorable numbers are 37% and 56%, which is not much better—but it is a contrast with the earlier demagogue.
In retrospect, I suppose McCarthy had to have been that popular, in that his national following was the source of his power, and, without it, his fellow senators would not have supported him for so long.
By pointing out these striking parallels (and some differences) between McCarthy and Trump, I do not mean to imply that Trump is the only modern politician to share certain of McCarthy’s attitudes and behaviors.
P.S. I googled *Trump McCarthy* to see what else was out there. I came across this from James Downie who emphasizes that Trump, like McCarthy, will just make up numbers and use them to get headlines.
Also this ridiculous (in retrospect) article, “The New McCarthyism of Donald Trump,” from Peter Beinart, which begins:
Pundits are pretty sure that Donald Trump has “jumped the shark.” “Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War,” declared The New York Times’ Nate Cohn last weekend. “Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments—a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.”
If Cohn is right, and I certainly hope he is, Trump’s political career will have followed the same basic arc as that of another notorious American demagogue, Joseph McCarthy. . . .
It was only when McCarthy targeted the United States military that Republicans began taking him on. In late 1953, when McCarthy began investigating alleged communist influence in the Army, the Army counterattacked. . . .
Although it’s too early to declare Trump’s political career over, the last few days resemble McCarthy’s descent in 1953 and 1954. Even before last weekend, Republican elites increasingly viewed him as a political liability. Then, on Saturday, Trump ventured beyond his previous “soft” targets—immigrants, blacks, and President Obama—and claimed John McCain was not really a war hero. Trump’s GOP opponents, who until then had mostly tried to ignore him, pounced.
When Beinart wrote, “the least few days,” that was on July 21, 2015!
What’s so wrong with the above passage is not that Nate Cohn and Peter Beinart made a prediction that happened not to occur, or even that they took Bill Kristol as representative of Republican opinion. What bugs me is that Beinart botched the history. The story is that McCarthy was riding high, then he targeted the military, then he was brought down, but that’s not quite right. Beinart locates McCarthy’s targeting of the military in 1953, but it was two years earlier, in 1951, that McCarthy attacked George Marshall. McCarthy calling Marshall a traitor was a much bigger deal than Trump saying that McCain was not really a war hero—and, sure, lots of people were stunned that McCarthy took that step—but he ascended to his greatest power after the attack on Marshall, and it was years before McCarthy lost power.
Again, I have no crystal ball. As of July 21, 2015, it was perhaps reasonable to think that, by dissing John McCain, Trump had gone too far and that he was doomed. Who’s to say. But it was a misreading of history to think that the analogous action had sent McCarthy down. McCarthy stayed afloat for years after making widely publicized and ridiculous attacks on a prominent military figure.