Donald Trump was four years old when the word “McCarthyism” first appeared in print as shorthand to describe Senator Joe McCarthy’s penchant for lying, bullying, and trying to stifle dissent.
A review of McCarthy, McCarthyism, and the ways in which the senator battled important media of his day shows how closely Trump has hewed to the McCarthy playbook in matters of style and substance, using similar tactics to polarize the country, pitting Americans against each other. That may help explain but not excuse the irony of President Trump accusing his predecessor, Barack Obama, of “McCarthyism” when he tweeted, without evidence, that Obama had wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower just before the 2016 election.
Much the way Americans fear Muslim extremism today, McCarthy and many other politicians and public figures fueled America’s obsession with Communism following World War II.
McCarthy, a Republican, was elected to the Senate from Wisconsin in 1946 at age 38 and he was largely ignored until early 1950 when, speaking in Wheeling, West Virginia, he declared: “I have here in my hand a list of 205, a list of names made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” The next day, speaking in Salt Lake City, he said: “I hold in my hand the names of 57 card-carrying Communists” working in the State Department. Ten days later, speaking on the Senate floor, he cited 81 “cases,” including “three big Communists” whose exposure would “break the back of the espionage ring within the State Department.”
While details about McCarthy’s dark comedy have faded, the apprentice’s sequel is just being written.
McCarthy’s most sensational charge was that he knew the name of “the top Soviet espionage agent” in the US. It turned out to be Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins professor. (Subsequent Congressional hearings revealed Lattimore was sympathetic to the Soviet Union but never substantiated McCarthy’s extravagant charges against him.)
Among the first to push back was Herblock (Herbert Block), The Washington Post’s political cartoonist who, in March 1950, published a drawing of four Republican politicians trying to get a reluctant elephant to climb atop a stack of tar buckets, topped by a barrel slugged “McCarthyism.”
Meanwhile, Maryland Senator Millard Tydings, a conservative Democrat, led a committee set up to investigate the charges. Aside from Lattimore, McCarthy refused to provide the committee any of the names he said he possessed.
The Tydings report was released in July 1950. It denounced McCarthy’s charges as a “fraud and a hoax on the American people.” McCarthy attacked the report and Tydings, accusing him of being soft on communism. McCarthy’s campaign against Tydings worked, helping to defeat his bid for re-election.
Besides Herblock, the editors at Life and Time were among the first and most passionate McCarthy critics.
Although they were not alone, the importance of what appeared in those publications cannot be overstated. In the days before television, the two publications often set the agenda for debate and discussion. Henry R. Luce, the magazines’ publisher, was himself a ferocious anti-communist, who first identified the 20th century as “The American Century.”
In an April 1950 editorial, Life, speaking of McCarthy, said, “It is wrong, wicked, to smear people indiscriminately, most of whom are good Americans…It is wrong when millions of Americans lose their decent sense of judgment and are ready to believe any charge leveled against anybody regardless of proof. It is wrong when all officials of a vital arm of government—the State Department at the moment—are subjected to virulent and indiscriminate suspicion.”
Eighteen months later, Time published its first McCarthy cover, bearing the senator’s image and the caption, “Demagogue McCarthy,” followed by the question, “Does he deserve well of the republic?” The four-page, 4500-word profile made clear that Time thought not.
Time acknowledged that thousands turn out to hear his speeches and millions regard him as “a splendid American.” But commenting on the devastating Tydings report, Time wrote it “might have been expected to end the rocketing flight of Joe McCarthy. That it was a beginning, not an end, is partly explained by McCarthy’s personality. Another man, humiliated by failure to produce evidence he said he held, would have retreated and wiped a bloody nose.”
Instead, the magazine said, “He bored in, hitting low blow after low blow. He set up a barrage of new accusations which caught the headlines, drawing attention away from the fact that he had not made good on his original charge.”
Continuing its attack, Time said, “Joe, like all effective demagogues, found an area of emotion and exploited it. No regard for fair play, no scruple for exact truth hampers Joe’s political course. If his accusations destroy reputations, if they subvert the principle that a man is innocent until proved guilty, he is oblivious. Joe, immersed in the joy of battle, does not even seem to realize the gravity of his own charges.”
Time said “McCarthy never answers criticisms, just savagely attacks the critic.”
President Trump justifies lying with impunity—what he called “truthful hyperbole” in his first autobiography, The Art of the Deal. His White House staffers say they and the President rely on “alternate facts”—when fighting the “enemy of the people,” aka the media.
The similarities between McCarthy and Trump extend beyond substance to style. As Time wrote, McCarthy ‘is always in a hurry. He rushes through a newspaper in five minutes, looking just for items of special interest or use to him; he has little general curiosity.’
The similarities between McCarthy and Trump extend beyond substance to style. “Burly, ham-handed, McCarthy has a furious energy,” Time wrote. “He is always in a hurry. He rushes through a newspaper in five minutes, looking just for items of special interest or use to him; he has little general curiosity.”
McCarthy, like Trump, ate a well-cooked steak at every opportunity. Like Trump, he didn’t smoke, but unlike Trump, he was a heavy drinker. Both men had close ties to New York lawyer Roy Cohn. McCarthy pursued business interests and unpopular foreign causes while in the Senate. According to Robert T. Elson, who devoted a chapter to Time and McCarthy in his three-volume history, The World of Time Inc., the senator defended Nazis charged with massacre during World War II.
The Time cover story also reported that from 1946 to 1949, McCarthy paid no state income tax, and his listed losses and deductions for interest payments exceeded his taxable income. When asked how he lived, McCarthy said: “Who I borrow from is none of your damned business.”
Time said, “Some have argued that McCarthy’s end justifies his methods.” Sounding like many of Trump’s critics today, the publication added, “This argument seems to assume that lies are required to fight Communist lies. Experience proves, however, that what the anti-Communist fight needs is truth, carefully arrived at and presented with all the scrupulous regard for decency and the rights of man of which the democratic world is capable. This is the Western world’s greatest asset in the struggle against Communism, and those who condone McCarthy are throwing that asset away.”
Soon after publication of Time’s McCarthy cover story, the senator wrote Luce to complain about “deliberate falsifications in a very lengthy smear attack which Time Magazine made upon me.” McCarthy accused Time of “endangering the health of the country” by attacking him, a dedicated anti-Communist. He also made good on a threat to take his complaints to Time’s advertisers “so that they may be fully aware of the type of publication they are supporting.”
Although Luce allowed publication of the Life editorial and the Time cover, he worried that his editors didn’t appreciate the popularity McCarthy enjoyed with voters across the country. He had previously warned the editors of Time, Life, and Fortune that in their enthusiasm for telling people they ought not to approve McCarthy, they “forget to tell the people the shocking fact that they [i.e., the people] do approve McCarthy.”
Replying to McCarthy’s letter, Luce wrote, “You conclude your letter by a reference to those principles of fairness which must be the basis of a free America. You feel Time hasn’t lived up to those principles in its treatment of you. Time feels you haven’t lived up to those principles in your campaign against Communism. Surely we must both try harder than ever before to put these principles of fairness into practice both in the field of politics and in the field of journalism.”
Despite the media’s attacks on McCarthy and McCarthyism, the senator began 1954 with a Gallup poll showing half the country approved of him while only 29 percent disapproved. Public opinion didn’t begin to change until a couple of months later when CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow delivered a lengthy report on See It Now that used footage of McCarthy to undermine his credibility. A month after that, ABC provided live coverage the Army-McCarthy hearings in which the Army’s lawyer, Joseph Welch, responded to one of McCarthy’s charges by asking, “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”
McCarthy never recovered from the public humiliation. Three years later, he was dead. The cause was liver disease exacerbated by alcoholism. He was 48, demonized as a pariah, and stripped of much of his power.
While details about McCarthy’s dark comedy have faded, the apprentice’s sequel is just being written. The only thing certain is that like all things Trump, it will be far bigger than the original.