President Trump isn’t the first witch hunter to claims he’s the witch rather than the hunter, which he did on Saturday for the 317th time, to be exact.
The Red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, who is literally the dictionary definition of a witch hunter, fine-tuned the spin that he was the prey rather than the perpetrator. He was ready with rejoinders before the ink dried on reports branding him a fraud, christening as “Operation Whitewash” the first of those congressional condemnations and asserting that it gave “a green light to the Red fifth column in the United States.” Sound familiar?
No surprise there. The senator’s specious accusations and the president’s have a flesh-and-blood through line, a political fixer named Roy Marcus Cohn who was McCarthy’s snarling protégé in the 1950s and Trump’s bare-knuckled tutor in the ’80s. But as we try to understand the I’m-never-to-blame Kingdom of Trump, there’s an even more resonant question to ask about the Reign of McCarthy: How did “Low Blow” Joe — a witch hunter who couldn’t snare a witch, yet ruined lives trying — get away with it?
It started with his fellow senators. Democrats watched what happened to Millard Tydings, the first to mark McCarthy as the fraud that he was. When the Marylander ran for reelection in 1950, McCarthy secured financing for Tydings' Republican opponent, lent him a bag of dirty tricks, and unseated the powerful incumbent. To Senate Democrats, McCarthy’s message was clear-cut and Trump-like: beware the battering ram.
Republicans were even more yellow-bellied. Their leader in the Senate, Robert Taft of Ohio, confided to friends that McCarthy had “made allegations which are impossible to prove.” But there was a reason Taft, like today’s GOP Senate boss Mitch McConnell, was called Mr. Republican. “Whether Senator McCarthy has legal evidence, whether he has overstated or understated his case, is of lesser importance. The question is whether the Communist influence in the State Department still exists,” said Taft, knowing full well it didn’t. A Washington acquaintance explained that “McCarthyism is a kind of liquor for Taft. He knows it’s bad stuff, and he keeps taking the pledge. But every so often he falls off the wagon.”
The State Department, Voice of America and other agencies with minimal public support couldn’t withstand McCarthy’s badgering. But what about the mighty U.S. Army, which the senator said was harboring Commie moles at critical facilities? It was a slander almost as scathing as Trump’s defamation of fallen soldiers as “losers” and “suckers,” and, at least at first, the Army caved. It suspended workers targeted by McCarthy and sat by as decorated generals were humiliated. After one meeting with Army Secretary Robert Stevens, Joe told a reporter, “Stevens couldn’t have surrendered more if he crawled on his hands and knees.”
By then Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, where his brother Milton urged him to “tear McCarthy to pieces.” But Ike insisted that confronting McCarthy head-on would make him a martyr. So the president waited for the senator to do himself in, even as he was ruining careers and sowing discord. The commander-in-chief had become McCarthy’s apologist-in-chief.
Fair as it is to revisit the failings of our leaders, the enablers that matter most in a democracy like ours are the American people.
Today, we’re the ones who tolerate President Trump’s railings about being targeted by inquisitions, which he’s done in 184 Tweets, 96 White House statements and at 37 rallies (one Tweet read in part, “[Special Prosecutor Robert] Mueller and his gang . . . make Joseph McCarthy look like a baby.”) Back in McCarthy’s day, a Gallup Poll in January 1954 found that a full 50 percent of Americans felt good about the Wisconsin senator.
He built that backing, early McCarthy biographer Richard Rovere wrote, by constructing “a coalition of the aggrieved — of men and women not deranged but deeply affronted by various tendencies over the preceding two or three decades: toward internationalism, and, in particular, toward closer ties with the British; toward classlessness; toward the welfare state . . . To these and many others he was a symbol of rebellion.”
Larry Tye is the author of eight books, including the just-released Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.