The swift rise and rapid collapse of McCarthyism more than sixty years ago offers evidence and a relatively recent example of the capacity of American society and democratic institutions to recover from the paralyzing sway the politics of fear, xenophobia, ethnic division and subversion can temporarily hold over the body politic.
Donald Trump and Joseph McCarthy
Surfacing during eras of extreme cultural stress, and highly dependent on the symbolic appeal of simplistic purifying or redemptive solutions targeting infectious ‘alien’ agents—the Red Menace in the ‘50s or terrorist Muslims and Central American caravans today-- such movements rely on two basic ingredients. First, a heightened fear that ‘enemies’ have penetrated the nation’s porous borders, taking advantage of our over-tolerant institutions; and second the powerful appeal of a self-appointed charismatic leader willing to transcending normal institutional limits in order to protect the vulnerable homeland and root out by any means necessary subversive elements within and without.
There have been previous outbreaks of what historian Richard Hofstadter first described as the “Paranoid Style” in American politics. But the infectious America First nationalism and anti immigrant fear-mongering of Donald Trump today has only one major parallel: the fierce anti-communist witch-hunt fanned to a fever pitch by the Junior Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, in the early 1950’s. Though different in scope and scale, both McCarthyism and Trumpism share a common script, and, if history is any guide, contain similar seeds leading to their own ultimate devolution and destruction.
McCarthy was late to recognize but quick to exploit the enormous potential and power that extreme and undocumented charges against ‘elite’ government officials could bring at a critically unsettling moment in the early Cold War. Aided and enabled by ambitious politicians, credulous reporters and officials like FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover willing to use the Senator for their own purposes, McCarthy was suddenly elevated to a position where even the threat of his investigations could silence or destroy powerful individuals and institutions at every level of government and society. Even without Trump’s enormous degree of institutional authority, McCarthy’s assumed power, for a time, seemed unlimited.
Though initially challenged by a few members of his own party who recognized the danger he posed to constitutional freedoms, and later, publicly, by media figures such as the respected broadcaster, Edward R. Murrow, it was, importantly, McCarthy himself whose continuing excesses brought him down.
Legal decisions ultimately prevented some of his most extreme actions, though not before thousands of individuals had their careers and lives destroyed by mere threats or charges. Exposed to a national audience during the televised Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy and his counsel Roy Cohn’s bullying misuse of power, prompting the famous line uttered by Attorney Joseph Welch: “Senator, have you at last no decency left?” exposed him for the demagogue he was.
Once the “spell” was broken, the air went rapidly out of the balloon. Public approval diminished; previous supporters backed away from the spectacle. McCarthy’s political power in congress soon evaporated, and though in some cases it took decades, individuals and institutions McCarthy had attacked could begin to respond and rebuild.
We don’t know yet how many insulted American heroes, generals or admirals it will take, or how many humiliated or berated intelligence agents, or agencies. Nor how many ignorant and un-empathetic comments about the Puerto Rican hurricane, synagogue shooting or Californian fire victims.
How many juvenile or vile name-calling tweets belittling basketball players, commentators or political critics it will take to break the spell. But the spell will break. Indecency has its limits!
On the political side, the scale of the country’s growing repudiation of Trumpism is becoming increasingly evident as final vote counts in various regions confirm the strength of an actual ‘blue wave’ in national and state elections. Where Trump’s acolytes and enablers did win, their victories were hard-fought and far narrower than expected, often dependent on deliberate techniques of voter suppression and political gerrymandering. Denied or not, rising blue tides do indicate gradually melting poles of support.
True to form, and much like that of the earlier demagogue, the President’s immediate response was to attack: first by deriding losing candidates who had not sought his blessing; then by firing the Attorney General whom he had long blamed and demeaned for not sufficiently protecting him from the Mueller investigation, and then by appointing a strong supporter who would do so. Attempting to reassure his base, Mr. Trump then reignited his war with the “fake news” media, berating African American reporters at his first full news conference and then banning an assertive CNN reporter who insisted on asking difficult questions.
As vote counts tightened, he was quick to charge election officials with fraud, whipping up resentment and public passion against nameless ‘enemies’ as well as against the legitimate mechanisms of democratic governance. Most recently, in attacking a Federal Appeals Court ruling against his asylum policies, he incurred an unheard of rebuke by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court who defined the independence of the Judicial System as a critical feature of American democracy countering the President’s attack by saying “there are no Obama judges, or Bush or Clinton judges…..”
Continual exposure to a Chief Executive whose authoritarian tendencies, willingness to incite violent passions, compulsion to lie, lack of empathy towards minorities, asylum-seekers, victims of natural disasters—and even homeless children-- and vindictiveness toward those in the press or public who dare to question his policies and behavior, appears to have begun to awaken a significant portion of the public, among them former supporters.
We may not know yet whether the “spell” has fully been broken, or where the “break point” actually is, but it is clear politically that his self-inflated balloon has sprung leaks. Attacks on old ‘enemies’ (Hillary, ‘fake news’ media, congressional opponents, proponents of climate change, NATO allies) will go on, as well, but have passed their sell-by date. Those, and even newer threats like the ‘invasion’ of legitimate asylum-seekers from Central America may no longer serve to patch the increasingly visible holes. Failed tax policies, disruptive tariff wars and unexpected foreign events emanating from the Middle East—as well as the fallout from the Mueller investigation—may well complete the process.
Just as McCarthy’s rampage weakened democratic institutions at home while endangering America’s standing abroad, Trump’s embrace of authoritarian leaders and murderous tyrants can only undermine any remaining sense of America’s moral capacity to guide international affairs in a positive direction.
Yet, cultural and institutional limits to coarse, brutal and amoral practices in the name of public welfare do exist, and if modern American history is any guide, there is a point when ‘fevers’ (political or otherwise) do break. The question then is how basically healthy bodies can slowly recover and rebuild, and how much lasting damage has been done.
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