Peter Spiegel, U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times, produced an interesting but highly flawed piece the other day in which he described a recent revelation that struck him as a key to understanding Donald Trump. Trump, he realized, is essentially the latest incarnation of Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin senator from the 1950s who leveraged national anxieties about communism to brutalize his political enemies.
“Like Trump,” writes Spiegel, “the late Republican senator played on the fears of working-class Americans and used falsehoods and demagoguery to catapult himself into dominance of the Washington scene.” For further insight into this revelation, Spiegel telephoned Larry Tye, author of a 2016 book called Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. Tye suggests that McCarthy and Trump can be thrown together as examples of “America’s love affair with bullies.”
This “bully” characterization, which Spiegel quotes approvingly, is interesting in two respects. First, it insults the American people as a population unmoored from any intrinsic regard for the principle of fair play in politics. This is simplistic to the point of distortion. Further, it perpetuates an inaccurate portrayal of the unfortunate McCarthy episode in American history, which leads inevitably to a faulty understanding of the meaning of Trump in our own time.
To untangle this mess, we must begin with a definition of McCarthyism. Spiegel defines it as “a slightly paranoid take on the threat posed by international communism.” Webster’s fills this out nicely by saying it is “the use of indiscriminate, often unfounded, accusations, sensationalism, inquisitorial investigative methods, etc., ostensibly in suppression of communism.”
But, inevitably, neither definition provides a sense of the political environments that breed these inquisitorial investigative methods. This hinders a full understanding of this particular political phenomenon. Hollywood movies and intellectual historians present a consistent view of the Wisconsin senator as coming totally out of the blue, roiling a serene nation with utterly false and brutal accusations of communist activity when there was absolutely no basis for any such accusations. That seems to be the Spiegel interpretation.
It’s false. Just two weeks before McCarthy’s first anticommunist rant, Alger Hiss, accused of passing secret U.S. documents to a Soviet spy when he was a high-level government official, was convicted of perjury in the matter. Then the government reported that Klaus Fuchs, a British physicist who had worked at the Los Alamos atomic-weapons facility during the war, had been arrested as a Soviet spy. These developments, along with other revelations of lax security measures in many government agencies, generated powerful anxieties at a time when most Americans believed, correctly, that the U.S. nuclear monopoly had been the margin of security in saving Western Europe from being overrun by the Soviets.
In other words, McCarthyism, properly understood, is about how people behave when there really is reason for concern or even alarm, as there was in McCarthy’s day. But, if Spiegel wants to make the McCarthy analogy in relation to Trump, let’s do it–beginning with the sturm und drang surrounding allegations that Trump was an “agent” in thrall to Russian handlers, a “tool” of Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Now here’s an episode of the Trump era that truly fits the definition of McCarthyism: “use of indiscriminate, often unfounded, accusations,” check; “sensationalism,” check; “inquisitorial investigative methods,” check. Only a zealous partisan could look at that sordid tale and insist that what was done to Trump was not a display of McCarthyism, as we understand the term. Consider Representative Adam Schiff of California, who pronounced to the American people that he had the evidence on Trump, “and it is more than just circumstantial.” The only thing missing from this abject McCarthyite behavior were the phrases, “I have here in my hand….” and “a conspiracy so immense….”
Or consider the behavior of the country’s top intelligence officials under Barack Obama: James Clapper and John Brennan. Brennan said that “Watergate pales really…compared to what we’re confronting now.” He dismissed Trump’s protests of innocence as “hogwash,” which constituted a roundabout allegation of treason. He crystallized the point more directly by saying the president’s behavior following a Helsinki meeting with Putin was “nothing short of treasonous.” Clapper, meanwhile, invoked the constitutional definition of treason when he said Trump was “essentially aiding and abetting the Russians.” Asked if Trump was a Russian asset, as former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe had suggested was possible, Clapper said, “I completely agree with the way Andy characterized it.”
It turned out, of course, that all this was bogus. Robert Mueller’s unconstrained and targeted investigation spent $25 million in assembling 19 lawyers and 40 FBI agents and other officials, issuing 2,800 subpoenas, interviewing 500 witnesses, and inspecting thousands of emails. In the end it found “insufficient evidence” for any charges related to the allegation of “Russian collusion.”
In a sense it could be argued that this is a more serious form of McCarthyism than that perpetrated by McCarthy himself, given that McCarthy’s behavior was undergirded by more actual disturbing facts than the anti-Trump frenzy.
Take, for example, McCarthy’s last great political assault, on the army, which proved his undoing when the army and the Eisenhower administration finally decided to fight back with enough fury to bring down the demagogic senator over his improper efforts to influence military personnel decisions to benefit a McCarthy friend (and, perhaps more importantly, a friend of McCarthy’s sinister aide, Roy Cohn). Spiegel calls this “McCarthy’s Rubicon,” though he glosses over some pertinent facts.
Postwar columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop, though fervent in their anti-McCarthy convictions, understood better than most journalists just how vulnerable Eisenhower was to the Wisconsin senator’s demagoguery. That’s because years earlier they had discovered “the most serious infiltration of communists in the American government,” as Stewart Alsop described it in a private letter to his editor. It was in Eisenhower’s command during his time as supreme commander of Allied forces after World War II. Now, as the final McCarthy battle heated up, the brothers’ reporting pieced together a picture of a communist fifth column that had controlled financial and manpower policy throughout the Eisenhower command, had fostered the communist takeover of some major West German newspapers, and had almost handed control of the German labor unions to communist cadres.
This was serious misfeasance, but the Alsop brothers never wrote the story. Instead, Joseph Alsop sought an audience with Eisenhower’s chief of staff Sherman Adams, the former New Hampshire governor, so he could outline the situation and seek an assurance that the administration intended to fight McCarthy before he could unleash his viper’s tongue on Eisenhower himself, based on this old and now-irrelevant information.
“Alsop, we’ll fight,” said Adams.
“Well,” said Alsop, “that was all I came to find out, governor. Leaving my notes with you, I have forgotten the conversation already.”
What this demonstrates is that communism was in fact a serious menace in various precincts of government in the early postwar period, and it needed attention. This certainly doesn’t excuse McCarthy’s effort to seek political leverage by blowing the threat out of proportion and stirring up civic fears beyond the real situation. But it certainly provides some political context.
It demonstrates also that McCarthyism is rampant in our politics today, and it isn’t confined merely to those considered boorish and heretical by journalistic and political figures such as Adam Schiff and Peter Spiegel. Of Trump, it can be said that he brought about a major accomplishment in American politics when he forced into the national debate topics and civic concerns that had been ignored or suppressed for years by the political establishment. Then, after riding that attainment into the White House, he proved to be a complete political incompetent whose unseemly antics undercut his achievements, and who set back his party and his cause far more than he advanced them.
But, viewed in the context of the true nature of McCarthyism, then and now, he’s less a perpetrator of those poisonous tactics than a victim of them.
Robert W. Merry, veteran Washington journalist and publishing executive, is the author most recently of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).
Read More Feedzy