It’s a common theme in today’s political analysis to argue that Donald Trump broke America. Looking at the ongoing dumpster fire that is the Repugnican Party, the rise of white supremacists, neo-Nazis, anti-science, pro-disease, misogynist, pseudo-religious, and anti-justice groups into the centre of the party’s power seems clear evidence of Trump’s deleterious effect on both the party and democracy. It’s difficult to argue convincingly America isn’t broken these days, and that Trump isn’t the reason.
But as damaging as Trump continues to be, he didn’t start the downhill slide. The party was broken decades before Trump ever thought of entering politics.
In his book, A Conspiracy So Immense: The World of Joe McCarthy (Oxford University Press, 2005), David Oshinsky tells the story of the man wrote the playbook Trump would later follow. McCarthy was a master of deflection, accusation, innuendo, the unrelenting personal attack, the outright lies, manipulating the media, and, of course, taking the spotlight. He careened through his political life, destroying reputations and careers along the way, and alienating allies, while shredding many of America’s basic beliefs in freedom and democracy.
Trump learned from the master, and then upped the stakes.
McCarthy’s era might have easily been the subject of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, had it been written a few years later. Under McCarthyism, a difference of opinion, a hair’s breadth stray from the rigid orthodoxy of the right (his vision of the right) was a thoughtcrime. To even think about anything other than his personal view of patriotism, governance, or global politics could be your undoing.
McCarthy’s ideology was myopically narrow, and thus remarkably similar to that of his arch-nemesis, Joseph Stalin. The parallels between Stalin’s purges and show trials and McCarthy’s hearings are not dwelt upon in the book, but anyone with even a modicum knowledge of the history will see them. When a witness was called to a McCarthy hearing, as was a defendant in Stalin’s show trials, they were guilty regardless of any evidence to the contrary. McCarthy only lacked the authority to have them summarily shot (as many of his supporters clamoured to have done to them).
McCarthy was ostensibly on the hunt for Communists in government, academia, and the armed forces. In reality, he was hunting dissent, difference, and Democrats. Anything left of the far, far right, even moderate centrists in his own party, were the enemy. He saw conspiracies everywhere, shadowy figures pulling the strings of the government for nefarious leftist schemes. He made wild claims, made unkept promises to provide evidence, and spun so many stories so rapidly that the media was unable to fact-check his many statements between deadlines.
He threw around accusations of Democrats being Communist supporters when they weren’t slavishly supportive. Even if someone in his own party questioned his techniques or his statements, they came under his lash. In much the same way, Trump and his followers still accuse Democrats of being the “radical left” and ‘socialists” even though such wild accusations are risible to anyone who actually knows what those terms mean.
McCarthy didn’t stop with mere accusations; like Trump he often pushed and pushed to absurd extremes, ramping up his attacks and insults, spreading his net further, making himself and his supporters appear a tiny, brave army of isolated defenders fighting in a turbulent sea against armies of leftwing cadres. Nothing was sacred or immune from his witch hunt. Only he and his supporters were the “true Americans” — everyone else was a traitor and McCarthy meant to expose them all.
The right-as-victim trope didn’t start with McCarthy, but both he and Trump exploited it to their utmost (it continues as a major theme among the right). The government, his party, even his own party’s president (Eisenhower) seemed impotent against the tidal wave of McCarthyism, as the moderate Repugnicans have been against Trumpism.
Under McCarthyism, as under Trumpism, only the far-right was presumed to have any reason (or right) to exist, to voice its sentiments or perspectives, to make policies and decisions. Trump merely expanded the definition to include his base of totalitarians, authoritarians, racists, armed insurgent gangs, Talibangelists, and neo-Nazis. McCarthy, like Trump, even attacked members of his own party when they failed to toe his ultra-orthodox line. Both men leveraged hatred, fear, and xenophobia to build and fuel their base. They saw the “enemy” everywhere and galvanized their supporters to see them too. And attack them.
As Eric Hoffer wrote in The True Believer (Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements):
The enemy—the indispensible devil of every mass movement—is omnipresent. He plots both outside and inside the ranks of the faithful. It is his voice that speaks through the mouth of the dissenter, and the deviationists are his stooges. If anything goes wrong within the movement, it is his doing. It is the sacred duty of the true believer to be suspicious. He must be constantly on the lookout for saboteurs, spies and traitors.
There are differences, of course. McCarthy was seemingly a solid, believing Catholic, while Trump was an opportunist who has no religion but conned the religious right into ignoring his sins and anointing him as their saviour. McCarthy didn’t appear to have any particular sense of racial hatred, while Trump encouraged and lauded neo-Nazis and their ilk. McCarthy didn’t seem to have any larger political ambition, to run for president, for example. Trump, of course, is all about his ego and his narcissistic love of supreme power. McCarthy served in the military during WWII, while Trump cunningly got excused from service for “bone spurs.”
But both were backed by absolutely loyal, unquestioning supporters who can be classified in the “true believer” category as per Hoffer’s definition, Their supporters accepted their leader’s conspiracy claims unquestioningly, and who parrot their leader’s lies without even the pretense of pretending to qualify or prove them. There is a natural progression from McCarthy to Trump: while McCarthy’s supporters mostly seemed content to write angry letters to politicians, Trump’s less-literate, armed mobs tried to storm the Capital and take over the government by force. (I suspect the NRA’s influence in the interim has a lot to do with that.) Trumpism is merely the exponential growth of McCarthyism.
It’s an interesting, often disturbing read for anyone who wants to know about the man who set the stage for Donald Trump.