Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) is still known as one of the biggest demagogues in American history to such a degree that his name is still synonymous with false personal attacks on his political enemies. Like President Donald Trump, McCarthy’s rise to power took a lot more time than his fall from grace.
Writing for The Post Crescent, McCarthy biographer Larry Tye explained that “every demagogue in American history has fallen even faster than he rose. That’s because, in the end, our democracy works.”
“Trump is hardly the first,” wrote Tye, remembering former Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and racist Gov. George Wallace, who followed.
“Each managed to stretch the electoral elasticity of American democracy to its farthest reach, but in the end the system recalibrated, swung back into balance and hurled the autocrat out. Just as it did this week,” he went on.
Their undoing wasn’t very satisfying, either. Long was killed by an assassin, and Wallace went down in history as a notorious racist.
“With McCarthy, it was fellow senators who defanged him and booze that spelled his ultimate demise,” the biographer recalled. “This time, however, the bully was toppled the way our founding fathers had hoped – at the hands of the voters.”
Tye encouraged Trump to employ the McCarthy playbook to bow out as quickly and quietly as possible gracefully. Grace, however, isn’t Trump’s strong suit.
McCarthy managed to escape without anyone officially shouting “censure” but that was essentially the Senate’s action. “Instead, they labeled it a condemnation. Asked whether he felt he’d been censured, McCarthy said with a grin, ‘Well, it wasn’t exactly a vote of confidence,’” Tye wrote.
Roy Cohn, who served as McCarthy’s lawyer, was Trump’s mentor, which is how Trump has been able to employ such McCarthy-like tactics.
“This snarling frontman was the pulsing artery, channeling to the eventual president the senator’s blueprint for everything from name-calling to manufacturing enemies and baiting the press,” Tye continued. “In the end, however, even Cohn understood that McCarthy had gone too far, and he tried unsuccessfully to restrain him during the Army-McCarthy hearings that were the senator’s undoing.”
It only took five years before his fellow senators rebuked him, though it’s unclear how long it will take for the GOP Senate to turn against Trump. Already, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is threatening President-elect Joe Biden that he won’t be allowed to staff his cabinet with the people he wants. There are questions about whether the Senate will be able to function at all under McConnell’s continued refusal to govern.
Like with Trump, “most fellow senators knew from the start that McCarthy was a political racketeer,” said Tye. “Nobody was more amazed than the senator himself that simply waving his hand and pointing to an empty briefcase could ignite a holy war against imagined Communist saboteurs. But declaring that the emperor had no clothes took a courage few had while the public still believed he was resplendent.”
Ultimately, it was only after McCarthy had offended so many of his colleagues and the public turned against him that his political career was done.
“Even President Eisenhower, McCarthy’s longtime enabler, delighted in the senator’s downfall. The old war hero ended one of his weekly meetings with Republican legislators by asking whether they had heard the yarn going around Washington: ‘It’s no longer McCarthyism, it’s McCarthywasm,’” Tye said.
He closed by asking if Trump was listening. He likely isn’t, but he probably should be.
Read the full editorial at the The Post Crescent.