Larry Tye: The McCarthy-Trump connection

  • Tye

  • In this March 9, 1950, file photo, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., gestures during a Senate subcommittee hearing on McCarthy’s charges of communist infiltration of the U.S. State Department. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 9/28/2020 11:43:36 AM

President Trump’s latest brickbat to American democracy – refusing to commit to a peaceful post-election transfer of power – conjures up from our darkest communal recesses two words of warning: Joe McCarthy.

The Red-baiting senator wrote the playbook that Trump is following when he aims wrecking balls at his enemies and at American norms. Both McCarthy and Trump railed against corrupt elites and crafted handy scapegoats for the country’s troubles – in the 1950s senator’s case, conniving Communists, in our president’s, anyone who gets in his way. Neither had a master plan other than accumulating and holding onto power.

But with his recent shockers casting doubts on the November election, Trump has managed something that had eluded other public figures over the last half century: making McCarthy, America’s archetypal demagogue, look almost good.

The through-line between McCarthy and Trump is a flesh-and-blood one. Roy Marcus Cohn was, as a 25-year-old attorney, McCarthy’s ingenious and imperious protégé. Thirty years later, Cohn became Trump’s hard-as-nails preceptor. The aging political fixer taught the tenderfoot Trump the transcendent lessons he’d learned from his muse, McCarthy – how to slander opponents and manufacture grand conspiracies.

To appreciate how far McCarthy went in stomping on long-standing benchmarks of decency, it helps to revisit one of the Wisconsin senator’s earliest and unlikeliest targets, Gen. George C. Marshall, a former five-star general who masterminded Allied military operations during World War II and later served as secretary of state and defense. McCarthy already had vilified Marshall’s boss as that “son of a bitch” Harry Truman, his cabinet-mate as “Red Dean” Acheson, and Marshall himself as a diplomat who “did much to lose the war which as a soldier he had done much to win.” But no one could have anticipated how much further this senator would go in blackening the man the president called the “greatest living American.”

McCarthy placed Marshall at the epicenter of “a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” The assault, delivered to the Senate on June 14, 1951, was an onerous undertaking even for as ornery a politician as McCarthy, as he told us later: “[I] recalled the advice given me by some of my friends before I gave the history of George Marshall. ‘Don’t do it, McCarthy,’ they said. ‘Marshall has been built into such a great hero in the eyes of the people that you will destroy yourself politically if you lay hands on the laurels of this great man.’ ” Yet McCarthy bulled ahead, excoriating Marshall for caving in to the Kremlin, then vilifying him for selling out a free China and a free Poland. “If Marshall were merely stupid, the laws of probability would dictate that part of his decisions would serve this country’s interest,” said the senator. “We have declined so precipitously in relation to the Soviet Union in the last 6 years. How much swifter may be our fall into disaster with Marshall at the helm? Where will all this stop?”

McCarthy’s speech cited as sources everyone from Winston Churchill to Gen. Omar Bradley. But, as Marshall’s biographer pointed out, it “lifted statements out of context, added comments in quotations that were not in the original, omitted qualifying sentences, included rhetorical speculations by unnamed Democrats as to why Marshall went wrong, and cited as fact unproved charges made from various hearings.”

Marshall pretended to be unfazed about being accused of treason, saying that if he responded: “I would acknowledge something that isn’t true, that McCarthy’s accusations are worthy of defense. There is no necessity for me to prove my loyalty to the United States; I have lived that loyalty every day of my life.”

Others were less restrained. Collier’s told its three million readers no “American who is both sane and honest can believe that George Marshall or Dean Acheson is a traitorous hireling of the Kremlin.” As for how Republicans should treat their out-of-control colleague, the magazine offered this headlined suggestion: “Why not spank him?” Leverett Salstonstall of Massachusetts did give his GOP colleague a verbal paddling, albeit years later, calling the denunciation of Marshall “sickening, simply disgusting.”

But even “Low Blow” Joe McCarthy had his limits. He made his name into an ism synonymous with reckless accusation. He branded witnesses who declined to testify before his subcommittee “Fifth-Amendment Communists.” He used dirty tricks to defeat opponents at the ballot box and on the Senate floor. But in the end, even when he lost those elections, he recognized the sanctity of the results.

Are you listening, President Trump?

(Larry Tye’s eighth book – “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy” – was published this summer by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.)

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