While there have been innumerable comparisons between Trump and Hitler, along with the rise of Nazism in post World War I Germany, there is also an argument that Trump and Trumpism is much closer to the climate created by political opportunist Senator Joe McCarthy during the 1950s in American politics.
Roy Cohn, the lawyer who played a prominent role in McCarthy’s hearings into Communist infiltration into the Army, also served as one of the earliest advisors to Donald Trump – long before Trump entered the political arena. That is, until the time when Cohn was diagnosed with AIDS, whereupon Trump dropped him faster than a hot potato. So Trump was trained early on in the tactics of McCarthyism.
But the playbook being followed by the Trump administration, blaming all the ills of both Trump’s presidency, as well as the problems facing our country, on the “deep state” operatives within the federal government is pure McCarthyism. It is certainly no big leap to go from “communists” to “deep state.” At the height of the Cold War, McCarthy also stoked fear and division within the American people, and used his power as a United States Senator to besmirch to reputations of many innocent civil servants.
While McCarthy focused on government infiltration by “operatives” in the government and military, on the House side the infamous House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) took on society, in particularly Hollywood. Their primary question “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” became its calling card that led to the blacklisting of many American actors, directors, and screenwriters during their witch hunt. The men and women who appeared before the committee were also asked to “name names” of anybody they knew who might be potential communists. It became a public feeding frenzy. The Hollywood Reporter lists the names of ten men who were brave enough to stand up to the committee.
McCarthyism, like Trumpism, built its power by playing on the fears of the American people and by attacking government institutions like the State Department and the Army. For McCarthy his rise to fame began when, as reported by the History Channel, “he charged there were over ‘200 known Communists in the State Department’.” For Trumpism, it is the allegations of “deep state operatives” and also leading attacks on government agencies such as the FBI, the State Department, and the intelligence community.
Joe McCarthy used the tactics of fear and conspiracy theories to fuel his rise to political prominence. Donald Trump has proved himself no different. But these are merely tactics, not long-term strategies, and the American people proved that, in Abraham Lincoln’s words “you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”
Both Trump and McCarthy fit the definition of a demagogue:
“a political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.”
The key difference between the two men is that television coverage has enabled Trump’s rise to power, while it played an important role in the demise of McCarthy’s power. This occurred during his televised hearings in 1954 when, again from the History Channel, he charged that “the Army was soft on communism.” These charges resulted when one of his aides was drafted into the Army and did not receive the preferential treatment he wanted.
As the History Channel goes on to report
The hearings were a fiasco for McCarthy. He constantly interrupted with irrelevant questions and asides; yelled “point of order” whenever testimony was not to his liking; and verbally attacked witnesses, attorneys for the Army, and his fellow senators. The climax came when McCarthy slandered an associate of the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph Welch. Welch fixed McCarthy with a steady glare and declared evenly, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness…Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” A stunned McCarthy listened as the packed audience exploded into cheers and applause. McCarthy’s days as a political power were effectively over. A few weeks later, the Army hearings dribbled to a close with little fanfare and no charges were upheld against the Army by the committee. In December 1954, the Senate voted to censure McCarthy for his conduct. Three years later, having become a hopeless alcoholic, he died.
As Donald Trump has demonstrated neither a sense of decency or shame, it is doubtful that a similar accusation against him would have the same effect. Nor may his downfall come in such a dramatic manner. But the tide of history is beginning to slowly turn against him. The recent and surprising Democratic victories in local and state elections, in areas that Trump carried easily in 2016, show that the voters are waking up the to the truth about Trump and Trumpism – and they are overwhelmingly rejecting it.
There may be one lesson that Roy Cohn failed to teach Donald Trump or that Trump ignored. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.