I smiled when I saw a local social media post that read, “Joseph McCarthy was right.”

American history has seen its share of demagogues. Donald Trump is one, Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin was another.

You remember what Trump said during his 2016 run for the presidency: “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?” In 1954, pollster George Gallup said,  “Even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, they [his supporters] would probably still go along with him.” Clearly, those two statements reflect the essence of a cult of personality. Demagogues thrive because their idolators have replaced reason with mindless devotion to a celebrity who gives voice to their ugliest biases.  

Joe McCarthy was a drunk who had no fundamental political ideology until he stumbled upon a cause that would cement his name in American history.  

America of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s was a nation obsessed to the point of hysteria with the so-called Red Scare. Many believed communism was a monolithic demon intent on destroying democracies. But history shows it was not monolithic— witness the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. Seldom were Stalin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh on the same page. They subscribed to communist ideology, but nationalism was their overriding ideal.

What is referred to as McCarthyism did not start with McCarthy. Real and imagined Soviet espionage had produced several US laws a decade before his ignominious demagoguery. Those laws reduced the protections of the First Amendment to footnotes, barely worth the paper they were written on. Freedoms of speech, assembly, due process, jury trial, self-incrimination were ignored in a frantic effort to ward off commies and fellow travelers in our midst. As a result, the lives of many teachers, federal employees, writers, actors, composers, and ordinary citizens were destroyed not by solid evidence of treason but by innuendo, rumor, and manufactured false evidence.     

Though Harry Truman presided over pre-1950 anti-communist legislation, by 1953, he chided the Eisenhower Administration for continuing McCarthyism as it had come to be known. “It is the corruption of truth,” he said, “the abandonment of the due process law. It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism or security. It is the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spreading of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of society.”    

McCarthy took advantage of the national Red Scare hysteria in a 1950 Lincon Day address at a Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia. He waved a piece of paper over his head, claiming he’d found 205 Communists working in the state department. He hadn’t. God only knows what was on that piece of paper. Still, the AP reported his antics and accusations, and he thus became an instant hero to a large and fearful segment of society.

Roy Cohn was the chief counsel to McCarthy’s Senate subcommittee, which investigated McCarthy’s specious claims. Cohn was also later Donald Trump’s mentor and favorite lawyer. Before Cohn was disbarred and died of HIV in 1986, he had taught Donald Trump the art of the deal. From a 2021 USA Today article, “Roy imparted three strategies to his favorite apprentice: When you’re attacked, counterattack harder. Find someone weaker than you to scapegoat. Daze and confuse everyone with a fog of lies.”               

The current Trumplican tactic of identifying all things Progressive as communist plots to destroy America is nothing new. They have never recovered from New Deal reforms that, like it or not, focused on the people rather than exclusively corporations. Those reforms crystallized the promise of the Declaration of Independence almost as significantly as the Civil War had done. The Robber Barons of the late nineteenth century never believed all men were created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. FDR said, “Oh, yes, they are.”

The current Red Scare is deeply embedded in the psyche of Trumplicans. For example, Marco Rubio recently tweeted:  “The $3.5 trillion Biden [infrastructure] plan isn’t socialism, it’s Marxism.” The plan is neither, but Rubio’s intent was only to raise the Red Scare talking point because Trumplicans feed on that stuff. They devour it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They’re urged by their media idols to believe it and propagate it. So, they go to social media and post, “Joseph McCarthy was right.” What they actually mean is demagoguery is the easiest path to authoritarianism.

McCarthy was censured by the Senate in 1954 and drank himself to death in 1957. He was 48 years old.

The word Trumplican is not derisive. On the contrary, it’s an apt descriptor of what the GOP has become.

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