Review of “Demagogue”

Review of “Demagogue”

“Demagogue: The life and long shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy” by Larry Tye is a particularly timely read as the nation continues in the grip of another political bully, Donald Trump. The parallels in their methods are striking and the degree to which McCarthy held the nation in thrall during the 1950s mirrors the fealty of the Trumpenproletariat today. We know how the McCarthy story ended, and it offers hope that the nation will eventually turn its back on Trump and move on. Whether it learns the lesson is unclear, since in many ways Trumpism is a reincarnation of McCarthyism.

McCarthy was raised a Midwestern farm boy and got his start in business raising chickens. He had to drop out of high school, and when he returned much older than his classmates, he finished all four grades in a single year. But he never outgrew his envy and resentment of people with more affluent and elite backgrounds. He was a war hero (though not in all the ways he later claimed), but the experience gave him a lifelong hatred of the Army brass that led to his eventual downfall at the infamous Army-McCarthy hearings.

Unlike McCarthy, Trump was born to immense and ill-gotten wealth; his father relentlessly enforced the value of winning at any cost. Both McCarthy and Trump shared the same unscrupulous tutor, Roy Cohn, who excelled at smearing opponents and contriving grand conspiracies. The American public was and is still ill-served by Cohn’s legacy.

“For all the talk about McCarthy being a political lone wolf, he was never really alone and couldn’t have achieved his peculiar success alone,” said the cartoonist Herblock. “What sustained him was not so much his gullible followers and fellow-traveling demagogues as the tacit support of ‘respectable’ people who found it advantageous to go along with him, or at least to look the other way. They were the ones who kept him going.” For Trump, those include Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, Lindsay Graham, and for nearly all his tenure as Trump’s vice president, Mike Pence.

The McCarthy-led purge of key “China Hands” and the intimidation of countless others for fear of the same fate likely contributed to the US involvement in Korea and Vietnam. Skilled diplomacy might have prevented these quagmires.

The irony of McCarthy’s red-baiting tactics doesn’t escape the author: “The publication of these hidden hearing transcripts makes clear their eerie resemblance to the revenge by investigation and trial by hearing that were trademarks of Joseph Stalin’s Russia, and against which Joseph McCarthy railed. Both Joes pressured witnesses to name names. Each repeated questions to the point of badgering. Targets in Washington, as in Moscow, were encouraged to repent of their past beliefs and split with impenitent family members. Jews in both settings were in the docket in disproportionate numbers. McCarthy never employed Stalin-like physical torture, but the senator had few qualms about what could only be seen as psychological torment.”

Just as McCarthy begat McCarthyism as pernicious, anti-American demagoguery masquerading as patriotism, so now Trump has spawned Trumpism, a pernicious cult just as anti-American it its attacks on American political, ethnic, cultural, religious and gender diversity. McCarthy did the work of international communism, the way G.W. Bush’s invasion and military occupation of Iraq did the work of al Qaida and Trump is doing the work of Putin. It is long past time for Americans to learn the lessons of history, stop following self-promoting and hypocritical demagogues and put country before party for a change.

Tye concludes that McCarthy was undone by his personal cruelty, not his crusade. I think it’s both, together with McCarthy’s alcoholism. Trump is a teetotaler, but they share the qualities of solipsism, indifference to the truth, demand for personal loyalty, and ruthless bullying as their primary tool. Both fooled a credulous public willing to look the other way in order to satisfy a sense of personal grievance, for far too long.

Trump understands a truth that McCarthy also understood and exploited: the power of controlling the news cycle. McCarthy would time the end of his hearings so as to get his side out right before the evening news while giving the other side no time to respond. The extent to which the press played along made them enablers for much of McCarthy’s Senate career, although Edward R. Murrow stands out as a noteworthy exception. William F. Buckley, Jr, whose brand was his avuncular manner, was champion of the shouter McCarthy. Barry Goldwater, whose brand was his maverick independence, was another McCarthy toady. But after he was censured by the Senate, McCarthy found himself ignored by the press, which for him was worse than vilification, hastening his political and physical demise.

Tye spares no effort to appear fair-minded; McCarthy loved children and pets, enjoyed the company of friends, was a fervent Roman Catholic. McCarthy was able to be friendly towards people in private that he attacked and humiliated in public. To Tye, much of McCarthy’s nefarious behavior wasn’t personal, he genuinely believed he was serving a higher ideal in fighting imaginary communists and wasn’t concerned about the body count. Many of the people whose lives he destroyed—some literally driven to suicide—were unknown to him, but merely collateral damage by institutions fearful of the slightest hint of a red in their ranks.

Tye is also at pains to highlight even the weakest and most indirect connections between communism and some of his targets, straining to provide some cover for McCarthy’s red baiting. Whether his goal is balance, historical accuracy or a strained sympathy with McCarthy’s zeal, I felt Tye sometimes failed to fully acknowledging exactly how barbaric McCarthy’s destructive behavior became.

It is impossible to sugar-coat the damage McCarthy did to American politics. And it impossible to sugar-coat the divisiveness in America and destruction of its institutions, up to and including a treasonous assault on the US Capitol itself, that has been and is still being promoted by Donald Trump. America needs to learn the lessons of history before it is too late.