Watching President Trump attack the free press as the “enemy of the people” and discredit institutions of democratic government, I am reminded of a demagogue from another era. That was Joe McCarthy, junior Senator from Wisconsin in the early ‘50s. A self centered egotistical opportunist, his only interest was in personal fame, fortune, and political power.
Communism was a big fear among Americans at the time and he latched onto that as a captivating issue he could exploit. His language was dramatic, contentious, perilous, and full of superlatives. Hyperbole and imprecision were an art form for him. He proved to be a master of conspiracy theory.
Like Trump: McCarthy knew how to play the press and distract the public with continuously changing stories. He used unfounded accusations about communists in the government to stoke fear in the electorate. His charges were never substantiated. But some communist collaborators actually caught and prosecuted lent an air of credibility to his claims of communist infiltration of government at every level.
And Like Trump: McCarthy showed utter disrespect for conventional political protocols, and contempt for public figures, or anyone else who challenged him. He regularly launched public attacks on newspapers and journalists in an effort to make people suspicious and not believe anything reported.
Political observer Richard Rovere called McCarthy “the most gifted demagogue ever bred on these shores” but said it would be hard to imagine a man like him being elected President.
With McCarthy we were lucky. In publicly televised Senate hearings on his charges his demagoguery and treachery were fully exposed. The Senate censured him and he lost his political power platform (he died 3 years later from alcoholism).
Today a dangerous demagogue HAS been elected President. His goals, objectives, and behavior appear to be a carbon copy of McCarthy’s. He even trained under the same corrupt mentor (Roy Cohn) that McCarthy used. Trump is exploiting fear of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims without evidence just as McCarthy did supposed communists. Unlike McCarthy though, his un-American aggression remains virtually unchecked by current Congressional leaders.
Has our luck as a democratic nation finally run out? Is there no end to Republican Party leaders’ willingness to support Trump’s authoritarian behavior rather than hold him accountable? Or will bipartisan political sanity win and let us escape this nightmare before it’s too late? Our fate is in the hands of the 116th Congress! Think about that when you go to vote on November 6th.