He only ever served as a United States Senator, not President, but the name Joseph McCarthy lives in infamy in the history of U.S. politics. McCarthy used the early years of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union as a platform for demagoguery and character assassination.
“McCarthyite” is still a term of condemnation in U.S. politics, many years after his death. It denotes irresponsible demagoguery and character assassination.
McCarthy mostly picked on people who were alive at the time, and he ultimately over played his hand badly such that he lost his influence before he left office, dying in obscurity, but Donald Trump’s ongoing feud with the dead John McCain may remind some people of McCarthy.
Nineteen fifty was a particularly fraught year in the Cold War. In 1949, the communists had decisively won the civil war in China and declared the founding of the officially communist People’s Republic of China, the regime that governs that nation to this day. Their opponents, the nationalists, escaped to Taiwan, setting up the ongoing conflict over whether Taiwan is a separate, sovereign nation or a renegade province of the People’s Republic.
McCarthy had already used baseless accusations of communism against his opponent to win a seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946. He made himself unpopular with his Senate colleagues and, by 1950, feared for his chances at reelection in 1952, so he claimed during a speech to have a list of known communists who were working for the State Department. He had hurled the communist accusation at two Secretaries of State and called for the impeachment of President Truman. For a second time, he used baseless allegations of communism to win election to the Senate.
His big mistake came in 1954, the second year of new President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration. Eisenhower won the presidency easily because of the esteem he had earned overseeing the invasion of Normandy that eventually helped mightily in the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany during World War II. Eisenhower was as worried as McCarthy’s fellow Senators were becoming about his outlandish behavior. McCarthy accused the U.S. Army of harboring communists and scheduled hearings to ferret out the alleged communists themselves and the officials who had failed to identify and eliminate them, according to McCarthy.
The Senate decided to allow the use of the still new technology, television, to broadcast the Army-McCarthy hearings. The nation watched in fascination. The Army hired Joseph Welch to represent them in the hearings. Welch brought other lawyers along to help with the task, including one who had, earlier in his career, had some association with an organization called the Lawyers’ Guild, the politics of which were sufficiently leftist to attract from McCarthy the allegation of sympathy to communism.
During the hearing, McCarthy tried to make an issue of the young lawyer’s affiliation with the Lawyers’ Guild, which prompted from Welch the famous, disgusted outburst, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency,” which encapsulated the general public feeling of revulsion at McCarthy’s behavior and entered the culture as a famous phrase that remains available in our political discourse now, sixty five years later.
Donald Trump elicits memories of Joseph McCarthy, witting or not, in the general public, with his demagoguery, and especially with his repeated sniping at the late Senator John McCain. Trump first attacked McCain in 2015, saying about the former prisoner of war that he preferred heroes who “weren’t captured,” despite Trump having avoided service in Vietnam through various dubious maneuvers. Trump’s current bill of particulars against McCain, who died last year, includes the Senator’s decisive vote against a bill the president supported to repeal the Affordable Care Act and his role in submitting the notorious Steele dossier, which includes various allegations of inappropriate,if not illegal, conduct by Trump, to the FBI, as well as other actions that Trump makes up on the spur of the moment.
Like former President Richard Nixon, Joseph McCarthy was much smarter than Trump and understood better how government is supposed to work, and thus how to use it to his personal benefit. Like Nixon, McCarthy pressed his advantage too far and ended up disgraced as a result.
Trump was disgraceful long before he even declared his candidacy and has changed not a whit in the interim. He grows only more disgraceful by the day with his attacks on the dead John McCain being only the latest low point. He will no doubt find some way to sink yet lower in the immediate future. With Trump, there is no bottom.
He has already, however, inspired some recollection of Jack Welch’s famous words from 1954 and even the extrapolation from Welch to the Republican Party’s leadership, which distanced itself from McCarthy as he spiraled out of control and eventually persuaded Nixon to resign, but seems to be perpetually AWOL in the era of Trump, unwilling to take any risk to restrain the monster in lieu of a president they have enabled. Some citizens, however, have no such fear.
Veterans occupy a unique place in our republic. Even persons who deplore the horrors of U.S. foreign policy, even after the disasters that were the Vietnam War and the horrible mistake of the invasion of Iraq, still choose to respect those persons who choose to serve in the military because they accept some personal sacrifice on behalf of what they believe is the best interests of the republic as a whole. In a republic of equals, being a veteran is an honorable status in the minds of nearly everyone. Trump only looks exceedingly petty and childish by repeatedly picking on a dead man who was not only a veteran, but spent several years as a prisoner of war, only to return and devote the rest of his life to civilian public service as a U.S. Senator.
Trump’s attacks on McCain are not criminal. They do not justify impeachment by themselves, although we have ample reason to impeach Trump without those petty, childish attacks. His attacks on McCain do deserve our loudest, most pointed denunciation.
He has earned the moniker, President Donald McCarthy.