Trump Keeps Taking Pages From Joe McCarthy’s PlaybookRoundup
tags: Joseph McCarthy, Donald Trump, Demagoguery
Larry Tye is a best-selling author ("Bobby Kennedy and Satchel"), previous award-winning reporter at the Boston Globe and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University who now runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship. His new book, "Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy," will publish in July 2020.
One of the biggest surprises of Donald Trump’s presidency has been the hidebound conservatism of the former Democrat and occasional liberal, who changed his party affiliation six times and whose far-right credentials came under constant fire during the 2016 primaries. Even today, amid the covid-19 pandemic, there remains hope he might strike a game-changing infrastructure deal with Democrats or otherwise defy party dogma in the stimulus measures being considered.
But these expectations were and are castles in the air, given the way Trump is following word for word the playbook of Sen. Joe McCarthy. While America remembers McCarthy as its iciest of cold warriors, he wasn’t always such. In fact the Wisconsinite was one of history’s most shameless political converts, flip-flopping not just from Democrat to Republican, but from flaming New Dealer to icon of the Republican right. Among the lessons Trump has taken from McCarthy, one is most resonant: to be believed, converts must become fanatics. In this regard, the president has outdone the notorious senator in the way he panders to his Republican base with baldfaced lies and bare-knuckled assaults, even in a moment of national crisis.
In his first campaign, in 1936 for district attorney of Shawano County, McCarthy declared himself a Democrat and a “militant” backer of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s liberal policies. To prove it, he seized control of the local Young Democrats, served as Roosevelt’s fundraiser-in-chief in that slice of rural Wisconsin and vilified Republican presidential nominee Alf Landon, calling his platform “brainless, half-baked, cockeyed pleas.” McCarthy voted for Roosevelt three times and told voters they’d be crazy not to stick with the president, “every drop of whose blood and every faculty of whose mind and body is devoted to that great noble, unselfish task … of serving all the American people.”
But on Election Day, even as Roosevelt was obliterating Landon in Wisconsin, the incumbent district attorney trounced McCarthy by a nearly two-to-one margin. The race taught the young office seeker three essential lessons. First, withering attacks worked to put your opponent on the ropes. Second, newspapers would print most anything a candidate said, which in McCarthy’s case included a page-one puff-up of his own resume. Most tellingly, McCarthy saw he couldn’t win as a Democrat in that GOP swath of the Badger State, but he couldn’t appear too opportunistic in abandoning the party of his father and most of the rest of Irish America. So he quietly pulled back from his Democratic activism, expediently sat out the next election and determinedly scouted out a political office free from partisanship.
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