“There are many parallels between Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump, but also some important differences.”

From a Wall Street Journal review by Duncan White of the book Demagogue by Larry Tye:

Joe McCarthy was, as you might expect, fervently patriotic in his appetites. He washed down hamburgers with milkshakes and followed that up with apple pie and ice cream. You would never catch him having his steak medium rare: He demanded it be “cremated.” His standard lunchtime drink order was two double martinis, and as his drinking worsened he began carrying a discreet medicine bottle filled with bourbon. This diet was not without consequence, and he would chase down his whiskey and his heavily lubricated lunch with fistfuls of baking soda in a bid to calm the digestive storms.

Waging this daily war on his body with alcohol and cholesterol was integral to McCarthy’s personality: He was a creature of reckless momentum, consuming everything in his path, heedless of consequence. Whether it was eating, drinking, gambling or politics, he was voracious. In “Demagogue,” Larry Tye gives us the fullest account yet of the crusading junior senator from Wisconsin. . . .

McCarthy’s personality is important because McCarthyism was not an intellectual project. The senator had no program of ideas, no set of policies he wanted to enact. It was always clear what he was against, but never what he was for, other than Joseph R. McCarthy. And as “Demagogue” demonstrates, it is not clear that even he knew what his ultimate goal was. It was just more.

One story about McCarthy’s appetites feels particularly instructive: Rather than cut back on booze, he improvised a technique to help him hold his liquor. At the beginning of the day he would eat a quarter-pound stick of butter because, he believed, it lined his stomach. Imagine for a moment actually doing that. Imagine doing that with a hangover. It makes you wonder about McCarthy’s ability to balance ends and means.

McCarthy is of course notorious for his dubious means. From the moment on Feb. 9, 1950, when he announced to the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club of Wheeling, W.Va., that he had a list of 205 communists working in the State Department, he pursued with indiscriminate mendacity the “subversives and spies” who had supposedly infiltrated America’s institutions. . . .

If the goal was rooting out red-tinged conspiracies, then McCarthy failed. But communists were never his only target. McCarthyism was also an attack on the legacy of Roosevelt, on the Washington establishment, on the East Coast elite, on homosexuals, Jews and African-Americans. This suited many of those in power, and Mr. Tye rigorously tracks the people who enabled McCarthy, from Texas oil donors to Hoover, Joe Kennedy and intimidated politicians on both sides of the aisle, including presidents Truman and Eisenhower.

Many in the political establishment assumed McCarthy would swiftly play himself out, but they underestimated him: His act would run for four years. . . .

Shameless and vindictive, McCarthy sought to crush anyone who stood in his way and piled lies upon lies. This was what Mr. Tye calls the McCarthy “playbook,” and he argues that Donald Trump draws on it to this day. There is of course a direct McCarthy-Trump connection in the person of Roy Cohn, with whom Mr. Trump spoke up to five times a day during the 1970s. “Cohn was the flesh-and-blood nexus between the senator and the president,” Mr. Tye writes. “An aging Cohn taught the fledgling Trump the transcendent lessons he had learned from his master, McCarthy—how to smear opponents and contrive grand conspiracies.”

Mr. Tye sees many other parallels between McCarthy and Mr. Trump, but also some important differences. McCarthy started at the bottom, learning to hunt skunks on his father’s farm, and then fought his way up through the political system. And while McCarthy knew how to play the newspaper game, with deadlines memorized and favored journalists looped in, he was exposed by then-new medium of television, which has been the engine of Mr. Trump’s brand of nativist populism. TV celebrity made Trump; it undid McCarthy.

Mr. White is associate director of Studies in History & Literature at Harvard University and the author of “Cold Warriors: Writers Who Waged the Literary Cold War.”

Speak Your Mind