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Donald Trump and Joe McCarthy

He built . . . a coalition of the aggrieved—of men and women not deranged but affronted by various tendencies over the previous two or three decades . . .

That’s political reporter Richard Rovere in his 1958 classic, “Senator Joe McCarthy.” I hate to draw an analogy between McCarthy and Donald Trump because it seems so obvious . . . but I happened to be reading Rovere’s book and came across so many passages that reminded me of Trump, I had to share.

Here are a few:

He was a fertile innovator, a first-rate organizer and galvanizer of mobs, a skilled manipulator of public opinion, and something like a genius at that essential American strategy: publicity.

Intimations, allegations, accusations of treason were the meat upon which this Caesar fed. He could never swear off.

The Gallup Poll once tested his strength in various occupational groups and found that he had more admirers among manual workers than in any other category—and fewest among business and professional people.

Because McCarthyism had no real grit and substance as a doctrine and no organization, it is difficult to deal with as a movement. Adherence was of many different sorts. There were those who accepted McCarthy’s leadership and would have been happy to see him President. There were others who were indifferent to his person but receptive to what he had to say about government. There were others still who put no particular stock in what he had to say and even believed it largely nonsense but felt that he was valuable anyway.

McCarthy drew into his following most of the zanies and zombies and compulsive haters who had followed earlier and lesser demagogues in the fascist and semifascist movements of the thirties and forties. . . . But this was really the least part of it. McCarthy went far beyond the world of the daft and the frenzied—or, to put the matter another way, that world was greatly enlarged while he was about.

In his following, there were many people who counted for quite a bit in American life—some because of wealth and power, some because of intelligence and political sophistication. He was an immediate hit among the Texas oilmen, many of whom were figures as bizarre and adventurous in the world of commerce and finance as he was in the world of finance. . . . And there were intellectuals and intellectuals manque whose notions of Realpolitik had room for just such a man of action as McCarthy.

L’etat, c’est moi, legibus solutus, and I Am the Law. He and the country were one and the same, synonymous and interchangeable.

We see echoes of this, not merely in Trump’s own statements, but from his supporters. For example, this from Scott Adams (sorry!): “Trump supporters don’t have any bad feelings about patriotic Americans such as myself,” which works pretty well if by “patriotic Americans” you exclude various patriotic Americans such as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Gonzalo Curiel, and various news reporters.

Back to Rovere:

It was a striking feature of McCarthy’s victories, of the surrenders he collected, that they were mostly won in battels over matters of an almost comic insignificance. His causes celebres were causes ridicules. . . .

Yet the antic features of McCarthyism were essential ones. For McCarthyism was, among other things, but perhaps foremost among them, a headlong flight from reality. It elevated the ridiculous and ridiculed the important. It outraged common sense and held common sense to be outrageous. It confused the categories of form and value. It made sages of screwballs and accused wise men of being fools. It diverted attention from the moment and fixed it on the past, which it distorted almost beyond recognition.

On the ravages of demagogy and its flight from reality, Thucydides wrote:

The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things but was changed by them at they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be courage, prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. . . . He who succeeded in a plot was deemed knowing, but a still greater master in craft was he who detected one.

McCarthy, then, was of the classic breed. For all the black arts that he practiced, his natural endowments and his cultivated skills were of the very highest order. His tongue was loose and always wagging; he would say anything that came into his head and worry later, if at all, about defending what he had said.

And this:

There has never been the slightest reason to suppose that he took what he said seriously or that he believed any of the nonsense he spread.

He was a vulgarian by method as well as, probably, by instinct. . . . If he did not dissemble much, if he did little to hide from the world the sort of human being he was, it was because he had the shrewdness to see that this was not in his case necessary. . . . In general, the thing he valued was his reputation for toughness, ruthlessness, even brutality. . . . And this sort of thing was always well received by his followers.

While other politicians would seek to conceal a weakness for liquor or wenching or gambling, McCarthy tended to exploit, even to exaggerate, these wayward tastes. He was glad to have everyone believe he was a drinker of heroic attainments, a passionate lover of horseflesh, a Clausewitz of the poker table, and a man to whom everything presentable in skirts was catnip. (When a good-looking woman appeared as committee witness, McCarthy, leering, would instruct counsel “to get her telephone number for me” as well as the address for the record.)

And we’re still only on page 52.

The characteristics that Trump particularly seems to share with McCarthy are boastfulness and self-focus; willingness to boldly lie about important things and, perhaps more important, escalate rather than backing down after the lie is caught; a willingness to attack respected figures; and a fundamental frivolousness, a sense that they are not taking all this very seriously.

There are differences, the biggest being, I think, that McCarthy had a lot of political power while Trump has none. One of the most chilling things described in Rovere’s book is how much influence the senator from Wisconsin had in government operations and foreign policy.

Here’s Rovere: “One of his most striking instruments was a secret seditionist cabal he had organized within the government. This was a network of government servants and members of the armed forces (“the Loyal American Underground,” some of the proud, defiant members called themselves) who, in disregard for their oaths of office and the terms of their contracts with the taxpayers, reported directly to McCarthy and gave him their first loyalty.”

I don’t think Trump has that. He’s got a lot of internet blog commenters and maybe the support of Vladimir Putin and the Russian secret service, but I haven’t heard of a network of supporters within the U.S. government.

Another difference is that McCarthy’s thing was communism, whereas Trump’s thing is racism and sexism.

And McCarthy was more popular than Trump. Here’s Rovere:

In January 1954, when the record was pretty well all in and the worst as well as the best was known, the researches of the Gallup Poll indicated that 50 per cent of the American people had a generally “favorable opinion” of him and felt that he was serving the country in useful ways. Twenty-one per cent drew a blank—“no opinion” The conscious, though not necessarily active, opposition—those with an “unfavorable opinion”—was 29 per cent. A “favorable opinion” did not make a man a McCarthyite, and millions were shortly to revise their view to his disadvantage. But an opposition of only 29 per cent is not much to count on, and it was small wonder that his contemporaries feared him.

In contrast, Trump is viewed favorably by 34% of survey respondents and unfavorably by 58%—I just looked it up. This does not guarantee a general election loss—Hillary Clinton’s favorable/unfavorable numbers are 37% and 56%, which is not much better—but it is a contrast with the earlier demagogue.

In retrospect, I suppose McCarthy had to have been that popular, in that his national following was the source of his power, and, without it, his fellow senators would not have supported him for so long.

By pointing out these striking parallels (and some differences) between McCarthy and Trump, I do not mean to imply that Trump is the only modern politician to share certain of McCarthy’s attitudes and behaviors.

P.S. I googled *Trump McCarthy* to see what else was out there. I came across this from James Downie who emphasizes that Trump, like McCarthy, will just make up numbers and use them to get headlines.

Also this ridiculous (in retrospect) article, “The New McCarthyism of Donald Trump,” from Peter Beinart, which begins:

Pundits are pretty sure that Donald Trump has “jumped the shark.” “Mr. Trump’s candidacy probably reached an inflection point on Saturday after he essentially criticized John McCain for being captured during the Vietnam War,” declared The New York Times’ Nate Cohn last weekend. “Republican campaigns and elites quickly moved to condemn his comments—a shift that will probably mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust.”

If Cohn is right, and I certainly hope he is, Trump’s political career will have followed the same basic arc as that of another notorious American demagogue, Joseph McCarthy. . . .

It was only when McCarthy targeted the United States military that Republicans began taking him on. In late 1953, when McCarthy began investigating alleged communist influence in the Army, the Army counterattacked. . . .

Although it’s too early to declare Trump’s political career over, the last few days resemble McCarthy’s descent in 1953 and 1954. Even before last weekend, Republican elites increasingly viewed him as a political liability. Then, on Saturday, Trump ventured beyond his previous “soft” targets—immigrants, blacks, and President Obama—and claimed John McCain was not really a war hero. Trump’s GOP opponents, who until then had mostly tried to ignore him, pounced.

When Beinart wrote, “the least few days,” that was on July 21, 2015!

What’s so wrong with the above passage is not that Nate Cohn and Peter Beinart made a prediction that happened not to occur, or even that they took Bill Kristol as representative of Republican opinion. What bugs me is that Beinart botched the history. The story is that McCarthy was riding high, then he targeted the military, then he was brought down, but that’s not quite right. Beinart locates McCarthy’s targeting of the military in 1953, but it was two years earlier, in 1951, that McCarthy attacked George Marshall. McCarthy calling Marshall a traitor was a much bigger deal than Trump saying that McCain was not really a war hero—and, sure, lots of people were stunned that McCarthy took that step—but he ascended to his greatest power after the attack on Marshall, and it was years before McCarthy lost power.

Again, I have no crystal ball. As of July 21, 2015, it was perhaps reasonable to think that, by dissing John McCain, Trump had gone too far and that he was doomed. Who’s to say. But it was a misreading of history to think that the analogous action had sent McCarthy down. McCarthy stayed afloat for years after making widely publicized and ridiculous attacks on a prominent military figure.


  1. Thanks for digging up this material. One quibble.

    “McCarthy’s thing was communism, whereas Trump’s thing is racism and sexism.”

    That’s not an exact parallel. Trump is not exposing and comabatting racism and sexism as McCarthy was communism. Trump won’t even speak those words. For McCarthy communism was the supreme threat that he was fighting against – the clandestine conspiracy that was undermining America and that would, if unchecked, take away our freedoms. I get the sense that the ressentiment energizing Trump’s support is similarly the idea that he is fighting against some force that is undermining the America they know, or knew. Partly, that’s Mexican immigrants (illegal immigrants if you want to get technical, but I suspect that the distinction doesn’t matter all that much to the Trumpistas). Partly, it’s Muslims.

    For McCarthy, the larger threat was not external – Soviet communism. It was the Americans who sympathized with it. If there is a parallel in Trumpism it is “political correctness.” It’s political correctness that has insinuated itself into American life and taken away our freedom. As an angry comment on my blogpost about this (here) offers a clear example. “That’s political correctness — and Americans are sick of having to think, say, write, and even wear! only what the adjudicators of the left allow — on pain of being bullied off the podium (oh, and that’s part of the enforcement tactics). If you are ‘for political correctness’ you are for bullying by an ever-emboldened mob.”

    • Andrew says:


      Good point. Of course, as Rovere points out, McCarthy was not exposing and combatting communism, he was just talking about it. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that McCarthy was going with the “betrayal” narrative whereas Trump is going with a racist, anti-“other” narrative.

  2. Baruch says:

    Very interesting. Thanks. Its comforting to recall relevant heroes of the day. Such as Edward Tolman.

    Tolman, E. C. (1954). Freedom and the cognitive mind. American Psychologist, 9(9), 536.‏

  3. Elin says:

    I want to know when you wrote this.

  4. Paul Alper says:

    If you are looking for a connection between Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump you would do well to read Norman Cohn’s book, “Warrant for Genocide” which was written in 1966.

    “Yet, it is a great mistake to suppose that the only writers who matter are those whom the educated in their saner moments can take seriously. There exists a subterranean world where pathological fantasies disguised as ideas are churned out by crooks and half-educated fanatics for the benefit of the ignorant and superstitious. There are times when this underworld emerges from the depths and suddenly fascinates, captures and dominates multitudes of usually sane and responsible people, who thereupon take leave of sanity and responsibility. And it occasionally happens that this underworld becomes a political power and changes the course of history.”

    That is, unpredictably the public loses its mind. Cohn was writing about “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which purport to explain impending Jewish domination of Christianity–an obvious analogy to Obama is a Muslim, Sharia Law is just around the corner and the U.S. State Department has 205, 87 or 51 communists secretly working there. Charles Seife’s Introduction to “Proofiness” begins with “It really didn’t matter whether the list had 205 or 57 or 81 names. The very fact that McCarthy had attached a number to his accusations imbued them with an aura of truth …[this] outrageous falsehood was given the appearance of absolute fact.” Likewise, Trump tosses around numbers which exist only in his imagination and are subject to change.

    In a sense, perhaps the best thing going for society and sanity is that McCarthy and Trump each lacks physical attractiveness and are easily caricatured. The power of ridicule should not be underestimated.

    • AJ says:

      Good last point; if they were good-looking, then we’d really have been screwed!

      • Fred says:

        I am not sure whether that is a feature or a bug. Trump is a clown (not just his looks, although that’s part of it). Most folks seem to find this aspect of his persona not only entertaining, but also somehow reassuring – clowns aren’t scary, right? but Hitler and Mussolini were once clowns too and, closer to home, Huey Long. Scary authoritarians like Franco and Pinochet – or McCarthy – don’t come to power via the ballot box; clowns sometimes do.

  5. LCj says:

    …the Trump/McCarthy parallel has been a popular media theme for about a year (Google it)

    McCarthy is a perennial boogeyman trotted out to scare people.

    McCarthy/Trump are populist, anti-establishment demagogues. But both had at least some valid basis for their reckless political approaches– a basis that resonated with average people.

  6. numeric says:

    Since you’ve cross-listed yourself in political science, you might give pause to how little the predominant electoral paradigm of the last 40 years (rational-choice utility maximizer) has to say about the rise of a Trump, or for that matter, American national politics, since the 1960’s.

    • WB says:

      numeric: There’s been much push back against the rational voter model. For an extensive discussion, see Achen and Bartels, Democracy for Realists (2016).

      • numeric says:

        Having worked on political campaigns in mixed-race settings since the 80’s, I’ll only say it has taken a long time for quantitative political scientists to wake up to American realities, if indeed the work you reference does (since one of the authors has been propounding subliminal smiley faces ( as a key determinant in vote choice, I have my doubts). But I admit I haven’t been following the academic political science literature much in the last decade because it was pretty much irrelevant (and it was irrelevant in the 80’s, also). Now, Krugman and others like him are always citing historians who see American politics as primarily diverting national income to the very top while obtaining mass support through thinly transparent appeals to racial animus (and, in the reductio ab adsurdum endgame, Trump), and this is a much more accurate (IMHO) description of American national (and lower down too) politics. But it is basically descriptive.

        • WB says:

          I won’t disagree with you about the sometimes misguided focus of political scientists. But I recommend the Achen-Bartels book. It’s a wonderful, broad appraisal of the voting literature. It does a very good job, I think, of challenging basic notions, such as retrospective voting.

          Also, I wouldn’t judge Bartels based on the smiley face study. It certainly isn’t his major contribution. In fact, it sounds as though you and he probably have very similar views on voting behavior and policy outcomes. See also his book, Unequal Democracy (2008).

          • Andrew says:


            Also, just to be clear, Bartels didn’t do the smiley-face study. He just made a mistake in interpreting it. He is responsible for the shark attack study, though. But nobody’s perfect. I have not read Bartels’s latest book but I think his work has value even if he occasionally overstates his case.

          • numeric says:

            I agree Bartels work on public policy as it relates to the preferences of elites (spoiler alert: when there’s a conflict between the top 1% and the submerged 99% of the population the elites prevail) is first rate, but I’ve known it for 40 years, but more to the point, elected representatives know it and act on it (which is why it happens). Not exactly a Mayhewian view of the world, is it? Or for rational choice, Representatives, Roll Call and Constituencies.
            In any case, it is descriptive–and to be frank, I think that’s what political scientists should be restricting themselves to, as the rational choice model (Green and Shapiro, anyone) has been more or less exploded. See, I do follow some political science.

    • Fred says:

      If standard issue retrospective voting theory works for Hitler, it out to suffice for Trump. Gary King, Ori Rosen, Martin Tanner, and Alexander Wagner. 2008. “Ordinary Economic Voting Behavior in the Extraordinary Election of Adolf Hitler.” Journal of Economic History, 4, 68: 996, 12/2008. Copy at

  7. Brad Stiritz says:

    Hi Andrew, nice topical post. You didn’t link to the following, so I’m wondering if you possibly missed this..?

    As far as the substantive comparison of Trump vs. McCarthy: we can start with the fact that there’s an English term, McCarthyism, defined as follows via Google:

    McCarthyism is the practice of making accusations of subversion or treason without proper regard for evidence. It also means “the practice of making unfair allegations or using unfair investigative techniques, especially in order to restrict dissent or political criticism.”

    To apply this term to Trump, I think we would have to invert “in order to restrict” to “in order to foment”. Applying the term as-is to Trump essentially implies that all of Trump’s rantings are baseless accusation. Yet we have Jake Tapper saying the following, for example:

    Tapper: A lot of substantive things that you have to give Trump his due for. On immigration, there is a degree of nativism involved in the demand to construct the wall, but I do think a lot of what’s driving Trump supporters on the issue of illegal immigration and building a wall is a basic duty of a government to keep the nation’s borders under control. Illegal immigration also has a huge impact on the American economy. And a lot of people think that the government has not taken this issue seriously.

    FWIW, I would feel ashamed voting for either DT or HRC.

    • Andrew says:


      No, I hadn’t seen this particular article. As I noted above, McCarthy differs from Trump in that the former talked subversion and the latter talks racism. And McCarthy had political power and Trump doesn’t. I noticed striking similarities between the two, but that doesn’t mean they’re identical. Noting the connections does not mean that Trump should be tarred with all of McCarthy’s flaws.

      Both Trump and McCarthy, however, seem willing to make things up and not back down when people call them on it. Regarding Jake Tapper’s remark: Yes, voters have reasons for their votes. Voters in 1950 had reasons to be scared of communism too, but McCarthy was nonetheless lying about his list of communists. Voters in 2016 have reasons to be concerned about immigration. Nonetheless Trump was lying or else seriously deluded in his statement about Obama’s birth. Like McCarthy, Trump justified his behavior on the grounds that it worked politically.

  8. Paul Alper says:

    From notice the variability in public opinion polls, especially in the Net Favorable column :

    Public opinion[edit]
    McCarthy’s Support in Gallup Polls[107]
    Date Favorable No Opinion Unfavorable Net Favorable
    1951 August 15 63 22 −7
    1953 April 19 59 22 −3
    1953 June 35 35 30 +5
    1953 August 34 24 42 −8
    1954 January 50 21 29 +21
    1954 March 46 18 36 +10
    1954 April 38 16 46 −8
    1954 May 35 16 49 −14
    1954 June 34 21 45 −11
    1954 August 36 13 51 −15
    1954 November 35 19 46 −11

    “President Eisenhower, finally freed of McCarthy’s political intimidation, quipped to his Cabinet that McCarthyism was now ‘McCarthywasm’.”

    “McCarthy suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and was frequently hospitalized for alcoholism.” Trump, however, does not drink alcohol at all; his vices lie elsewhere.

  9. Chris G says:

    Related reading: Corey Robin, “History’s Lowlifes” –

    “Democratic movements and moments have a way of churning up anonymous men and women from the lower ranks, giving them a much longed-for opportunity to demonstrate their heroism and greatness… History’s lowlifes prey on a similar dynamic but for ends that are far more nefarious and through means that are far more insidious. Their preferred venue is not the open contest for democratic rights but the staged assault on justice and dissent. Where the genuine democrat displays her mettle and achieves her greatness in a revolution or social movement, history’s lowlife finds his level in a more populist and poisonous setting: the inquisition. Like other, more genuine democratic moments, inquisitions summon men and women from below. Unlike other, more genuine democratic moments, they summon men and women who are willing to play their toxic roles in a drama of degradation.”

  10. Jonathan says:

    I see Trump as more pieces of Huey Long and McCarthy. Gist: McCarthy had one card, which he played a lot, while Trump plays a populist card that’s more like Long’s Every Man a King in his argument that he, as negotiator in chief, can get you a better deal, a deal that doesn’t rip you off.

  11. Martha (Smith) says:

    From, today:

    Nicholas Casey, The New York Times Andes bureau chief:

    “… a lot of people in Latin America will tell you this very quickly – Donald Trump resembles Hugo Chavez. It’s a strange thing to think about in the beginning because Trump is from the right – or is painting himself as that – and Chavez was from the far left. But what unites both of them is populism. This populism is bringing together large crowds of people. Some of them are very angry. Trump was described very well by an old mentor of mine from The Wall Street Journal, David Luhnow, in an excellent article he wrote called “The Rise Of Trumpismo” (ph) – like, kind of a Trumpismo – like, often in Latin America you will use I-S-M-O as, like, a Trumpism, there’s Chavism, there’s Peronism – a whole ideology being established around one person.

    And some things he pointed out to were – David – in that article were extremely spot on. Trump and Chavez both rose to power on television. Chavez had a show called “Alo Presidente” where you would see him on a reality-like show. And Trump, of course, we all know, had all of his reality shows as his way of, you know, connecting very directly with people. That ended up becoming a political campaign. Both of them were well-known for trying to foster and harvest this resentment in their countries that many people had. There was a small group of oligarchs, of elites, that were getting a better deal than the rest.

    And I think you also see a very close resemblance between Donald Trump and Hugo Chavez in their use of – in their demonization of the media – both use and demonization. They were of both – they’re both like masters of being able to be on TV but at the same time spend so much of their time – spend so much of their time in the case of Chavez – of attacking the media as the enemy. What you’re seeing, I think, between Hugo Chavez and Donald Trump here is that populism cuts across ideology and basically becomes an ideology unto itself. And you have power that’s concentrated not in a movement or in a political party or in an institution but just in one single person. And I think that’s why, when you talk to Venezuelans, you will see that people recognize something in the U.S. that they saw for many years in their country.”

    • Chris G says:

      Interesting. I was thinking the other day that Trump reminds me more of Chavez than Berlusconi. (Berlusconi being a comp I’ve heard a few times.)

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Politically, Trump is pretty similar to the most popular foreign politician in America, Bibi Netanyahu.

        Trump is also pretty similar to three of the last five mayors of New York City — Bloomberg, Giuliani, and Koch. Trump speeches resemble the internal monologues in Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” by the Mayor.

  12. GiveMeABreak says:

    It would seem nowhere is safe on the Internet from discussing Donald Trump.

    So be it. Fuck off.

    • Andrew says:


      If you don’t want to see discussion of a candidate for president of the United States, perhaps you should not be reading a blog of a political scientist!

      • Rahul says:

        Off topic, but I think of you as less political scientist and more statistician. :)

        • Andrew says:


          What frustrates me is then someone like the above commenter comes in to attack me, I go to the trouble of explaining myself, and then he or she does not even come back to apologize. I guess the alternative—a troll who just won’t stop posting abuse—would be worse. Still, there’s a naive idealistic side of me that, each time, expects people to respond to reason.

          Ironically, this attitude of mine can piss people off. For example, when I sincerely recommended to the ovluation-and-clothing researchers that they just give up, that their studies were too noisy to succeed and they should either find a new line of research or else devote some serious effort to data collection . . . when I said that, I think it just annoyed them. Sincerity is not always the savviest strategy, nor is it necessarily a virtue.

          • Martha (Smith) says:

            “someone like the above commenter comes in to attack me, I go to the trouble of explaining myself, and then he or she does not even come back to apologize.”

            I don’t see things the way you describe them in the above quote:

            1. I don’t see GiveMeABreak’s comment as “attacking” you, let alone “coming in to” attack you. Just expressing his opinion (although in a rude way.)

            2. Maybe he or she had no expectation of getting a reply, or hasn’t yet had the chance to look for a reply.

            Also, I find it strange to think of sincerity as a “strategy”. To my mind, sincerity is generally speaking a desirable quality, but needs to be balanced with other desirable qualities, such as discretion and (accurate) empathy and probably other things. I don’t claim to be good at this balance, and know it’s often not easy, but I do recognize its importance and try to work toward it.

            I realize you may not agree with my perspective. That’s life.

            • Andrew says:


              1. I say the above comment was an attack given that it concluded, “Fuck off.” Seemed a bit over-the-top to me!

              2. I have no idea about this particular commenter, but we I get this sort of rude, abusive comment every now and then (from different people each time, I assume), and I often do respond, and I very rarely get a reply, very very rarely a reply of the “I’m sorry” variety. It’s no big deal, just somewhat interesting that people behave that way.

              • Martha (Smith) says:

                One of the “other desirable qualities” that came to mind after I wrote the response is common sense, which to me says that someone who ends a comment with “F*** off” isn’t likely to listen to reason.

                Also, although I see “F*** off” as a very rude way to express one’s feelings, I wouldn’t call it abusive; abusive is worse than that — for example, if he’d said it in person, leaning in toward me beyond usual social distance, that I would probably classify as abusive.

  13. albatross says:

    I suspect that a big part of Trump’s populist appeal, and a lot of the revulsion and opposition he gets from more powerful people, is that he seems to take some glee in smearing powerful, connected people. A willingness to say nasty things about (or do nasty things to) powerless people and groups is demonstrably not going to get anyone the kind of emnity Trump has gotten.

    I wonder if that’s a fundamental part of being a populist. I mean, every politician is willing to do a little of that–hint darkly that the other side’s supporters are bad people who hate America, blacks, gays, and cute puppies. But Trump seems to crank it to 11, in ways I think might be a good marker for being a populist. And he seems very willing to attack anyone, including powerful people in his own party. (It’s hard to imagine any other Republican candidate playing as rough with Fox News as he did, or getting away with it.) I suspect this bolsters his image as a can’t-be-intimidated maverick, but also makes other elites who might otherwise be on his side pretty queasy.

  14. Steve Sailer says:

    You left out the Roy Cohn Connection: Cohn was the brains of McCarthy’s operation and later Trump’s lawyer.

    Here’s Tom Wolfe on Roy Cohn:

    What brought McCarthy down was his aide Cohn’s war on the U.S. Army in retribution for drafting Cohn’s aide, G. David Schine, a handsome kid whom Cohn had a crush on, and not posting him near Cohn. McCarthy’s chief of staff got the Senator to go after the U.S. Army as riddled with Communists, which led to the televised Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954 that led to McCarthy’s censure.

    It’s been largely shoved down the Memory Hole, but a key moment in the anti-McCarthy push was U.S. Army lawyer Joe Welch maneuvering McCarthy into speaking the word “fairy” on the Senate floor on television in 1954. This allowed the respectable press to spread the impression that had been building among the knowledgeable that McCarthyism was a Big Gay Fiasco.

    • Andrew says:


      The Cohn connection is amusing, and I agree that it’s a connection between McCarthy and Trump, but I don’t really see it as a similarity.

      As noted in my above post, what bugged me about Beinart’s article was the naive attitude that the military was McCarthy’s krypotnite, and that mocking John McCain would cause Trump to suffer the same fate. In reality, McCarthy attacked George Marshall and then continued to ever-greater heights.

      The story with McCarthy and gays is interesting in that, on one hand, McCarthy aide Cohn was well known to be gay. On the other hand, McCarthy attacked gays and used anti-gay slurs. Perhaps that’s one reason that anti-gay innuendo was effective against someone like McCarthy who was amply on the record as a homophobe (or whatever they called it in those days). Yes, homophobia was standard in those days, certainly nothing unique to McCarthy, but this wasn’t just a personal attitude he had, it was also one of his political weapons.

    • Paul Alper says:

      Unlike most of the contributors on Andrew’s blog, I was already an adult at the time of the hearings and spent many fascinating hours watching as it was broadcast live. Only many years later did I learn that Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover were homosexuals and in fact, “everyone knew” that Hoover was a cross-dressing party goer. What I find entirely counter intuitive is not their sexual orientation but the fact that, given the tenor of those times, outing them was not used in defense of those who were persecuted.

      • Andrew says:


        It really was a different era. Even setting Cohn and Hoover aside, so many politicians at the time had sex scandals that were widely known among the in-group but which were not known to the public. Consider Eisenhower, Kennedy, etc. It seems that it was just considered inappropriate to bring such things up directly. It took awhile for this rule to be broken. In 1988 there was the Gary Hart story which journalists justified it on the (very reasonable) grounds that Hart had dared them to follow him around. In 1992 there was Bill Clinton, but these came up because Gennifer Flowers was giving interviews. Then Spy magazine put on the cover that George H. W. Bush was having an affair. The corresponding stories about Eisenhower or Kennedy would’ve been bombshells back in the 1950s but that sort of reporting just wasn’t done.

        • Paul Alper says:


          I totally agree it was a different era and I understand that the press behaved differently then compared to now. What I don’t comprehend is why those being dragged threw the mud for their political opinions did not shout to the rooftops about the “deviant” behavior of the persecutors. Were people on the left back then so reluctant to strike back?

  15. Steve Sailer says:

    Another connection is that Trump’s “informal” political adviser Roger Stone was involved with Cohn in a notorious incident in the 1980 election. From Wikipedia:

    “John Sears recruited Stone to work in Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign in 1979–80, coordinating the Northeast. Stone said that former McCarthyist Roy Cohn helped him arrange for John B. Anderson to get the nomination of the Liberal Party of New York, a move that would help split the opposition to Reagan in the state. Stone said Cohn gave him a suitcase that Stone avoided opening and, as instructed by Cohn, dropped it off at the office of a lawyer influential in Liberal Party circles. Reagan carried the state with 46 percent of the vote. Speaking after the statute of limitations for bribery had expired, Stone later said, “I paid his law firm. Legal fees. I don’t know what he did for the money, but whatever it was, the Liberal party reached its right conclusion out of a matter of principle”.”

  16. Steve Sailer says:

    Another aspect to the McCarthy brouhaha was that it was widely seen at the time, although not necessarily discussed frankly in public, as a Catholics v. Jews proxy war over which rising ethnic group would come out of the tumult of the 1940s with their loyalties validated. From the Wikipedia article on Roy Cohn:

    “The Rosenberg trial brought the 24-year-old Cohn to the attention of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover, who recommended him to Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy hired Cohn as his chief counsel, choosing him over Robert Kennedy, reportedly in part to avoid accusations of an anti-Semitic motivation for the investigations.”

    Irish and German Catholics in America had tended to be unenthusiastic about confronting Hitler before Pearl Harbor. For example, McCarthy’s ally Joseph Kennedy Sr. was not much of a friend of beleaguered Britain while serving as American ambassador in London from 1938 until late 1940. In contrast, non-Communist Jews had been strong anti-Hitlerites (Communists had had an unfortunate lapse from August 23, 1939 to June 22, 1941).

    McCarthyism was a way for Irish and German Catholics to rewrite the history books by emphasizing Communist treason.

    But McCarthy didn’t want get into that mess, so he found Cohn, a ferociously anti-Communist Jew, a godsend as a way to show he wasn’t anti-Semitic.

    I see a similar dynamic with Trump: many of his enemies and supporters assume that Trump must be anti-black, despite strikingly little evidence for that even after decades of Trump going on TV and talking off the top of his head for countless hours. Similarly, there is much fear and some hope that Trump is anti-Semitic, despite all the evidence that he is pro-Semitic.

  17. Steve Sailer says:

    One thing to keep in mind in understanding the rise of McCarthyism is the string of foreign policy disasters endured by the Truman Administration over a 14-month period in 1949-50:

    8/29/1949: First Soviet atomic bomb tested
    10/1/1949: Chinese Communists complete conquest of China
    6/25/1950: North Korea invades South Korea
    10/25/1950: Chinese “volunteers” enter combat against seemingly victorious U.S. troops in North Korea

    The velocity of events back then was extraordinary. I don’t think things happen as fast anymore.

    • Rahul says:

      >>>” I don’t think things happen as fast anymore.”<<<

      That's a good thing, right?

    • Andrew says:


      Rovere discusses this. As he points out, the paradox is that the communist threat, which was real, came from without, while McCarthy’s efforts were all about nonexistent communist threats within the U.S. The real threat of communism provided the pretext for McCarthy’s campaigns against non-threats. This does seem like an important part of the story.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        “McCarthy’s efforts were all about nonexistent communist threats within the U.S.”

        They weren’t nonexistent: look at the first item on the list of foreign policy disasters: the Soviet atomic bomb, which was of course based on plans stolen by Communist Party spies in the U.S.

        Roy Cohn got his start in the limelight prosecuting the Rosenbergs. By now, we know of more Communist Party A-bomb spies, like Ted Hall.

        On the other hand, the Truman Administration has already done a lot to purge the Communists brought into high positions by the Roosevelt Administration. The Truman Administration felt constrained, however, to not talk much about all it had done to clean up the mess left by the Roosevelt Administration.

  18. thinkpad says:

    Why not mention the threat of “radical” Nazi ideology “being around the corner” in 1940 or 1939 as an analogy to “Sharia” or “Jihad” threat? There were very few “radical” Nazis in America, most of their crimes were committed far away from America’s shores. “More Americans die from car crashes than are killed by the Nazis” could be the slogan. No need to panic! I suppose “Jewish refugees” would be “Syrian Christians” in that comparison, while “Muslim refugees” to the Nazi-sympatizing Germans who wanted to come to the US.

  19. TMZ says:

    I think it’s unfair to say that Trump is the only one responsible for the divisive politics or even mostly responsible for it. Democrats were doing it for years. Current administration bets on sexism when it deceptively overstates (or over-implies) gender “discrimination” as a reason for so-called gender “wage gap”, it bets on racism when it “acknowledged” and sometimes endorsing baseless racist accusation made by BLM, it prevents people from discussing illegal low-skilled Latin American immigration and all the additional quality of life cost that immigration imposed on millions of the American citizens. Democrats as a party keep demanding more money “from the rich” to pay for the poverty they help to create. They mastered a propagandist art of claiming causation when all they have is correlation. They scream “rich did it to you”, or “whites did it to you” or “men did it to you” and when asked for the facts, they launch Goebbels-like tantrums. Democrats are the ones fomenting the inter-group hatred.

    • Andrew says:


      I agree that Trump is not responsible for America’s divisive politics. Political polarization in this country has been increasing for decades; by just about any measure, the country is more polarized by party now than it was when George W. Bush was president, and was more polarized by party under George W. Bush than under Bill Clinton, and was more polarized by party in the Bill Clinton era than before. Not that we should blame Clinton, Bush, or Obama for polarization either. It’s my impression that all these politicians would’ve preferred a national consensus but that really wasn’t happening. Considering that Trump entered electoral politics only recently, it would make no sense at all to attribute to him a decades-long trend of increasing polarization.

      Beyond that, you seem to have strong partisan views yourself, which is fine, even if it doesn’t address the particular issues raised by my post, which are similarities between McCarthy and Trump.

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