“Around the country he flew, reckless and audacious, stopping long enough to make a new charge, to exhibit a new list, a good newsworthy press conference at the airport, hail-fellow well met with the reporters, and then on to the next stop, the emptiness of the charge never catching up with him, the American press exploited in its false sense of objectivity (if a high official said something, then it was news, if not fact, and the role of the reporter was to print it straight without commenting, without assaulting the credibility of the incredulous; that was objectivity). It was like a circus; he was always on the move, his figures varied, his work was erratic and sloppy, he seemed to have no genuine interest in any true nature of security. It sometimes seemed as if he too were surprised by the whole thing, how easy it was, how little resistance he met, and so he hurtled forward to newer larger charges. But if they did not actually stick, and they did not, his charges had an equally damaging effect: they poisoned. Where there was smoke, there must be fire. He wouldn’t be saying those things unless there was something to it. And so the contamination remained after the facts, or lack of them, evaporated….
All of which did not displease the Republican party. The real strength of [him] was not his own force of brilliance, it was the acquiescence of those who should have known better.”
The above quote is from David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest. He is talking about Senator Joseph McCarthy. He goes on to talk about how McCarthyism only lasted a few years but the impact of his relentless and meritless hunt lingered for decades and heavily influenced our view of communism leading into the Vietnam War. I kept all of this in mind as I read and reread the above passage because the description above, though written decades ago sounds for all the world like Trump since 2016. If Donald Trump is this era’s McCarthy, what can we learn from the past about where we are headed?
Both men have a habit of making things up. Both men have a habit of playing the victim. Both men like to act as though they are the only hope for America. While there are certainly plenty of differences between the two, as the quote above attests, the two had some striking similarities.
McCarthy’s impact on the 20th Century in America cannot be overstated. It was the echo of McCarthy that kept Americans believing in the myth of monolithic communism. That helped the United States misinterpret the war in Vietnam as a war against communism rather than a war for an independent Vietnam. This would prove catastrophic for both countries and kill over 58,000 Americans and countless Vietnamese.
Keeping this in mind, when it comes to Trump’s behavior towards immigrants and refugees, how much of his attitude towards these people is going to be reflected in his supporters decades after Trump is out of office? What poison is Trump putting into our American culture? And if we are aware that he’s poisoning the culture, is there a way for us to counteract that? Will these vilifications lead us into some future conflict that could be avoided if only some people were not taken in by his lies? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I feel like they are questions that should be in our heads as the Trump regime goes on.
Part of me wonders if the similarities between the two men are actually coincidence. Perhaps Trump purposefully modeled Joseph McCarthy’s tactics. Is that giving Trump too much credit? Then again, maybe this is just some sort of American archetype that appears from time to time to take advantage of people’s fears and exploit paranoia and bigotry. Just how much is history repeating itself?
Unlike McCarthy, Trump is being investigated by the FBI. There is the chance that maybe now that all other checks and balances have failed to stop him, that Mueller’s investigation will end this sham of a Presidency. But how much destruction will happen before that happens and how will Trump echo through the coming decades? In many ways I fear the damage has already been done.
I try to take a bit of comfort in the McCarthy/Trump comparison. Just a few years after the height of McCarthyism, Joseph McCarthy was dead. History correctly views McCarthy not as a hero trying to save America but for the proper villain that he is. One can only hope that a similar fate awaits Trump in the future.
– Jack Cameron