McCarthyism returns to America

For many Americans, history is something taught in school, but quickly forgotten. Many distinctly remember abrupt, momentous events such as Kennedy’s assassination or 9/11, but slow-burning events that play out over years are often just as important, but are forgotten or ignored. One such case is the destructive period of “McCarthyism” in the 1950s, which has worrying parallels to Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: WHCA picking non-comedian for headliner a 'good first step' Five takeaways from Mississippi's Senate debate Watergate’s John Dean: Nixon would tell Trump 'he's going too far' MORE’s presidential campaign. Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If Americans do not remember the dark days of McCarthyism, America may be doomed to repeat that terrible era with Donald Trump at the helm this time.

In the beginning of the Cold War, Americans were gripped by fear that “Communists” had infiltrated every aspect of American society, from the State Department to Congress to the media, schools, and military. Sen. Joe McCarthy, an ambitious and unscrupulous politician, fanned these flames of fear and paranoia with conspiratorial insinuations, inflammatory language and brazen lies directed at national figures and institutions to advance his agenda of personal aggrandizement.

ADVERTISEMENT

Today, Americans are witnessing Donald Trump exploiting fears of terrorism using McCarthy’s “playbook” and, in many ways, going beyond McCarthy’s tactics and demagoguery. McCarthy notoriously treated anyone who was not “with him” as an enemy, showed them total disdain and showered them with insults. Trump has repeatedly done the same. Insulting opponents and branding them with names which play to the most base instincts of his supporters are core parts of most of his public utterances.

From his seat in the Senate, McCarthy made wild accusations and used character assassination against respected Americans, including World War II hero General George C. Marshall, and institutions, such as the Army and State Department.  Trump goes beyond this and condemns religions and ethnic groups wholesale with inflammatory rhetoric and proposed policies of exclusion. His actions in the wake of the Democratic Convention go well beyond McCarthy at his worst. Trump’s attacks on the Muslim parents of fallen American hero Captain Humayun Khan have been condemned by many Americans.  But true to form, Trump has only “doubled down” and responded to questions of his own “sacrifices” by saying that his creating jobs was a sacrifice – though he neglects to add that it was done from the safety and luxury of his private jet or Trump Tower suites.  Subsequently, when a supporter gave him a Purple Heart medal, Trump denigrated its true meaning to veterans and Gold Star families by saying, “I always wanted to get the Purple Heart.  This was much easier.” 

Trump has also attacked Mexicans, branding those who immigrate to the US “rapists and criminals” and proposing a wall along the border “to be paid for by Mexico.” He has also charged a respected judge overseeing the Trump University proceedings as being a “Trump hater” because of his Mexican heritage, ignoring the fact that he is American-born and raised.  Ironically, Trump boasts “the best taco bowls are made in Trump Towers Grill” as demonstration of his “love” for Hispanics.

Like McCarthy, no one is too powerless to escape Trump’s venom.  He mocked a handicapped reporter and then denied having done so, even while the videos of his performance went viral on the internet. He called a man at one of his rallies “my African American,” oblivious or indifferent to the insulting nature of the label. Moreover, Trump has raised misogynistic references to a crass art form in comments about a Fox News anchor and his Democratic opponent – something even McCarthy had the decency not to do. Trump’s most recent comments on sexual harassment in the work place are insensitive, at best, or more evidence of his true feelings about women.

McCarthy would never back down, even when his most outrageous lies were challenged. He simply ignored the challenger and made more egregious charges. Each time he got away with one lie, he came back with a bigger one. Trump has perfected McCarthy’s technique. Whether he is asserting that President Obama is not an American, railing against the “tremendous flow of Syrian refugees” to the US or shouting how his opponent wants to get rid of the Second Amendment, lying comes naturally to Trump who, like McCarthy, follows one lie with another and another.

Today, more than 60 years after Joe McCarthy’s fall from power, the term “McCarthyism” is synonymous with scare tactics that place self-promotion ahead of party and country. McCarthyism was destructive to core American values and the rule of law, and echoes of it have returned to our political system through Donald Trump.  Members of McCarthy’s party, including President Eisenhower, failed to criticize him until much damage had been done.  Fortunately today some political leaders are starting to show some courage and integrity by speaking out against specific outrages or refusing to support Trump.

But Americans of all political views still need to answer two fundamental questions: Will we learn from the mistakes of political leaders in the 1950s who feared challenging McCarthy, or are we condemned to repeat history? Will we allow a “new” and perhaps more virulent form of McCarthyism to call into question our national values and ideals destroy our rightful reputation as a beacon of liberty?

America ultimately rejected McCarthyism.  Surely it is time for Americans to stand up for what is right and reject this new McCarthyism.

Following a 22-year military career, John Lilley served as Defense and Foreign Policy Legislative Assistant for Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) from 1993-1996 and earned a Master of Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1982.  (He has spent the last twenty years in various executive positions in the private sector in the Tidewater area of Virginia.)


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.