Op-Ed: A new McCarthyism finds a champion in Donald Trump

 Sen. Joseph McCarthy speaks to his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, during the Senate's Army-McCarthy hearings in April 1954.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy speaks to his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, during the Senate’s Army-McCarthy hearings in April 1954.

(Byron Rollins / Associated Press)

Joseph McCarthy’s name long ago became an “ism”— a synonym for reckless accusation, fear-mongering and the obliteration of one’s opponents by any means necessary. With the presidential election less than two months away, we’re seeing Donald Trump take up those tactics.

By now, probably every American has heard the charge that President Trump has denigrated fallen American soldiers as “losers” and “suckers.” What people may not know is that McCarthy, the Red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, did something strikingly similar 70 years ago — inexplicably putting the U.S. military in his cross-hairs. While he had gotten away with baselessly accusing the State Department, the Voice of America and other federal agencies of sheltering communists, the Army proved it was too big to bully.

McCarthy’s wartime diaries show that he hated the military command going back to his World War II days as a tail gunner in the South Pacific. He resented officers’ supposed sugarcoating of Allied wins and enemy losses, writing, “Who the hell do those mental midgets think they’re fooling & why?” Most irritating to him were the inter-service rivalries: “Sometimes wonder if we are fighting the same war as the Navy & Army.”


Later, as a senator, McCarthy placed several Army generals who were venerated by the public — from George Marshall, orchestrator of the Allied victory, to Telford Taylor, head of American code breakers at England’s Bletchley Park — at the center of what he claimed was a vast Communist conspiracy inside the federal government. McCarthy’s manufactured rage reached a flash point in the fall of 1953 when he charged that Ft. Monmouth in New Jersey was filled with Commie moles. For good measure, he belittled Eisenhower, the war hero president, as a Johnny-come-lately to the Cold War.

Military leaders at first tried to placate McCarthy, but during the famous Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 both the Army and Ike pushed back, offering reams of evidence of the senator’s self-serving and reckless actions. At the start of those proceedings, McCarthy’s popularity had reached 50%; by the end two months later only 34% of Americans supported him, finally giving the Senate the guts to condemn him.

Eisenhower, who had enabled McCarthy by refusing to engage with him, at long last was ordering his generals to battle back. And the president personally ended one of his weekly meetings with Republican legislators by asking whether they had heard the yarn going around Washington: “It’s no longer McCarthyism, it’s McCarthywasm.”

The echoes between McCarthy and Trump don’t stop with the maligning of the military, and they’re becoming more alarming as the president’s poll numbers plummet.

Take the way Trump dreams up insulting monikers for every one of his political enemies, from “Sleepy Joe” Biden to “Crooked Hillary” Clinton. “Low Blow” Joe McCarthy used the same bullying tactic, calling Francis Wendt the “Pinko Mayor of Racine” and branding Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine and her fellow moderate Republicans “Snow White and the Six Dwarfs.”

Likewise, Trump has vilified as unpatriotic and pro-crime the Democratic mayors he says have lost control over their cities. And he has abetted the same birther lie about Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, that he perpetrated against Barack Obama. Terrifying, but hardly original. McCarthy painted his opponents as red or pink, truth be damned.


Trump, like McCarthy, is a genius at seizing upon public paranoia and claiming evidence of conspiracies when there is none. Both men are adept at inventing figures to fear — in McCarthy’s case, it was scheming Communists, in Trump’s, it’s immigrants. Both turned their names into universal brands. Neither had a master strategy to govern; the point was only to acquire and cling to power.

The connection between the senator and the president, of course, is more than rhetorical. Roy Cohn, the New York attorney, was the flesh-and-blood through-line. In the 1950s, Cohn served as McCarthy’s eager protégé. Twenty years later, he became Trump’s bare-knuckled mentor, channeling the senator’s ruthlessness to the eventual president.

Never has that been more apparent than in Trump’s reported distain for those in uniform. While the president has denied the allegations, calling them “Fake News,” several media outlets have confirmed that he has derided not just former Sen. John McCain for being a prisoner of war in North Vietnam but other brave G.I.s. There is, however, a difference: Unlike Trump, McCarthy had served in the military machine he would scorn — and he was attacking the brass, not the rank and file.

In contrast to those opposing McCarthy, today’s military leaders are understandably hesitant to call out a bully when he’s their commander-in-chief. So, with only 54 days left before election day, it’s up to Joe Biden to drill into voters that their choice is straightforward: Reject McCarthyism again or resurrect it under the new name of Trumpism.

Larry Tye is the author, most recently, of “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy.”