Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist campaign was aimed at destroying progressive unions and the American left. McCarthyism is the model for Trumpism. Larry Tye, the author of “Demagogue’, joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.
Welcome to the theAnalysis.news podcast. I’m Paul Jay.
The book, “Demagogue”, Larry Tye’s biography of Senator Joseph McCarthy has been hailed as the definitive take on the life of a man whose name has become synonymous with witch hunts and abuse of power, with the objective of creating an ideological terror campaign against political foes.
Tye likens McCarthy with President Trump, another in a long line of such bullies. Now joining us to talk about Joe McCarthy and his book is Larry Tye. He’s an author and journalist known for his biographies of Americans, including Edward Bernays, Satchel Paige, Robert F. Kennedy, and, of course, Joseph McCarthy. Thanks for joining us. Larry.
Great to be on with you.
So before we get into who Joseph McCarthy was and what McCarthyism was all about and linking it to Trump and so on, I think it’s important to get to some underlying assumptions a lot of people have about McCarthyism, about anticommunism. And my take is that the beginnings of this anticommunism and the kind of Red Scare, is long before there ever was a Soviet Union, it’s really late 19th century with the development in the United States of a revolutionary workers movement. General strikes, a militancy of the working class United States getting organized, very influenced by socialist ideas of various kinds, including Marx.
So in terms of understanding McCarthyism and the House of un-American Activities Committee, I think it’s important to distinguish between a legitimate domestic revolutionary movement that had every right for workers to get organized, to form unions, to become Marxist communists, socialists, whatever they wanted if one believes the U.S. Constitution protects the right to get organized and the right to free speech. All of this was more than legitimate activity and including the opposition to the First World War, which the left progressive socialists, communists, and so on, including Eugene Debs, waged a big campaign against the United States joining the First World War. And that gave a lot of impetus to sections of the elites and the political elites wanting to crush this movement.
So the idea that communism was always the sort of Soviet organized conspiracy and not primarily, not only but not primarily, a domestic social-political development that comes out of the political consciousness and the growth of the American workers and American intelligentsia. I think that gets lost in this discussion. And it’s kind of an underlying assumption, “Oh, communism bad. Even if McCarthy went too far, the underlying objectives weren’t so bad”.
So I don’t know if you agree with me or not, but let’s talk about that because I think to understand this phenomenon, I think that needs to be the starting place.
So I think that you’re right that McCarthyism ends up sweeping up a lot more of a movement than actually Joe McCarthy represented in the anti-communist movement in America, was sweeping in a way that seemed to me in many ways un-American that. So I want to say a couple of things about the fight to uncover communists in the government goes back at least to 1938 in the formation of the House un-American Activities Committee and for a dozen years before Joe McCarthy, members of Congress, were out there looking for alleged Soviet spies buried in the US government. And they did a whole lot more careful looking while they swept too many people along with this, and lots of careers and lives were ruined by McCarthy standards, they were responsible.
And when we talk about this second Red Scare, the Red Scare in the 40s and 50s, it didn’t begin with Joe McCarthy and didn’t end with Joe McCarthy, but he was the most cowboy-like bomb-throwing figure, and therefore it was his name that had the “ism” attached to it.
But you’re right that McCarthy’s search for communists in the House Un-American Activities, search for communists, did something that seemed to me decidedly un-American, which rather than just looking for people who were doing espionage and who were legitimate targets of congressional committees and of anticommunists, they swept up lots of people because they believed in socialism or communism. And Americans are free or should be free, to believe in whatever they wanted, to espouse those beliefs, as long as the beliefs don’t turn into an action that somehow threatens our government or turns into espionage for a foreign power. And I think that McCarthy managed not just to encompass a lot more than his personal movement ever really did, but he ended up, in addition to the people he drove to take their own lives, which were at least a dozen people that we could point to, the hundreds of careers that he ruined in a way more damaging than anything to me, were the millions of people who were silenced from espousing legitimate political beliefs and expanding the political dialogue in America. And those are the only people who despise leftist beliefs. And to this day, 70 years after McCarthy launched his crusade, it still becomes a facile response to beliefs you don’t like to call somebody a leftist or a socialist or a red.
Yeah, certainly part of the Trump and most Republicans’ vocabulary.
Do you agree that the primary opposition to the socialist-communist movement in the United States was primarily driven by the fear of socialism? That it wasn’t about primarily, certainly even at the time of the Russian Revolution and so on, it wasn’t about foreign espionage, it was about workers in the United States getting inspired by an idea, a revolution, that threatened the way things were owned in the United States and threatened, to use Bernie Sanders language, the American oligarchy.
I definitely agree with that. If we’re talking about in the 1930s and certainly through the end of World War Two, I would say that when it came to McCarthys’ era in the 1950s, early 1950s, the fear was very real in terms of the Soviet Union, in terms of things like espionage.
In the months before McCarthy launched his crusade, we had watched nationalist China turn into, what looked like a threatening Red China. We had seen the atomic spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg arrested, tried, and sentenced to death.
We were afraid enough about the Soviet menace that we were about to teach our kids something extraordinary, which is if they put their hands over their head and did what was called, duck and cover, duck under their desks, that they would be free from the fallout of a nuclear bomb. And we were afraid, and the Soviet Union was, by that time, a relatively scary case.
And yet Joe McCarthy, like demagogues everywhere, played on that fear, but in lieu of solutions, he pointed fingers. By the time McCarthy came along, most of the 24k spies in our government had been exposed. And he was pointing fingers at people who were almost entirely anything but the spies that he said they were.
It was said of Joe McCarthy, by the way, and jokingly, I think it’s actually true, that he could have been dropped into the middle of Red Square on May Day and not know how to pick out a communist.
Roosevelt and his vice president, Wallace, worked with the Soviet Union in an alliance against Hitler and against Japanese imperialism. If Wallace had continued to be the vice president and Roosevelt died, who knows where the 1950s would have ended up because Wallace certainly wasn’t in favor of the Cold War that Truman developed with the Soviet Union.
The origins of this Cold War, according to people like Daniel Ellsberg, who worked with the Rand Corporation, (offers research and analysis to the United States Armed Forces), and wrote a book, “Doomsday Machine”, I should say, I’m working with Ellsberg doing a documentary about that book. He was a quite convinced Cold Warrior. He was a Democrat, but that certainly means nothing because a lot of the Cold War was initiated under the Democratic Party.
He came to the conclusion and what he came to learn was certainly known at the highest political levels in the United States and military, that there was no expansionist Soviet threat, that the Soviet Union was in a defensive posture, that the missile gap didn’t exist, that the United States at the time of the talk of the missile gap, which was a big impetus towards the further militarization of the United States, that the missile gap actually was the other way around. The United States had 200 ICBMs at a time the Soviet Union had four, and that the whole threat of the Soviet expansionism globally was really exaggerated to justify this development of what Eisenhower when I went on to call the industrial-military complex.
So to a large extent, do you think that both Nixon going after Alger Hiss, (an American government official accused in 1948 of spying for the Soviet Union), and McCarthy, if I understand it correctly, kicked his career off with that as well. The Alger Hiss case, which still seems like Hiss was not guilty of anything, although the debate continues.
But, to use the Ellsberg phrase, and I’m quoting him directly here, he’s come to the conclusion now that, “the Cold War was essentially a subsidy for the aerospace industry, and that drove a lot of this anti-communist fervor,”. What do you think of that?
So I’m a fan of Ellsberg. He blurbed my McCarthy book. He posted a talk from my Bobby Kennedy book. But I don’t pretend to be enough of a scholar in terms of the broader issues of the origins of the Cold War and what the Soviet Union was doing. I find Ellsberg’s arguments very convincing. What I do know is that Joe McCarthy had no clue about anything that the Soviet Union was doing. And what he was doing was not looking for a way to respond to a real or perceived fear of the Soviet Union. What he was doing was a way to get into the limelight and not become a one-term senator that looked like he would be in 1950 when he launched his crusade. His crusade is a sign of his cynicism, and that’s a sign of his cluelessness about the issues that we’re talking about. When he went to Wheeling, West Virginia in February 1950, in a speech that launched his whole crusade against communism and McCarthyism. He brought with him in his briefcase two speeches. One was a snoozer of a speech on national housing policy, which is something he knew something about, and had he pulled that speech out of his briefcase, you and I wouldn’t be discussing him 70 years later, he would have been a one-term senator and he would have been a forgotten senator.
Instead, he pulled out of his briefcase his second speech that he hadn’t read and on a topic that he knew absolutely nothing about. He waived that speech in the air to his audience, in front of his audience, that night in Wheeling, West Virginia. And he said, I have in my hand a list of 205 spies at the US State Department, and this is what the threat to America is all about, and if we would only root out these spies, we’d be a whole lot safer country. Now, he didn’t have in his hand a list of the 205 spies at the State Department because they didn’t exist.
He didn’t care about that. What he cared about was that in two days, within two days, he was on page one of every newspaper in America and he never looked back. His charges were generally on page one. The responses to his charges were, generally a day later, on page 24.
Joe McCarthy knew the way the demagogues have an instinctive sense of how to play to the press and manipulate the press and how to play on the public’s fears. So whether Ellsberg is right or wrong, the public was afraid, back in 1950 in whether there were spies or not still left in the government, and I’m convinced there weren’t many. Joe McCarthy had no clue who they were and didn’t care much, he cared about getting power and holding on to it, with little sense of what he would do with that power.
And in the process of this, what we’re talking about now is important not just because of who Joe McCarthy was and because of ancient history 50 years ago. It’s important, I think because this is the model. He was the archetype for demagogues who came after. And what we see 70 years ago is a template for what we see going on in Washington today.
And we’ll certainly return to that point in this discussion. But I do think the history is critical, and obviously, you do, too.
You have written the book and you point out in the book that McCarthy didn’t invent all of this. He stood on the shoulders of the House of un-American Activities Committee and really decades of this kind of anti-communist fervor, which I’m saying was really just opposition to a socialist movement in the United States, that became very convenient to make the Soviet Union the foreign boogeyman, even though I don’t doubt there was some spying that went on. And I’d like to get into that a little later because I’m actually going to defend the spying, but let’s wait a second for that.
You make a point in the book, which I think is important, and I’m not a student of this, but I haven’t seen it made so much before is that one of the people who helped create the conditions for McCarthy was actually Truman, who started a somewhat similar campaign before McCarthy, even though Truman later disassociated himself from McCarthy. What is the role of Truman in helping, I think your phrase was, “till the ground for McCarthy”? Why did Truman do it?
Truman did what he did because he said he was preempting a more radical crackdown by Republicans in Congress. I think that the idea of subjecting to loyalty tests of five million government employees is a pretty, not just irresponsible, but a pretty ineffective approach at going after the few spies that there were in the government. And I think that Truman knew that he was overacting and he was reacting in a way that was indefensible, but I think he felt the furor required that. And I think that if we were naming the movement after its true originator, we would probably name it “Traumanism” and not McCarthyism because Truman was the president and in his region, his program was a whole lot wider than McCarthy’s limited hearings and limited effect, this one of one hundred senators.
Well, maybe that’s a whole other conversation about who Truman was because I think it’s actually very important to assess Truman. I know when Barack Obama was asked about his foreign policy and who in terms of previous presidents, did he see himself as an inheritor of, he started with Truman. And I think that’s kind of rather revealing about him and that whole section of the Democratic Party, not the least of which, of course, is that Truman is the one that decided to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and authorized the firebombing of Japan, which was really a war crime, the killing of hundreds of thousands of civilians.
And it’s in that context that having dropped atomic bombs and now I’m not sure where you are on this, or if you looked at it. But a lot of historians, Peter Kuznick and Gar Alperovitz and others really have come to the conclusion that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan had little to do with actually defeating Japan, and a lot more shot across the bow, a threat to the Soviet Union. This is what post-World War Two is going to look like. Have you looked at this whole question at all? Because I think it informs a lot of what this post-World War Two period is like, because it’s all under the cloud shadow of the atomic bomb, the rise of what Truman’s loyalties and then McCarthyism and so on.
So I’ve looked at it only vaguely, and I don’t feel comfortable wading into an area that I don’t know much about. But I do say that a later manifestation of the same thing you’re talking about that I spent lots of time looking at was maybe one of the defining moments of the later Cold War, which was when the Kennedys confronted the Russians and the Cubans during the Cuban missile crisis. And looking deeply at that, it was clear that a year long secret war that Robert Kennedy had been launching against Fidel Castro’s Cuba, retaliation for the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. And it was an operation called, Operation Moments, where he was trying to unseat, if not kill, Fidel Castro.
That, when we go back and examine something like the Soviet attempt to put missiles in Cuba, makes what they did look a whole lot more rational.
I think that all of this is part of a revisionist look at our history and saying it was never as simple as there being a Soviet boogeyman. There were real threats and there were exaggerated threats, but, in the case of Joe McCarthy, his entry into this had nothing to do with real threats and all to do with real opportunism. And I think that the idea that he managed to create this kind of movement with as little understanding as he did about neither American history, American foreign policy in a contemporary way, or American and Soviet spy-craft, is sort of shocking.
A senator from the Midwest who grew up as a poultry farmer coming in and telling us what was threatening us in terms of our foreign affairs and becoming the second most popular public figure of his time, trailing only Dwight Eisenhower. That was shocking. And he took on, one could argue, got the better of two presidents, Truman and Eisenhower.
Yeah, I grew up during that period you described. In fact, I grew up in Toronto, but we used to go under our desks, and put our hands over our eyes and crouch and wait for the bomb to drop.
In fact, I actually never went to university because I was absolutely convinced the world was going to blow up before I graduated, and I wasn’t going to spend the last years of my life in school. The terror was very convincing and for good reason, because the atomic bomb was terrifying.
I said earlier I was going to defend the Soviet Union spying on the United States during that period. And of course, that doesn’t need any defense, really, all countries spy on each other. The question is whether the American communists, and Canadian for that matter, but more American. How does one judge them cooperating, a few of them, with the Soviet Union in spying, especially on the issue of nuclear secrets?
There’s an interesting film now, I think it’s on Netflix called Red Joan, based on a real story of a woman who worked in British intelligence and starts passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. And she does it because she fears, and the same thing with the American communist feared, that the United States was planning a first nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. And in fact, there were elements within the U.S. military, including Curtis LeMay, who was head of the Strategic Air Command at the time, and Curtis LeMay was the one that actually was in charge of the firebombings of Japan and dropping nuclear weapons on Japan. And he was, in fact, according to Ellsberg and others, pushing for a first strike on the Soviet Union.
So I don’t think that gets enough attention that what motivated the American communists, who did do some intelligence gathering for the Soviet Union, they did it because they really feared a first strike on the Soviet Union and they had good reason to fear it.
Do you agree with that? And doesn’t that need to be spoken of more? Because one rarely hears that.
Honestly, again, I don’t want to weigh in because I don’t know enough about what the motivations were of the different spies. I’m more interested in the fact that even if you accept the idea that these spies were doing something that was dangerous to American foreign policy and to American safety, Joe McCarthy did nothing to root out these spies, and it is arguable, and I would say, it’s convincing that Joe McCarthy did more damage to the American anti-communist movement than he did to the communist movement.
As much as he became a symbol and a lasting influence in terms of making it unacceptable to have a dialogue about anything very far left of center, he also, for the anti-communist movement, had people assuming that any time somebody charged “red spy” somewhere, that they were making it up because Joe McCarthy made so much of what he was charging up.
You are probably smarter than I am in terms of all of the issues that you’re raising. I’m raising a very simple one about McCarthy, which is the US senators who stood up and said in the immediate aftermath of his Wheeling, West Virginia speech in 1950, who called him a fraud and a hoax, while many of them lost office because Joe McCarthy went after them, they were right.
And in the end, he was proven to be a fraud and a hoax in ways that new evidence that’s out there, his personal papers, his professional papers, his behind closed door transcripts of secret hearings that he held, it all shows that as sinister as we thought this guy was, he was more, and as much as we thought he was being fed information by the CIA and the FBI and others, we now have proof that he was fed information and just what that was.
And I think that the whole story of Joe McCarthy is able to be told now with the level of clarity, and of nuance, and the applicability to today that we couldn’t before.
How do you explain how the media at that time essentially treated this guy with kid gloves almost from day one, if I understand it correctly, what he was doing was, on the face of it, so outrageous, so obvious, manipulating public opinion and using his office abusively, but the media just shut up.
How did they get intimidated so fast?
I don’t want to smear in Joe McCarthy fashion on the media. You’re right generally, media, lot of stew.
As a lifelong reporter, I know that every print reporter, part of their goal every day is to make page one. Joe McCarthy put them on page one more often than any political figure of that era, and so that was an automatic reinforcement for the press to continue paying attention to what he did.
He also understood brilliantly how to play the media.
It was not accidental that he launched his crusade in an out of the way place like Wheeling, West Virginia, where the reporters, the very few reporters who were there from places like Wheeling Intelligencer newspaper and the local radio station, they would have had no clue who to call at the State Department to get a response to a story alleging they were 205 spies there.
He gave his speech as a dinner speech because he knew that in a dinner speech, they had 10 minutes, even if they knew who to call, to try to reach somebody. He knew the rules that the press played by, and he flipped those rules to make the press do what he wanted them to do.
But I say I don’t want to smear all the press because they were reporters, at huge hazard to themselves and their careers, that took him on early and often.
And the most famous of them was a columnist that people forget today, but he was at the time, the best-read columnists, and the most listen to radio broadcaster of America, a guy named Drew Pearson. Drew Pearson wrote 60 scathing columns on Joe McCarthy.
To his credit, he took him on, even though when the two of them met in the cloakroom of the fancy Washington Supper Club, Joe McCarthy started pummeling Pearson.
And if it hadn’t been for a Quaker peacemaker named Richard Nixon who stepped between the two of them.
Yeah, pummeling, literally pummeling. Not like verbally, like hitting him.
Slapping him around, and Nixon stepped in and broke up that fight.
But weeks later, McCarthy went after Pearson on the floor of the Senate, taking on Pearson’s sponsor, a company called Adam Hats.
And McCarthy told his supporters to stop buying those hats until they stop underwriting Drew Pearson. They did stop underwriting Drew Pearson, and that sent the kind of clarion message to Joe McCarthy was looking for to other reporters who might have been tempted to take on Joe McCarthy. The message was simple. Take me on at your own peril. And the peril was real. And there were a few reporters who were brave, but the sad truth is that the press, like the fellow senators, like the president, especially in terms of bias and power, they all became McCarthy’s enablers. And they are why McCarthy could reign supreme the way he did for nearly four and a half years.
You had access to material that hadn’t been available before, if I understand it correctly, including some transcripts of some of the closed hearings McCarthy conducted. And, you say in your book, even sometimes he’s the only one there representing the committee. And you just said a few seconds ago he was even more of a monster, I guess, than people knew. What did you find in those transcripts?
I found a couple of things. One is that any pretense of protecting or being sensitive to the rights of the accused, once the press was gone from the hearing room, so was any pretense, and he treated every witness like they were guilty.
I saw that when he wasn’t there conducting his one man hearings, he would turn the hearing gavel over to sophomoric staffers like the famous Roy Cohn, who would do an even more egregious kind of grilling of witnesses. And I saw that in the morning when Joe McCarthy was sober, his questions were semi-rational. In the afternoon, after he had his famous trademark lunch of a hamburger, a raw onion, and lots of whiskey, that any sense of rationality, again, went out the window, and he would be incredibly short-tempered, he would do what we would expect somebody to do if they were half inebriated, and I saw that he used these hearings in the most cynical way you could, which was as a test for his public hearings.
Anybody who behind closed doors looked like they could stand up effectively to Joe McCarthy magically disappeared before they were public hearings. Anybody that he could badger and intimidate effectively showed up when the cameras were invited back in. And so he had this wonderful way for him of using them as a test run for what would play in public sessions.
Joe McCarthy was connected to the director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, who helped him get going with all this campaign, feeding him dirt on various people. How much did Hoover have to do with all this? What role did he play in the rise of McCarthy?
So he was a friend of McCarthy. He would invite him to the race track. Both of them loved to gamble, and they would have dinner together. He was, on a personal level, an enabler of Joe McCarthy and on a professional level, even more of an enabler.
We see in these newly open records from McCarthy’s Alma mater, Marquette University, evidence of file after file stamped top secret that went from the FBI to Joe McCarthy and his subcommittee.
But we also see, if Joe McCarthy was a cynical political operator, Jim Hoover was that on steroids. And we see that Hoover enabled McCarthy when it wouldn’t threaten Hoover. Hoover thought McCarthy, even though he knew his charges were often unsubstantiated and outrageous, Hoover knew that McCarthy could be helpful to him, and McCarthy was.
McCarthy pushed for more resources for the FBI. In return for Hoover’s enabling McCarthy, McCarthy helped enable Hoover.
But when Eisenhower decided finally to develop a backbone and stand up against Joe McCarthy, Hoover understood that the president was more important to him than any senator, and Hoover cut off his stream of leaks to McCarthy.
Hoover survived as many presidents as he did because he was the ultimate manipulator of everybody, from presidents, to U.S. senators, and Joe McCarthy was case in point.
What finally unravels McCarthy is that he just wasn’t good enough at doing what he was doing. I mean, he was a problem for the elites that actually backed the general approach, is it kind of Trumpist in a way? It’s not like Wall Street doesn’t like most of what Trump actually does. They don’t like that he’s semi-mad and screwing up the pandemic.
Yes, so what undid Joe McCarthy was two things. One was the most obvious thing, and the one that’s out there in the public record, is that he took on an enemy that was too big to bully, namely the US Army.
And when he started making outrageous charges against the army, eventually, the army developed the backbone to stand up and say that’s wrong. And the Senate came in and held most famous hearings ever in the Army, the McCarthy hearings, trying to see who was telling the truth. Was it the army or was it the senator? And taking on the army is a very difficult thing to do, as Donald Trump is has seen when he’s taken on, and the military pushed back.
But what I really think undid Joe McCarthy is, in the course of those hearings, night after night, millions of Americans were watching your guy that they started out the hearings giving him a 50% popularity rating, trailing only Dwight Eisenhower.
In the course of those hearings, they watched this guy who they thought was their champion look more like a town ?????.
And by the end of the hearings, American public support for Joe McCarthy had fallen from 50% to 34%, and suddenly his fellow senators were willing to push back against this bully in their midst. And by the end of that year, 1954, they censured McCarthy, and McCarthy was, for all intents and purposes, even though he lived for another two and a half years, he was politically dead by the end of 1954. But as you and I know, and as we discussed a bit to this point, McCarthy died in 1957 and McCarthyism is alive and well.
Right. And I think something you said earlier is very important, that he perhaps did more damage to the cause of anti-communism than to the cause of Communism, although there’s no doubt that he helped do a lot of damage to the domestic socialist communist movement in the United States, and in fact really took the air out of it. So many people that had been activists in the left and progressive movement kept their heads down for years until the 1960s, and the rise of the civil rights movement, and the anti-war movement and such.
But I think that’s very important to understand that this wasn’t just a McCarthy thing and you make that point in the book. But in 1946, there were more strikes in the United States than ever in history before, and I think there’s never been as many since. Soldiers coming back from World War II fighting for democracy and against fascism were saying, well, we want some of that democracy here in the United States, and that included some economic rights. So the popularity of socialism, and the Soviet Union at that time, the Soviet Union emerged from World War II as certainly one of the heroes, including Stalin who was a great hero at the time because people correctly thought the Soviet Union broke the back of the Nazi’s.
People didn’t understand the extent of the political repression in the Soviet Union, but in the late ’40s, the cause of socialism, communism is very, very popular. And so it’s not just McCarthy. It’s a whole stratum or campaign of propaganda, including incredible television shows. I remember I grew up watching in Canada, “I Was a Communist for the FBI,” and you couldn’t go anywhere without this kind of anti-communist atmosphere.
And I think one of the big targets of this whole campaign in the US and in Canada was to get socialists and communists out of the trade unions, especially out of the leadership of unions. You write in the book that the Congress of Industrial Organizations was purging communists from its leadership and expelling red dominated affiliates. One of those unions was my mill, and I should also tell people my father worked for mine, so I got a personal connection here. But how important was the issue of the trade unions and getting the, quote, “the reds out of the unions” to what McCarthy was trying to accomplish?
So I think it was essential to what McCarthy was trying to accomplish because he was not really fingering the spies that he said he was. The closest he could come to a spy were leftists and trade unions, and it was people who had had flirtations with the Communist Party a generation before when they were back in college.
And I think, again, it is a case of him silencing not just the American Communist Party, but to me, much more damaging is any discussion of left solutions on lots of things. One of the reasons why it took us this long to be talking about issues like Health Care For All is because that was labeled a red and unacceptable kind of political dialogue in America, and silencing not just academics, but regular people from talking about things. In the course of doing book talks, I’ve had more people tell me about their parents or grandparents, or themselves having felt intimidated by Joe McCarthy from having an open political discussion.
And when you look back at who most of the leftists were in the ’30s and ’40s in America, most of the people Joe McCarthy was going after, they were people who believed in egalitarianism, people who believed in lots of things that we would have put different adjectives; rather than highly ideological ones, put adjectives describing their inclination to more equality, and everybody being treated OK.
McCarthy helped silence that kind of a discussion. On the other hand, my book may be a biography of one of the most malevolent figures in American history, but it is also a good news story.
And the good news is that in the long history of American demagogues given enough rope, every one of them hung themselves, and given enough time, the American public, which too easily bought into bullies throughout our history, given the time we see through them, and we get rid of them.
And I just hope that today we make equally wise decisions, in part by understanding the historical lessons of the archetypal demagogue in American history with Joseph R. McCarthy.
In drawing this link between the McCarthy bully, and you talk about at one point how a certain part of America likes bullies, and the bully Trump, and that the playbook is very similar. There’s a very direct line in Roy Cohn. How is this guy still around? And after the exposure of the rottenness of McCarthy, how does he still have credibility to be advising Trump?
So he had credibility in certain sectors of American society.
And when, 50 years after Joe McCarthy’s downfall, when Fred Trump and Donald Trump were getting the young Donald Trump ready to enter the cutthroat world of New York real estate, to them Roy Cohn was the perfect tutor. He understood cutthroat politics, he understood how to fight with a bulldozer rather than a butter knife.
And he came in and was the perfect mentor for Donald Trump.
And Donald Trump proved to be the perfect student.
So when I say there’s a connection between McCarthy and Trump, as you say, it’s a flesh and blood connection. McCarthy’s protege was Trump’s tutor.
And every time in the last three and a half years when Donald Trump has been in trouble, he said, I wish I had a Roy Cohn around to give me advice. And what I think he’s really saying is not that he wishes his mentor was still here, but that he wishes his mentor’s mentor, Joe McCarthy, was around because the lessons came not from Roy Cohn. He was the intermediary. The real master of all of these techniques was Joe McCarthy.
And if I could read you just two quotes that I think make this case better than I could ever do.
One was arguably the most famous line that Donald Trump delivered in 2016 during the campaign when he told his supporters, and I quote, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
Now, that was an extraordinary line. And to me, it was maybe a disqualifying line for him to be our president. It was picked up by every newspaper and every television station in the country. Exactly 62 years before the polling pioneer George Gallup wrote this about Joe McCarthy’s supporters, and I quote, “Even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, they,” meaning his supporters, “would probably still go along with him.”
And I think the idea that things like that were being said, that sound almost identical about these two leaders, again, is another suggestion of just how much Trump has been using Joe McCarthy’s playbook.
And I guess the chilling thing about those quotes, both quotes, is they’re probably right.
I mean, look what the German people thought, it was OK, what Hitler did.
There’s a section of the American public that actually probably would accept those things from either a McCarthy or a Trump.
So I think every day, actions from the White House are suggesting that you’re right. And I think that that is very chilling. And I think that that is the hundred echoes that we see in what’s going on today from what we observed in the 1950s.
The book is Demagogue by Larry Tye. It’s an important read to understanding, not just Trump, which is important, but also the roots of Cold War mentality, because it still exists today. And again, I mean, Trump’s already campaigning against the far left. I mean, it’s a joke when applied to Joe Biden, but, the use of the term far left by Trump is to invoke the spirits and demons of McCarthyite thinking. So this is far from over.
So I certainly recommend people read the book. And, Larry, I hope we get to do this again because the book is so rich with material, we kind of just scratched the surface.
That was fun and I really appreciate your having me on.
And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast.