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Kamloops News

THOMPSON: Comparing Sen. Joseph McCarthy to President Trump

June 26, 2017 - 1:21 PM



It’s a small world…and a funny one, too. Of course, by funny I mean peculiarly interesting.

Few are still alive who actually knew Joseph McCarthy, the infamous demagogue and Republican senator from Wisconsin from 1947 to 1957. But he is well worth remembering…not so much for what he did, but for how he almost destroyed American democracy.

McCarthy was largely an undistinguished legislator his first three years in the senate. He sponsored few bills, missed twice as many roll call votes as his average colleague, and was virtually unknown outside his own state. But on Feb. 9, 1950, McCarthy gave a speech at the McLure Hotel in Wheeling, WV. The gathering of just 275 Republican faithful was celebrating the upcoming Abraham Lincoln Day…though Honest Abe probably spun in his grave if he heard McCarthy’s lies.

His speech was - by today’s accounts - a mix of Right-Wing propaganda and outright lies.

McCarthy’s target was Communists, which he claimed had infiltrated the U.S. State Department by the hundreds. Even worse, he told those assembled, President Harry S. Truman’s Administration wasn’t doing a thing about it, especially the “liberal” Secretary of State Dean Acheson.

McCarthy railed on of “elite” Democrats and “the enemy within” the Truman Administration, culminating with this outright lie: “While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department.”

There were, of course, no communists - much less spies - in the State Department. But the men on McCarthy’s list that night were the tip of the iceberg of fearmongering in an emerging Cold War. McCarthy’s lies and scare tactics would ruin the reputations and careers of thousands of good, patriotic Americans in an era that saw the shining light of democracy dim.

The night of McCarthy’s speech, Donald Trump was just a toddler…too young perhaps to even bully his fellow kindergarteners. Master Trump was no doubt snugly safe and warm some 400 miles east in his parents’ posh Tudor home in Jamaica Estates, Queens, NY. And yet, despite the distance, the 67 years, and the fact that McCarthy and Trump never, ever met…they have much in common. Why? Read on.

The audience for McCarthy’s speech - like those attending a Trump Rally today - was more than willing to blame America’s ills on “others.” The others then were Democrats and Communists. Today, the “others” are more numerous…Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants and refugees, Democrats, Liberals, and on and on.

Today, Trump’s vitriol and lies spread as quickly has his small hands can Tweet 140 characters.

The world sees what he’s thinking - and I use the term advisedly - in an instant. But McCarthy’s lies spread slowly…a single Associated Press dispatch of 110 words that ran in a couple dozen newspapers across America a day or two after his speech.

McCarthy’s speech fed the nation’s paranoia. His fearmongering worked. Americans turned on Americans. His wretched McCarthyism - the name given to the unfounded persecution of others - almost stole every American’s freedom.

Ironically, a year ago this week, Donald Trump landed at the same airport that McCarthy used in 1950…held a private fundraiser a few blocks from the venerable McLure Hotel…and spoke to nearly 4,000 supporters at a rally 15 minutes west on I-70 in St. Clarksville, OH.

Trump didn’t literally wave a list of dangerous “others” as McCarthy had…but his speech was no less dark. McCarthy would have been proud. Trump lied about the rise of the Islamic State, as if terrorists were lurking on the outskirts of St. Clarksville. It was, he cautioned, “spreading like wildfire.” He swore to the crowd that, if elected, he would use torture and waterboarding. Of course, he also lied to the crowd about Mexicans, immigrants, Democrats…you know, the “others.”

Like McCarthy had said nearly 67 years earlier, there was much to fear in America. And like McCarthy intimated, in such a fearful America, only he - Donald Trump - could protect us. Today, Trump is in the White House and is more like McCarthy now than on the campaign trail. He has turned the White House into a dark and foreboding place. Other world leaders scoff and laugh at him…but are anxious about his judgment…or rather lack of it.

I promised to reveal how these two miserable politicians - McCarthy and Trump - ever crossed paths. Again, they never actually met. But they had a common bond…a lawyer, advisor and confidant by the name of Roy Cohn. McCarthy named Cohn chief counsel of more than 40 investigators and lawyers, including future Attorney General Robert Kennedy, that formed the Senate’s Permanent Sub-Committee on Investigations.

Cohn had already made a name for himself prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in 1951. He was ruthless…and variously called a bully…a self-aggrandizing, needy, narcissist. He was a master at fearmongering and though 15 years younger than McCarthy, he taught the ambitious politician how to whip a crowd into a frenzy…how to get people to willingly hand over their freedoms out of fear of “others.” Sound familiar? It should.

Trump’s father, Fred, used Roy Cohn as a lawyer and advisor. Donald Trump grew up around Roy Cohn, whose clients included New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner and mob boss Carlo Gambino, and became Donald Trump’s trusted and loyal friend. They spoke about five times a day during the 1970s and 1980s, according to Trump, and partied at Studio 54 and other clubs around New York. When Cohn died of aids in 1986, Trump was said to have been his last phone call.

Do you think you can be around someone that much…admire them that much…and not be like them? Perhaps…but there’s evidence otherwise. Since being president, Donald Trump has exploited fears of terrorism, using European attacks to support his travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority nations. He refuses to apologize…even when caught in lies.

Am I and others unduly hard or unfair to President Donald Trump? Not at all. He shows what he’s thinking every day in Tweets. We have him on video tape and audio sound bites. He’s outrageous. He’s more dangerous than what he fearmongers about.

He has stoked fears in the hearts of white Americans…intimating that the rising tide of Hispanics and immigrants and, you know, “others,” doesn’t bode well for America. What does his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again” really mean? When was this time he and his supporters want to get back to…before or after slavery? 

Maybe Donald Trump believes that time of greatness was the 1950s…when McCarthy saved us from Communists…the “others” of that era. Is President Trump going to change? No…because he suffers serious personality and possibly mental issues…and what he does works. Sadly, fearmongering works. Will the millions of Americans who he has scared continue to believe this man who lies like others breathe? God, I hope not…I really do. America’s most dangerous enemies come from within.

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