McCarthy: Power Feeds on Fear is a new documentary nationally available from PBS. The film details Joe McCarthy’s rise in the late 1940s from political obscurity in Wisconsin to become the most famous and intimidating US Senator. He achieved that distinction by promoting and exploiting the “Red Scare” fear of communist subversion that existed in the US when the Cold War with the Soviet Union began after World War II. The fear was fueled as eastern European nations and China became communist, and the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons. Many Americans worried that another major war was on the horizon or, even worse, that some seditious US citizens might undermine the country and make our republic Marxist. While the McCarthy film explores no events after the mid-1950s, it is impossible to watch it and ignore the association between McCarthyism and Trumpism.
After serving in World War II, Joe McCarthy returned to Wisconsin and decided to challenge three-term senator Robert La Follette, Jr. in the 1946 Republican primary. He surprisingly won a close race, benefitting from turmoil within his state’s Republican Party and by exaggerating his wartime role and making false claims about La Follette’s supposed “war profiteering.” A general election victory sent McCarthy to Washington where he spent his first three years as a poorly regarded back-bench senator.
His rapid escalation to become perhaps the most influential US politician in the country began in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, when he gave a Lincoln Day speech to the local Republican Women’s Club. McCarthy waved a piece of paper asserting that he had the names of 205 State Department employees who were members of the Communist Party and probable Soviet spies. The claim exploded into the national press.
McCarthy quickly learned that his allegations did not need to be consistent or accurate for him to get more national focus. The Red Scare fear generated attention for such assertions and sold more newspapers, thereby creating a symbiotic relationship between the media and a scammer. McCarthy went on to make multiple unfounded allegations and elevated the country’s widespread anxiety about the threat of subversive communists.
A month after his Wheeling speech, McCarthy sustained his attention grabbing when he accused Owen Lattimore of being the top Soviet spy in the United States. Lattimore was a prominent scholar of Chinese history and a professor at Johns Hopkins University who had advised President Franklin Roosevelt during the war. He edited a scholarly journal that had published articles from Russian authors. He also argued that the US should recognize the new communist government of China. These acts were sufficiently subversive for McCarthy to point at Lattimore for years and effectively ruin his career. No spying evidence ever emerged.
McCarthy’s ability to attract attention was further enhanced when the 1952 election gave Republicans control of the Senate. He became chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, a position he used to conduct many preposterous and highly publicized hearings over the next two years in his effort to find communist sympathizers in the US. He was aided by ruthless young New York lawyer Roy Cohn, the committee’s chief counsel. Among the many people pursued by McCarthy and Cohn was the prominent African-American author and poet Langston Hughes who had sometimes expressed support for communism as a response to the racism he had experienced growing up in the US. By McCarthy’s standards, this made Hughes a potential spy.
McCarthy’s powerful committee chairmanship led to so many abuses that the Senate leadership, long intimidated by McCarthy’s public standing, eventually began a process that led to his censure by the full body in December 1954. Still a senator, he died in 1957 at the age of 48. The documentary provides captivating details about the multi-year political furor of McCarthyism.
One can envision a future documentary that tracks an even more powerful mania scarring American politics. It will begin with Trump meeting Roy Cohn in 1973 to begin their professional and personal relationship that lasted until Cohn’s death in 1986. McCarthy’s ex-staffer routinely advised and represented Trump in business and personal conflicts. A reporter who followed them at the time said that Cohn taught Trump a three-dimensional strategy: “1. Never settle, never surrender. 2. Counter attack, counter-sue immediately. 3. No matter what happens, no matter how deeply into the muck you get, claim victory and never admit defeat.”
The footage will then move to Trump’s transition from real estate and TV to politics. His sustained advocacy of the “birther” lie questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship caused his initial rise to popularity within the Republican Party. Later, the prospective film will show his presidential campaign beginning with repeated attacks on immigrants. He promised to deport them, repeal the birthright citizenship provision of the Fourteenth Amendment, and build an impenetrable wall along 2,000 miles of the southern border at Mexico’s expense. This was a large part of what got him elected.
Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump exploited real issues in their demagoguery. The post war years were indeed at risk of a potential confrontation with the Soviet Union. In the current time, US immigration laws are archaic and incapable of dealing effectively with global pressures. But neither McCarthy nor Trump had the goal of implementing comprehensive or realistic solutions. Each inflamed the trepidation produced by powerful forces that many citizens feared could result in adverse evolution of our society.
Keeping people angry at one another helps preclude any focus on the absence of progress. That’s why demagogues must elevate their level of provocation over time. Joe McCarthy’s exploitive use of fear eventually crossed the line that led to his downfall. Donald Trump is on the same path, but it is unclear when he will crash or what the national cost will be when that happens. The McCarthy documentary helps explain our political reality. An election year is an especially valuable time to help voters see more clearly the difference between reality and reality TV.
Edward M. Murphy worked in state government from 1979-1995, serving as the commissioner of the Department of Youth Services, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health, and executive director of the Health and Educational Facilities Authority. He retired after serving as CEO and chairman of one of the country’s largest providers of services to people with disabilities.