In l950, Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, speaking at a Republican Lincoln Day dinner in Wheeling, W.Va., claimed that he held a list of 205 "known" communists in the State Department.
The precise allegation inflamed the growing antagonism to the Democratic Party's post war internationalism — resurrecting the America First crusades of the 1930s. Billboards screamed, "Get the U.S. out of the U.N. and the U.N. out of the U.S."
The McCarthy speech did not start the Cold War, but it fed neatly on the tension with the Soviet Union and the growing suspicion that as a prelude to destroying our way of life, the Communists had infiltrated spies into every corner of our government.
The speech elevated McCarthy's status from back-bench senator to a national celebrity and encouraged his aggressive anti-communist campaign. When hearings held by Maryland Sen. Millard Tydings concluded that McCarthy's allegations were mostly full of hot air, McCarthy retaliated by distributing a fabricated photograph merging a photo of Tydings taken in 1938 with a photo of Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party, taken in 1940. Tydings was defeated.
In 1952 McCarthy was re-elected, the Republicans won the presidency and both houses of Congress. McCarthy became chairman of the Subcommittee on Permanent Investigations. He challenged the loyalty of labor leaders, scientists, musicians, actors and writers. Thousands of books were banned from schools and libraries, including the legendary tale of "Robin Hood" — whose hero stole from the rich to give to the poor.
Two generations later, the American public is once again disgruntled and fearful. Not by the New Deal but by the slump of the middle class. Not by communism but by terrorism.
Joe McCarthy says hi to Donald Trump. Fellow celebrities. Similar tactics. Different targets.
McCarthy's targets were supposed communist spies disguised as patriots. Mr. Trump's are supposed Muslim terrorists disguised as refugees. McCarthy ridiculed the suffragettes. Mr. Trump ridicules women who are fat, do not look like models, and ask uncomfortable questions. McCarthy fought to get rid of the UN. Mr. Trump would get rid of NATO. McCarthy thought vaccinations and fluoride were a communist plot to endanger public health. Mr. Trump thinks climate change is a scientific fantasy. McCarthy called Secretary of State George Marshall guilty of "a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous venture in the history of man." Mr. Trump accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of being "crooked," "corrupt" and "the worst Secretary of State in the history of the country."
McCarthy ranted against child labor laws and the New Deal. Mr. Trump rants against the minimum wage and Obamacare. McCarthy suggested that we draft striking coal minors and shoot those who resist. Mr. Trump suggested we punish women who have abortions and kill the families of terrorists. McCarthy insulted every left-winger and anyone who opposed his tactics. Mr. Trump insults war heroes, Mexicans, Muslims, and anyone who opposes his candidacy.
McCarthy smeared people based solely on discredited sources. Mr. Trump smears people relying on discredited scandal sheets. McCarthy accused President Harry Truman of being soft on communism. Mr. Trump accuses President Obama of being soft on terrorists. McCarthy drank late into the evening. Mr. Trump tweets.
The McCarthy national torment lasted about seven years before the nation's fundamental antagonism to demagoguery shredded the senator's scam. Slowly his colleagues challenged his bullying and buffoonery. But mostly, his ranting's prompted ridicule. Herblock's cartoons in the Washington Post skewered him with slopping tar, coining the word McCarthyism. Walt Kelly's syndicated comic strip, Pogo, featured a conniving look-a-like named Simple J. Malarkey. Bob And Ray on radio created a blustering McCarthy as an inept Zoning Commissioner in Skunk Haven. Stan Freberg's album "Point of Order" mocked McCarthy's rude and monotonous expression. But it was television that did him in. Edward Murrow, perhaps the most respected journalist of his era, delivered a more serious analysis.
"This is not the time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep quiet, or for those who approve. We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must always remember that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into and age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we re not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay among our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'"
And finally, as with most demagogues, McCarthy went a bridge too far. In retaliation for drafting one of his committee's assistants, McCarthy accused the Army of being "soft on communism." McCarthy then accused the elderly attorney for the Army, Joseph Welch, of harboring a communist in his firm, a charge that would have destroyed the young associate's career. Mr. Welch stunned McCarthy with his blunt response:
"Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness. … Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?"
The burst of applause from the hearing room said it all. And it was over. A cascade of pent up public enmity engulfed him. In Wisconsin they started a recall movement. The Senate voted to censure him for "vulgar and insulting" conduct. His brand was shattered. He died of alcoholism in 1957 at the age of 48.
McCarthy left no real public achievement, no memorable prose. He is remembered mostly for soiling reputations and spreading fear. His most notable legacy may be the addition of a new word in the America lexicon to define the Art of Demagoguery — McCarthyism.
One has to wonder if the same will happen to Mr. Trump. Will his brand be shattered? Some members of the political party he fractured have turned on him. Others are apparently still too fearful to do so. He has never served in public office so he left no political record. But he did have a business career and here it appears he left behind a string of failures and financial messes from Trump Airlines to Trump University.
Nor has there been any splendor in his language. He has given us no soaring prose like Ronald Reagan's "City on a Hill" or John Kennedy "ask what you can do for your country." His most lasting legacy may be similar to Joseph McCarthy's — another word in the American language to define the Art of Demagoguery — Trumpism.
Theodore G. Venetoulis is a publisher and former Baltimore County executive.