He’s at it again.
President Donald Trump knew how deadly Covid-19 was, but he didn’t tell us (he of course claims otherwise). Trump reportedly mocked our fallen soldiers as “losers.” Asked whether he’s trying to understand Black Americans’ anger and pain, the president answered “no” and suggested that simply by posing the question, the reporter showed that he “drank the Kool-Aid.” And now he seems to have given himself a weekly slot on Fox News’ morning show — over the reservations of Fox News.
Sound familiar? It should, and not just because Trump has been equally boorish and bullying from the day he took office.
Sound familiar? It should, and not just because Trump has been equally boorish and bullying from the day he took office, to the point where few are surprised by the allegations made in Bob Woodward’s aptly titled new book, “Rage,” let alone the public pronouncements the president makes daily. Seventy years ago, Trump’s mentor’s mentor, Sen. Joe McCarthy, delighted in poking America’s most sacred heroes and credos in the eye, somehow scoring political points and encouraging future bullies to follow his script.
Trump has, nearly to the letter, followed this same script. The result: He’s the one national leader in recent U.S. history who makes McCarthy look not so bad. Which is saying a lot, since up until now “Low Blow” Joe has been America’s archetypal demagogue. But the Wisconsinite at least had the scruples to defend Army grunts even as he was defaming the military brass. McCarthy was charming enough that even the Kennedys liked to be around him. And, of course, he was just a senator, not our commander-in-chief.
At this rate, “Trumpism” could someday displace “McCarthyism” as the worst arrow you can sling at a public figure.
To understand the links between the president and the senator, it helps to consider how the two mastered the media in their rises to power. No other politician in America understood better than the Red-baiting McCarthy how the press worked, and how to manipulate it. McCarthy knew reporters wanted their stories on Page One, and he was a daily-drama man who could put them there more than anyone else. He memorized the deadlines for newspapers, then timed his interviews so writers would have no time left to ferret out the other side. He pioneered the morning press conference to announce the afternoon press conference, which got him extra headlines like this: “New McCarthy revelations awaited in capital.” His mimeographed handouts had phrases like “top Russian spy” that were ready-made for bold captions. Understanding the profession’s internal dynamics let him twist them to his ends, the way any well-schooled saboteur would.
“If he said it, we wrote it,” said Charles Seib, an International News Service reporter who covered the rabble-rousing senator and later became ombudsman for The Washington Post. “That simplistic, gee-whiz reporting, with its phony objectivity, did as much to raise Joe McCarthy from a bumbling unknown to a national menace as the craven behavior of his fellow senators and the White House.” Willard Edwards of the Chicago Tribune called his pal McCarthy “a dream story,” adding, “I wasn’t off page one for four years.”
The president is doing the same thing in today’s cable and Twitter universe. He knows, for instance, that Fox News will be hard-pressed to stop him from calling in, because every time he opens his mouth he says something bound to cause a stir.
Yet Trump seldom shows that whimsy that McCarthy did. The Badger State senator was a “Master of the Revels,” making it fun for journalists who played along. He had signals so the writers who covered him regularly would know there was whiskey waiting in his room. “Glad to see you, talk with you later,” meant “don’t eat too much because we’ll go out for supper later and shoot the breeze.” Reporters back then were drawn like moths to an evening of McCarthy’s good tips and good liquor.
But as with Trump, when McCarthy couldn’t charm reporters, he went after them with a wrecking ball. The senator dispatched his investigators to dig up dirt on reporters covering him closely and critically, like Phil Potter of The Baltimore Sun, whom he threatened three or four times to subpoena — but never did. With The Associated Press’ Marvin Arrowsmith, it was less about what he had written than what he might. “I know you’ve got six kids, Marv, and I don’t want to kick about your work, so I hope there is no reason to do so,” McCarthy told him.
Miles McMillin, a columnist and editorial writer at The Capital Times in Madison, remembered when hecklers had put Joe on edge during a speech to service clubs in La Crosse. “When I got up to ask a question, Joe blew up. ‘Get him out!’ he yelled. ‘That’s a representative of a Communist newspaper.’ Those Rotarians and Kiwanians surrounded me and shoved me out the door.” Another time, McCarthy incited a crowd in Shorewood, a plush suburb of Milwaukee, by directing his venom against The Milwaukee Journal. “McCarthy’s comments about the press had been very restrained that night, but it didn’t take much to get his supporters worked up,” said Ed Bayley, the Journal reporter on the scene. It takes even less today, especially when the current president slanders the media as the “enemy of the people.”
But as with Trump, when McCarthy couldn’t charm reporters, he went after them with a wrecking ball.
While some newspapers backed off in the face of McCarthy’s bullying, his call for a boycott of Milwaukee Journal advertisers just made the paper angrier. “We wonder,” it wrote in an editorial in September 1950, “whether the senator’s friends shouldn’t persuade him to see a psychiatrist.” When The Washington Post asked tough questions, Joe accused it of “moronic thinking.” But that paper, too, persisted, the way it would with Woodward’s and Carl Bernstein’s coverage during the Watergate scandal and into the reign of Trump.
That resolve to resist was the exception. “The advent of McCarthyism,” media critic Douglass Cater wrote in 1950, “has thrown real fear into the hearts of some — fear of what a demagogue can do to America while the press helplessly gives its sometimes unwilling co-operation. Perhaps Joseph McCarthy, Senator from Wisconsin, is not that demagogue. But who knows? One greater than McCarthy may come.”
He has, of course. McCarthy’s story bleeds into Trump’s thanks in part to Roy Marcus Cohn, a lawyer who in the 1950s served as McCarthy’s ingenious and imperious protégé. Thirty years later, Cohn became Trump’s bare-knuckled preceptor. This snarling front man was the throbbing neuron, pulsing the senator’s strategies to the eventual president.
There’s one more way the McCarthy and Trump ideology and tactics seem to be intersecting. Media manipulator McCarthy ironically ended up being undone by TV coverage of the famous Army-McCarthy hearings, when millions of American saw him as an out-of-control bully rather than the champion they’d imagined. He began those hearings with an astounding 50 percent favorability rating; by the end he was down to 34 percent.
Likewise, Trump, who seemingly thought he could spin Woodward into liking him, is instead being skewered for having revealed much too much to one of America’s savviest journalist-authors. But will this make a difference with Fox News audiences? In a few months we’ll find out.