Before there was Trump, there was Joe McCarthy


I’ve been reading M Stanton Evans’s excellent and scholarly “Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies” (published some 12 years ago) and marveling at the sheer extent of a shameless campaign of vilification, lies and sabotage to which McCarthy was subjected both during his brief public career as America’s number one “Red hunter” and ever afterwards, to the obvious extent that his name has become synonymous with a sinister and unprincipled persecution akin to witch trails. Ann Coulter has called Evans’s 600-plus pages tome, “the greatest book since the Bible”, and while I probably wouldn’t go to such an extent of praise, this book must surely rank as one of the best revisionist histories of recent times.

Pretty early on in the reading, it has occurred to me that the collusion between Democrat politicians, government departments and agencies, and liberal press to cover up the official sins of commission and omission, derail McCarthy’s investigations thereof, blacken his name, and destroy him personally and politically runs according to a very familiar script. It’s essentially what the progressive political and cultural elites have done to any number of conservative politicians and activists seen as a threat to their power and reputation. Donald Trump is merely the latest in a long and distinguished line.

To paraphrase Shakespeare’s Marc Antony, I came here not to praise Donald but to see how the left is trying to bury him. Until reading Evans’s book, I have not quite realised how similar and similarly underhand, vicious and persistent the campaign against Joe McCarthy had been. The “Swamp” is real; it was real in the 1940s and 1950s, and it is just as real now and just as committed to destroying any outside threats to its continuing position and influence. This is not a conspiracy theory; this is simply how power structures work to protect and perpetuate themselves. The viciousness is a function not just of the unshakable self-belief in one’s intellectual and moral rightness and superiority but also of a certain form of snobbery directed by the members of the “in-crowd” – what once used to be known as the Liberal or the East Coast Establishment and now more broadly, among many other names and designations, as the “coastal elites” – against outsiders who don’t share their sophisticated social, educational or professional background. The Swamp managed in the end to defeat McCarthy and turn him in the historical and popular memory into one of the great villains of American history; the book is still open on Trump’s ultimate fate and legacy. None of this is to suggest that McCarthy or Trump are flawless human beings and faultless political figures; quite the contrary. But the campaigns of destruction they are subjected to ultimately have little to do with their specific failings and mistakes. It’s a total war.

There is, coincidentally, an interesting human link between McCarthy and Trump in the form of Roy Cohn. Cohn, the son of a liberal Democrat judge from New York, was a wunderkid who graduated from Colombia Law School at twenty and spent the next five years as the assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, among career high points being part of the prosecutorial team that sent the Rosenbergs to the electric chair for their atomic espionage. Despite completely different backgrounds and politics, Cohn became McCarthy’s right hand man in 1953, at the heights of the latter’s influence as the chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation. It was a position of trust and influence equally coveted by the young Bobby Kennedy, who ended up in a more junior role on McCarthy’s staff (McCarthy himself was the godfather to Bobby’s firstborn, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend). Kennedy never forgave Cohn for getting better of him  and spent his time as Attorney General trying to nail Cohn on any sort of criminal charges. I was reminded of this little now remembered history when I chanced upon a news story the other day about the FBI releasing 750 pages of files relating to the late Cohn, who from 1971 onward acted as one of Donald Trump’s lawyer in many of the future President’s lawsuits.

Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump, needless to say, are very different people. McCarty, of a poor Irish-American stock, was a hard drinker with perpetually unsettled personal finances (though contrary to the character assassinations that stuck, he was neither an alcoholic nor ever involved in any financial improprieties). He was also a self-made man who only went to high school at twenty (and completed it in less than a year), studied for a law degree, and became the youngest judge in Wisconsin history, later to also be the youngest Senator. For all his Horatio Algeresque back story, those at the centre of power in Washington DC and New York always considered him a hick and an outsider, a hayseed populist rocking the boat against his big city, coastal betters.

Trump, an heir to a German-American fortune, is virtually a caricature of a business tycoon and a high-profile celebrity. People don’t come any more insider than Trump: for decades a registered liberal Democrat – from the quintessentially liberal Democrat New York – a regular donor to Democrat politicians, a businessman of many faces and a gossip mag favourite hobnobbing with all the rich, famous, powerful and beautiful for nearly half a century. After a lifetime within the elite, Trump only became an outsider in 2016 – just as he was also simultaneously and magically transformed into a racist, bigot and a homophobe – the moment he decided to take on first the Republican political establishment and then the more powerful Democrat, progressive, liberal establishment. By background, he is as far as one can get from a populist, yet he successfully appeals as one to the rank and file.

There are, of course, also some similarities, beyond the basic fact that both McCarthy and Trump are Republicans. Both could be described as nationalists, sceptical of the often bipartisan foreign policy consensus that revolves around liberal interventionism and optimistic multilateralism. They are also intensely distrustful of the establishment, “the best and the brightest” who so often haven’t been, but who nevertheless maintain their institutional grip on all levels of power, policy and opinion. This is the politics-bureaucracy-business-academia-media nexus of revolving doors by people who went to the same universities, live in the same postcodes and attend the same cocktail parties. While Trump has been under attack right from the start, with the “Swamp” trying to ensure he doesn’t get elected, McCarthy only became a target once he started questioning some aspects of the establishment’s foreign policy record and its continuing inability to deal in a proper and serious manner with internal security threats.

It’s likely that just about everything you know about Joe McCarthy, his life, his political career and his work against the Soviet infiltration of American government is incorrect, the history having been almost without exception written by his staunch enemies, in turn building on the work of McCarthy’s contemporaries to delegitimise and destroy the junior Senator from Wisconsin. Even in the conservative circles, the memory of McCarthy is often treated as a bit of family embarrassment; in part the testament to how successful the left-wing narrative has been but also perhaps the faint memory that half of his own party (the so called liberal wing) despised him at the time and worked hand in hand with the Democrats to destroy him.

Yet McCarthy was right – not just in a general sense of clearly understanding that communism is not merely an alternative path to a brighter future but an evil and inhuman ideology at war with the liberal, democratic and Christian West, but also in focusing on the federal bureaucracy’s strangely ineffectual response to the presence in its ranks of many people, often in very senior and influential positions, suspected of working for the communist cause.

Contrary to the official version, it was never McCarthy’s role to unmask Red agents; a job more appropriately done by investigative agencies. In his legislative role overseeing federal bureaucracies, he made it his mission to inquire why so many individuals, whose loyalty has already been put under the question mark by numerous internal and external investigations, had no problems staying in sensitive jobs for years and moving unhindered from one agency to another. Those named by McCarthy (on the Democrat insistence) were not simply some random individuals with vaguely progressive sympathies; already at the time many of them have been identified as Soviet agents and security risks in the testimony of communist renegades (like Whitaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley) or through secret FBI surveillance. Others were suspects on the account of their associations with Eastern European or local communists and causes.

Over the following decades, most have been further incriminated from a variety of sources, including Soviet defectors and the deciphered Venona transcripts of secret Soviet intelligence cables, which mention some 400 individuals in the 1940s and 50s United States as active agents and contacts or abettors and helpers. The problem was not Reds under the beds, but Reds quite literally in positions of access to highly valued classified information or positions of influence over the shape of US policy, from the White House, through the State Department, to a host of other departments and agencies. All this is now beyond any dispute, but these weren’t mere idle speculations at the time either. Lauchlin Currie, Owen Lattimore, Harry Dexter White, Nathan Silvermaster, T A Bisson and dozens and dozens of others did conspire in small groups and networks to pass on classified information to the Soviets or steer the American foreign policy into the direction favourable to the communists (particularly in China during and after the war). And yet, despite all having serious question marks over them, they were allowed to work in government for years undisturbed. It was not because of some giant communist conspiracy at the highest levels of government but because of the bureaucratic inertia, old boys’ networks and the organisational reluctance to admit problems – but also because communist agents within protected and promoted each other. Time and time again mistakes got buried instead of rectified. McCarthy dared to shed the public spotlight on the continuing outrage and ask why. It was like a poor country cousin being invited to a formal dinner by his big city relatives and dropping a loud fart between the entree and the main.

But the story of McCarthy goes beyond these well-established historical facts to the campaign of character assassination and falsification of the record that succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. There is truly nothing new under the sun when the entrenched liberal establishment wants to protect its turf and fend off its enemies and as you read what McCarthy has been subjected to in relatively short period of 1950-54 you will no doubt experience a sense of deja vu from recent history: indiscriminate mud throwing in a hope that something sticks; blatant lies, misrepresentations and misinterpretations of evidence; politicians working hand in hand with public servants to coordinate the attacks; destroying and withholding of information and evidence (for example, the security information about the suspected individuals being physically transferred from the State Department to the Truman White House so that it could not be subpoenaed or otherwise accessed; a practice condemned by the Republicans and then continued by the Eisenhower White House); blackmailing witnesses or preventing them from testifying; biased media running the narrative (fake news is nothing new); whitewashing the accused and discrediting the accusers; incessant lawfare; trumped up charges and defamation. Coincidentally, McCarthy too was compared to Hitler while at the same time being accused of helping Russians. McCarthyism is not what McCarthy has done to his supposed victims; it’s what the left has done to him. It’s what it keeps doing to people who get in the way and threaten to disturb the business as usual.

It bears remembering that just as there are Never Trumpers today, much of the opposition to McCarthy came from within his own party, including from the Eisenhower White House, with many prominent Republicans closer to the New Deal Democrats not just in terms of shared background and work experience but also shared values and outlooks, particularly on foreign policy, than to people in their own party. The Senate censure of McCarthy, which destroyed him, was driven by the Republicans, on the instructions from the White House, of course with a gleeful cooperation from the minority Democrats. The establishment, moderate Republicans like Eisenhower, Rockefeller, Lindsay and others, concentrated in northern and eastern states, always found McCarthy too crude and not sophisticated enough in his world view.

Whether impeachment is successful or not against Trump, it’s pretty clear that the left won’t rest in their fight to destroy him one way or another. Their track record of past successes in wars of political annihilation suggests they probably enjoy advantage in the current struggle too. Should Trump survive the left’s attempt to McCarthyise him he will make history. In the meantime, we should recognise that what’s happening in America at the moment is neither unprecedented nor unexpected.