Trump and McCarthy share not only the kindred traits of demagogues—bombast and the manipulation of public fear in the service of their own ends—but a curiously close, almost familial resemblance. McCarthy’s hallucinatory anti-Communism was facilitated in part by a kind of swaggering masculinity that he deployed to differentiate himself from his patrician G.O.P. colleagues. He distorted his record of military service to portray himself as a fearless fighter against unambiguous evil. As with Trump’s, McCarthy’s world view was defined by a hypertensive, conspiratorial outlook. A conspiracy theory typically rests upon the extrapolation of a single shred of suggestion into a skein of unverifiable assertions—as with McCarthy’s 1950 claim that two hundred and five Communists had infiltrated the State Department. An internal government document had noted a number of employees whose background checks had revealed unspecified but troubling information, but there was no indication that these individuals were Communist moles. Trump’s Presidential campaign has been a miasma of conspiracy theories, virtually from the outset. Yet those parallels—disturbing as they may be—are surpassed by the similarities between Trump and McCarthy’s relationships with the press.
McCarthy’s demagogy was essentially enabled by a symbiotic press corps that was both frustrated by the senator’s pervasive dishonesty and beholden to him as a source of public interest and, therefore, newspaper sales. As David Oshinsky points out in “A Conspiracy So Immense,” his biography of McCarthy, the version of “objective” journalism in which the media simply reports the statements made by public figures, irrespective of their veracity, is uniquely vulnerable to manipulation by demagogues and serial liars. As Oshinsky writes,
Quite often, then, the reporter becomes a conveyor belt for material he knows to be false. He is helpless because the system inhibits him from imparting his version of the truth. In McCarthy’s case this objective approach was particularly frustrating. “My own impression was that Joe was a demagogue,” a newsman remarked. “But what could I do? I had to report—and quote—McCarthy. How do you say in the middle of your story ‘This is a lie’? The press is supposedly neutral.”
Strip away the default male pronouns, and this is similar to the situation that confronts the media covering Donald Trump in 2016—and precisely the kind of enabling that Chris Wallace’s refusal to fact-check during the Presidential debate he will moderate might resurrect. One McCarthy-era Kansas newspaper took to printing parenthetical corrections next to false statements by the senator—an approach that has found favor again in the Trump era. At the same time, the sheer volume of untruth McCarthy generated and the challenges of fact checking in the analog era of news reporting insured that a significant number of his lies made their way into print and were accepted as valid by a portion of the public susceptible to his manipulation. McCarthy struck back at journalists—in one instance literally, slapping and kicking Drew Pearson, a syndicated columnist—who did challenge his feverish distortions, labelling them dupes or knowing participants in Communist conspiracies. It should also be remembered that McCarthy’s disastrous feud with Edward R. Murrow was prefaced by an attempt to intimidate the CBS anchor away from critical coverage of McCarthy’s anti-Communist broadsides. Instead, the effort prompted Murrow to create a television segment pulling together McCarthy’s most transparently demagogic and embarrassing moments, which was rapturously received by the public.
It’s almost impossible not to see McCarthy in Trump’s genealogy when he announces his desire to change libel laws in order to rein in newspapers, when he denies news organizations credentials to his events, when he threatens to sue the Times and conducts a social-media feud with the “Morning Joe” hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. These dynamics would be concerning enough were there not an implicit way in which the media benefits from Trump’s presence. Like the members of the G.O.P. élite whose craven self-interest and calculation have prevented them from challenging a candidate who is a credible danger to the republic, many of the outlets that are covering Trump, and the orchestra of contempt he is conducting, are dealing with a conflict of interest. Jimmy Fallon’s tousling of Trump’s hair might well be dismissed as a reflection of a media committed to the rote rituals of election-year coverage—the standard playful exchanges with the Democratic and Republican nominees designed to allow the public to see their human side—were it not such an apt metaphor for the broader tendencies in Trump coverage. At best, it betrayed an inability to recognize that Trump is not a standard candidate but rather the kind of polarizing, knowledge-proof opportunist whom the Founders worried might one day come to power in their fledgling nation. At worst, there is also opportunism in the coverage of a dangerous man who has a flair for generating ratings.
It’s worth recalling that McCarthy’s demise came about not as a result of his disingenuous use of anti-Communism as a cudgel against his Democratic opponents but because he continued lobbing those grenades once the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected. There is an operative lesson here for both Republicans and the media. Demagogues are incapable of maintaining an allegiance to interests other than their own. And those who are most responsible for showing the public exactly who they are might well be those who’ve previously benefitted from their presence.
Author: Jelani Cobb