PBS American Experience aired the story of McCarthyism this week. I was struck the similarities to our current environment.
McCarthyism began and was fueled by fear—fear of communism. The Eastern European countries and China became Communist regimes. North Korea invaded South Korea. From America’s perspective, its enemy, communism, was spreading like a virus. In our own country, some intellectuals, believing that greedy, rapacious capitalism was the cause of the depression, dabbled with Soviet-funded communism as a solution. The conservative press printed sensationalist stories about the spread of communism into America.
Trumpism was created and is fueled by fear—fear of losing our standard of living. So, he made immigrants the bogeymen. Many Americans have experienced a downturn in their standard of living while Wall Street has gotten richer and richer. High paying, skilled jobs have been moved offshore by greedy capitalists, leaving low-paying service jobs. Wages are declining and many fear that the cause is undocumented workers who are willing to work for lower wages. These Americans perceive that they are ignored or mocked. The conservative press prints outrageous stories about immigrants, their detrimental impact on society and how they are taking over America.
Enter Joe McCarthy. He was a failed junior senator, lacking a moral compass and worried about re-election. In a speech he gave at the Wheeling Women’s Republican club he claimed to have the names of 205 communists working in the government. It was a lie, but the conservative press picked it up.
Enter Donald Trump, a failed businessman lacking a moral compass. With over 3500 lawsuits brought against him, having declared bankruptcy, most of his empire came from selling his brand. Trump claimed that immigrants were coming to rape, murder and steal our jobs. The conservative press reported supportive stories while the mainstream press ridiculed him.
Joe McCarthy loved the limelight. He held televised hearings to harass and destroy the “elite” government insiders, accusing them of being members of the communist party. When he lacked evidence, he lied. His supporters marched in the streets. Aided by the conservative press, he searched for other high-profile government insider “communists” to humiliate and destroy.
Donald Trump loves the limelight, believing that any press was good press. He lied and harassed people on the election trail, creating the “lock her up” slogan about his opponent. His supporters marched in the streets, carrying obscene signs about his opponent and immigrants. The conservative press supported his accusations.
Joe McCarthy craved the spotlight. He investigated over 600 people in 15 months. He used lies, innuendo and outrageous statements to make the front page.
Donald Trump craves the spotlight. He uses lies, attacks, rumor, innuendo and outrageous statements to get attention.
What brought down Mr. McCarthy? Most of us believe that it was Edward R Murrow’s broadcast condemning McCarthy and his tactics. That awakened many, but it mostly spoke to those already opposed to McCarthy.
McCarthy’s downfall came when he went too far. He attacked the Army, Eisenhower’s “club”. Eisenhower had been content to ignore McCarthy; he wasn’t willing to lose the support of McCarthy’s followers. But after the attacks on the Army, Eisenhower worked with the senators to hold televised hearings to investigate McCarthy, shining a light on his misstatements, lies and innuendos. Still, his followers continued to support him. Ultimately, moderate fellow Republicans decided that “enough was enough” and courageously risked losing the support of his voters by censoring him. After that, McCarthy lost his spotlight and declined into alcoholism.
What have we learned from this? We have learned that the human condition does not change a whole lot, even as we think that we are getting more sophisticated. When fear is the motivator, bad decisions follow…always. But mostly, we learn that the press can’t fix this, only moderate members of Trump’s own party can. They must decide “enough is enough” and no longer fear his supporters. They must be the change.
Let’s hope they will.
Let’s hope that it is not too late.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.
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