Will the Trump presidency turn out to be Watergate, McCarthyism or something else entirely?

U.S. President Donald Trump declares his opposition to domestic violence during a working session regarding the Opportunity Zones provided by tax reform in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts - RC11BECC88B0

Last spring President Trump fired the FBI Director who was investigating him, triggering an outbreak of Watergate reminiscences; as comparisons were made to the infamous “Saturday night massacre,” and to a national trauma where it was the cover up rather than the crime that ultimately took down a president. But recently another piece of history, McCarthyism, is also on people’s minds as the Trump administration progresses.

McCarthyism refers to a period of approximately four years, between 1950 and 1954, when Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wisc.) terrorized everyone from low-level civil servants in the United States government to Army officers and Hollywood writers and actors and anyone else he could target in a reckless and relentless hunt for communist sympathizers. In the process he lied, he denied people due process, and he thwarted the rules and norms of the Senate. Television (new at that point in history) allowed the public to be part of his crusade. And all of this took place under a myth of electoral invincibility—including the fear that any other elected officials who crossed him would lose elections.

The two parallels are the personality and tactics of McCarthy himself and the reaction of the political class to someone like him. First, stylistically Trump seems to be channeling McCarthy—not surprising given that one of Trump’s confidants early on in his life was the infamous lawyer Roy Cohn, special counsel to the McCarthy subcommittee and someone who tutored a young Trump in the ways of New York City powerbrokers. Second, Trump, like McCarthy before him, has thrown the political class into paroxysms of paralysis and uncertainty, at least for the time being.

Like Trump, McCarthy had a loose relationship with facts. He once held a hearing in the Senate to investigate the charge that there was an assassination attempt against him. It was bogus. He told reporters that former President Harry Truman and the Democrats had suppressed a super-secret list of spy suspects (also bogus). The list goes on.

Just as Trump’s approach to the presidency bears little relationship to the preceding 44 presidencies, McCarthy’s mode of operation bore no relationship to common standards of Senate investigations. McCarthy dragged one poor schmuck after another, often low-level civil servants, into closed hearings. He grilled them in private and then went out to a press conference where the individual in question was dragged through the mud and where McCarthy demanded the names of those who had given them clearances in the first place in an effort to keep moving up the chain of command.

But by 1953 his act was wearing thin. Democrats walked out of the hearing room and criticism of McCarthy’s style mounted. He persisted, meeting every criticism with venom. As a historian of this period, the late Robert Griffith, wrote in 1970, “McCarthy’s instinctive response to these combined attacks was diversion.”[1] This was combined with outrageous personal attacks on his opponents. He called a Brigadier General who refused to cooperate with him “not fit to wear that uniform” and lacking “the brains of a five-year-old.” His modus operandi was revealed in this quote by him to the New York Times:

“If one was ever approached by another person in a not completely friendly fashion, one should start kicking at the other person as fast as possible below the belt until the other person was rendered helpless.”[2]

The reaction to Trump by the political class also echoes McCarthy. Having thwarted so many rules and norms of electoral politics and still gotten elected, Trump has maintained a mystique about him, one which lets him get away with things that would have been lethal to anyone else—like refusing to release his income taxes or paying hush money to a porn star. Hence the acquiescence of the political class, at least so far. McCarthy also benefitted from acquiescence—in the Senate and in the White House. Senator Lyndon Johnson, (D-Texas) then Minority Leader, “preached caution and restraint to his colleagues.” Pressed by newsmen, LBJ declared: “I have nothing to say except that he is a Republican problem.”[3] And President Eisenhower, elected in a landslide in 1952, played a cautious behind-the-scenes role in McCarthy’s eventual downfall.

The myth of political invincibility began to erode in 1953 when a group created to oppose McCarthy called the Clearing House asked Louis Bean, an economist famous for predicting Truman’s surprise 1948 victory, to look at the 1952 midterm elections. The paper he prepared was called “Influences in the 1954 Midterm Elections,” and was widely distributed throughout the political class. According to Griffith, it

“emphasized that in every one of the twelve non-southern states in which McCarthy had campaigned in 1952, the Democratic candidate had run well ahead of the national ticket, while in the states in which McCarthy did not campaign the vote for the local and national ticket was roughly equal. It also pointed out that McCarthy himself had run far behind Eisenhower and the remainder of the state ticket in Wisconsin.”[4]

Slowly McCarthy’s antics did him in, culminating in one dramatic television moment. McCarthy had decided to take on the United States Army, alleging that it was riddled with Communist sympathizers and worse. In one dramatic televised hearing, the Army’s Chief Counsel, Joseph Nye Welch, attacked McCarthy with the following famous words; “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”[5] As Welch left the hearing room, it broke into applause. The McCarthy bubble seemed to pop. The next day, Senator Ralph Flanders (R-Vermont) introduced a resolution censuring McCarthy which eventually passed the Senate by a 67 to 22 vote with 22 Republican Senators voting with all the Democrats.

It remains to be seen whether Watergate, McCarthyism (or both or neither) signal what may happen to the Trump presidency. And it can be argued that the American political world today is coarser, more polarized and more accepting of politicians who diverge from what used to be acceptable behavior. But it is worth remembering that the checks and balances in the political system move slowly and ultimately in a bi-partisan manner when it comes to checking someone elected by the people—especially a sitting president. In 1954 the Republicans lost control of the House of Representatives, and accepted a minority status that would last for the next 40 years. And they lost control of the Senate as well. The ultimate arbiter will always be the American people.

[1] Robert Griffith, The Politics of Fear: Joseph R. McCarthy and the Senate, (Amherst, University of Mass Press,) Second edition, 1987, p. 232.

[2] Ibid, p. 256.

[3] Ibid, p. 239.

[4] Ibid, p. 241

[5] Ibid, p. 259