Ahead of the paperback publication of Two Minutes to Midnight, Roger Hermiston discusses the eerie parallels between Donald Trump and the 1950s...
The Trump Show is back for a new series in 2022. Disgraced though he may be in the eyes of very many Americans by the events on Capitol Hill, Donald Trump still retains his grip on the Republican base and is set to influence the party’s approach to the mid-term elections later this year.
Startlingly, if there was a presidential election tomorrow, he might well be back in the White House. An average of recent polls, compiled by the organisation RealClearPolitics at the end of 2021, showed 46 per cent of voters backing the former President compared to just 41.2 per cent for Joe Biden, bogged down as he is with the Omicron variant, worries about inflation and the collapse of his domestic spending plans.
Trump’s brand of populism and nativism has always appealed to a large slice of the electorate, while a uniquely American strain of demagoguery has pulsed through the nation’s veins from its founding days. But you only need to go back to the 1950s to find Trump’s political father, the man from whose playbook the last President plotted his successful course. What’s more, there is a direct link between the two men.
His name was Joseph Raymond McCarthy – ‘Joe’, as everyone knew him. The Senator from Wisconsin, with his roughly handsome looks, burly stature and thick baritone voice, etched himself vividly onto the canvas of American life in the early 1950s with his relentless hunt – which many described as a witch hunt – to root out communist conspirators in every shape and form.
Adeptly exploiting public fears of Soviet subversion at the height of the early Cold War, McCarthy dominated the front pages and the evening news broadcasts. His technique of the unsubstantiated accusation, the vilification of those unable to answer back, the charge of guilt by association and the counter-accusation as a method of defence remained constantly on show in an age of anxiety.
Starting to sound familiar? Once you begin to analyse it, the comparisons between McCarthy and Trump are uncanny. For a start, neither had a fixed political identity or consistent ideology. McCarthy was once an uber-liberal Democrat but made the sharp U-turn to rock-ribbed conservative. Trump followed suit in furtherance of his own ambitions, switching political parties five times. So both used the Republican Party for their own ends, terrifying the leadership but energising the base.
Both were charismatic demagogues, delighting in entertaining showmanship, noisy rabble-rousing techniques and fiery tirades in which emotion substituted for thought. In their public speeches and pronouncements, both McCarthy and Trump adhered to the maxim that ‘if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it becomes the truth’.
Both exploited a climate of anxiety and fear that existed in America – Trump with unemployment in the ‘rust belt’, McCarthy with the ‘enemy within’. In that atmosphere, both also set up demons in order to slay them – for McCarthy it was of course communists, for Trump it was Mexicans and Muslims.
Both were master manipulators of the media. In 1953, McCarthy had the mainstream press in thrall to him as he peddled falsehoods about supposed scores of communists in the State
Department. In 2020, Trump, who despises the mainstream media, instead projected his ‘fake news’ differently, through a sympathetic news channel (Fox News) and social media, in particular his famed Twitter account.
Of course, both ruthlessly turned on anyone in the media who sought to critically examine their methods – McCarthy with the respected liberal journalist Ed Murrow, Trump with the Washington Post and his sexist insults at Megyn Kelly of Fox News.
Both railed against America’s ‘corrupt elites’ – although there was a difference. Trump vowed to ‘drain the Washington swamp’, while McCarthy’s approach was a subtler one of manipulating from within.
Ultimately, of course, Trump wielded far more actual power as President than mere Senator McCarthy ever did, although the latter’s chairmanship of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations enabled him to range far and wide across American political and public life.
Strikingly, the torch was passed from McCarthy to Trump by a man named Roy Cohn, the Wisconsin Senator’s brash, aggressive, young (just twenty-six) legal counsel in 1953. After McCarthy’s downfall in 1954, Cohn went to work as an attorney in New York, where he stayed until his death from AIDS in 1986.
Who hired Cohn in the 1970s? None other than the young Donald Trump, who was running into difficulties with his housing development, not least with the building of Trump Tower. Cohn had links with mobsters, and legend has it that he persuaded them to get the Teamsters Union members back to work to resume the building of Trump’s monument to his vanity.
McCarthy finally overreached himself in the spring of 1954. He had decided to take on the nation’s most revered institution, the army, and it proved a communist hunt too far. On the thirtieth day of televised hearings, the army’s chief counsel Joseph Welch, exasperated by McCarthy and Cohn’s haranguing of a young soldier, famously told McCarthy: ‘Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you no sense of decency?’
From that moment on, McCarthy’s spell over the American people was broken. He would be condemned by the Senate later that year for ‘conduct unbecoming’, and he turned increasingly to alcohol, eventually dying of hepatitis in 1957.
Will Trump’s spell be broken? Might it be through a single, illuminating moment, as with Welch and the army trials? It seems highly unlikely any time soon, given the entrenched nature of American society and the American electorate. We will likely hear from and see much more of McCarthy’s disciple in 2022.
Roger Hermiston’s book Two Minutes to Midnight: 1953 – The Year of Living Dangerously is published in paperback by Biteback on 22 February. Grab your copy here.