Earlier this month, the nation was jolted by a Tweet from President Trump, notable for a questionable historical reference. He wrote: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”
Well, that depends. If “this” refers to alleged wiretapping, that’s not the case. Senator Joseph McCarthy did many things, but wiretapping wasn’t among them. But if the “this” in “This is McCarthyism” refers not to supposed wiretapping but to the tweet itself, leveling an unsubstantiated charge against his predecessor, that’s different.
That’s straight out of the McCarthy playbook, going all the way back to the right-wing, self-styled anti-Communist crusader’s entry onto the national scene. In February 1950, addressing a West Virginia women’s club, he announced: “I have here in my hand a list of 205 . . . members of the Communist Party . . . working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”
Historians agree no one knew what McCarthy had in his hand. When challenged, he couldn’t produce proof of the allegation because, he said, he’d thrown the document away. But it didn’t matter. In the highly-charged context of the early Cold War era, McCarthy hit a nerve – Americans terrified of the Red Menace swallowed his allegations whole, and he realized that he didn’t have to provide evidence. Accusation alone was sufficient.
For four years, Joe McCarthy’s crusade to rid America of a largely imaginary “enemy within” dominated national culture. McCarthy knew how to manipulate the journalism of the day: when to break news to make headlines; how to play reporters and their papers off against each other so that beating the other side to the story became more important than validating the story itself.
Journalist and historian David Halberstam called it “a shell game: McCarthy charges, press picks up, passes on, never checks . . . McCarthy [moves on], reveals new charges, press again uncritically passes them on.” And so on. This would continue until TV coverage of the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings revealed the Senator’s dishonesty in prime time.
To return to President Trump and his Twitter claim, he’s right – the behavior is McCarthyism. But it’s being applied to the wrong person.