FRESH AIR: On Feb. 9, 1950, Joseph McCarthy, a junior senator from Wisconsin, stunned the nation — and stoked the paranoia of the Cold War — when he alleged that there were 205 spies working within the U.S. State Department. It was the beginning of a four-year anti-communist, anti-gay crusade in which McCarthy would charge military leaders, diplomats, teachers and professors with being traitors.
Author Larry Tye chronicles McCarthy’s infamous smear campaign in the new book Demagogue. He describes the Republican senator as an “an opportunist and a cynic” who deliberately preyed on public fears. “His tactics included playing the press brilliantly,” Tye says. “He understood that if you lobbed one bombshell and that [proved] to be a fraud, rather than waiting for the press the next day to expose it as a fraud, he had a fresh bombshell ready to go.”
Many of the people McCarthy accused lost their jobs. Others went to prison. Wyoming Sen. Lester Hunt killed himself in his Senate office after McCarthy and his allies tried to blackmail him into resigning. In 1954, McCarthy’s campaign finally ended when the U.S. Senate voted to censure him. More than 70 years later, Tye draws a parallel between McCarthy’s tactics and President Trump’s divisive rhetoric. He notes that McCarthy’s chief legal counsel, Roy Cohn, served as Trump’s lawyer and mentor in the 1970s. But beyond that, he says, both McCarthy and Trump are “bullies” who exploit fears and “point fingers when they’re attacked.”
“If there’s any lesson to be learned from Joe McCarthy, it is that we are no less vulnerable to demagogues in our midst than Russia or than Italy or than Brazil,” Tye says. “We’ve got to learn from our history to recognize these bullies at an early point — and to understand how to stand up to them.” MORE