McCarthy to Cohn to Trump

A Look at the Long Shadow of Joe McCarthy

Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy, Army-McCarthy Hearings
Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) huddles with Chief Counsel Roy Cohn during a session of the Army-McCarthy hearings, September 1953. Photo credit: © Keystone Press Agency/Keystone USA via ZUMAPRESS.com
Reading Time: 18 minutes

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most dangerous demagogue of them all? Father Coughlin? Huey Long? Joe McCarthy? Donald Trump?

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, biographer Larry Tye (Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy) argues that, for those who are staggered by Trump’s transgressions, there’s serious competition that an older generation can cite: Joe McCarthy. The Wisconsin senator mastered the art of vicious personal attacks with no evidence, destroyed lives and careers, saw communists everywhere, stoked fear and racism and even intimidated President Eisenhower, who feared going up against McCarthy until it was too late.  

According to Tye, there is a reason we still use “McCarthyism” to personify outrageous charges, guilt by association, and the politics of character assassination.

Tye also talks about the human side of McCarthy, his real political beliefs, how he was shaped by his youth in Wisconsin, and how easy it was for him and demagogues in general to believe their own lies. 

Past was certainly prologue six decades ago as McCarthy whipped the nation into a frenzy of paranoia, accusations, false loyalty, and personal terror. It all sounds very familiar, especially when Tye explains how Roy Cohn played shortstop in throwing the ball from McCarthy to Trump.

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Full Text Transcript: 

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Most of you know or have lived in cities with long streets or boulevards where it goes on so long that some of the same stores repeat themselves over and over again. Starbucks. CVS. The neighborhoods change, but some of the retail landmarks remain the same. In a way, history is like that. It goes on and on. And while the neighborhoods often change, there are things along the way that repeat themselves over and over again. In American history, one of them is certainly racism and discrimination, but also our ongoing flirtation with authoritarianism, our fascination with bullies, the appeal of strength that sometimes proves to be more than just meanness. It’s really evil. Whether it was Father Coughlin on radio, Joe Pyne on television, Huey Long in politics, or in the contemporary era, Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump.

Jeff Schechtman: The added reality is that each affair pushes the envelope of what’s acceptable. The predicate for new norms is laid out and the next would-be talk show host or political demagogue has to go further. Perhaps no one pushed the envelope further than Joe McCarthy, so much so that the idea of McCarthyism became baked into our lexicon. Needless to say, now in the midst of one of those flirtations, it seems the perfect time to go back and look at Joe McCarthy, and that is exactly what we’re going to do today with my guest, Larry Tye. Larry Tye is the bestselling author of biographies of Bobby Kennedy and Satchel Paige, as well as Superman, The Father of Spin, Home Lands, and Rising From the Rails. He was previously an award-winning reporter with the Boston Globe and a Nieman fellow at Harvard. It is my pleasure to welcome Larry Tye to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. Larry, thanks so much for joining us.
Larry Tye: Great to be with you, and I could just sit here and listen to you with your poetic introductions.
Jeff Schechtman: Oh, thank you. Thank you. One of the things that’s so interesting about McCarthy that we tend to forget is that he really was kind of a third rate politician, and yet almost by trial and error seemed to catch lightning in the bottle. Talk about that.
Larry Tye: Sure. He started out as a chicken farmer, as somebody who dropped out of school after the eighth grade. Partly to raise money and partly to show that he could best his parents as farmers, he went out and was a king chicken farmer. He had a whole little empire and until disease, a pandemic of sorts hit his flock, he looked like he was going to make it in the poultry business. And he ended up going back to high school, doing an extraordinary job of finishing four years of high school in a single year, and then going on to Marquette University where he made his way into school based on a little white lie, ended up switching from engineering to law, and then did what his soul had told him to do all along, which was to become a politician. And what his sense of how to do that told him was that he would do anything to get elected, and he did that.
Jeff Schechtman: What were some of the earliest signs with respect to McCarthy, his earliest signs as an adult and as he moved towards politics, that he would move in the direction that we now know of him?
Larry Tye: I think one of my favorite instances of a sense of who Joe McCarthy was about to become was when he was in college and running for president of his college class. He made a deal with the other guy who was the leading contender that they each would vote for the other one, that that seemed like the gentlemanly thing to do. But when it finished in a dead heat, he broke his vow and voted for himself, and his opponent voted for Joe, and ended up being that McCarthy won by two votes. And when confronted with this, how he could go back on his word, McCarthy said that he basically was campaigning so hard for himself that he started believing his own rhetoric and felt there was no choice but to vote for the best candidate, who was him.
Jeff Schechtman: What were McCarthy’s political attitudes in those early days?
Larry Tye: His political attitudes were that he was a flaming New Deal Democrat. He was a strong supporter of Roosevelt. He was out there supporting all that the New Deal represented in terms of sort of left wing politics. He fervently believed in all of that until he saw that in rural Wisconsin, in the town of Appleton where he was running for office, that being a Democrat wasn’t a way to be elected. So he ran for district attorney. He got soundly defeated, and the next office he ran for was a nonpartisan one. And sometime quietly, probably in the dead of night when nobody was listening or looking, he became a Republican, and not just a Republican. He went from being a New Deal Democrat to the kind of conservative Republican that in Wisconsin they referred to as a stalwart, and he became the most stalwart of the stalwarts.
Jeff Schechtman: In your research, in your access to so much of the McCarthy papers and speeches, et cetera, were you ever able to determine or find any kind of a core belief with McCarthy?
Larry Tye: I think that on the one hand, the easy answer to that would be that he was an opportunist and he would go wherever he thought the winds were going to be blowing, and that was true. All of the personal and professional papers that had been under lock and key for 60 years, when I got a look at those, that confirmed that. On the other hand, I think when he became an anti-Communist crusader and a red-baiting Republican, he started out doing that because he saw that as a way to get attention, and I think just the way he really might have convinced himself when he was running for that first office in college, that he was the best candidate, I think over time he actually convinced himself that there were reds behind every pillar in the state department and that he was the guy to sniff them out. So I think that he was an opportunist, but he became enough of a true believer that he started believing his own rhetoric.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about how he makes that turn to start believing that anti-Communist rhetoric. Was it just a sense of convincing himself because he said it often enough? Talk a little bit about that.
Larry Tye: I think any demagogue learns that if they repeat a half truth or an untruth often enough, whether that is that there were Communists behind every pillar in the White House and in the state department and the Voice of America or whether it is that building a wall will make America safe, if you repeat it often enough, I think it’s not just your listeners who start to assume that it must be true, but I think the only way that you can have a sense of self- respect of any kind is if you start believing it as well. And you develop, you become the leader of a movement, and if you didn’t have some sense that that movement were righteous and real, I’m not sure how you’d wake up every morning and lead the movement again.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there something inherent in the mental makeup of demagogues that leads to that?
Larry Tye: I think there is, and I think part of it is wanting to be a success, and that success, if you’re a politician, means being elected and re-elected, turning out the biggest crowds in history, and essentially showing that you can build the movement. I also think it’s something more basic and more micro of just wanting to be liked, and I think Joe McCarthy all his life realized that he had a certain charm, realized that he could make people like him and was willing to say whatever it took to make that happen.
Jeff Schechtman: The other side of this beyond the seller is the buyer, and there is something, some unique strain in America’s DNA that’s attracted to people like McCarthy. Talk about that and what you found.
Larry Tye: I had a whole chapter on what I called the enablers and who was it out there? You don’t get elected as a Senator from the state like Wisconsin, you don’t get the kind of national following that he got unless you’ve got people who are helping you along the way, whether they believe in you or just believe it’s expedient for them to make it look like they believe in you. Joe McCarthy had enablers that ranged from a lot of right wing financiers in places like Texas, they were his fellow Senators who let him rail on and on about his anti-communist crusade, even though most of them knew that he was making it up as he went along.
Larry Tye: They were people like President Dwight Eisenhower whose brother Milton was whispering in his ear from the moment that he got elected that Dwight ought to give up some of his popularity – and he was enormously popular – to take on what they both knew was a bully in Joe McCarthy. And yet Eisenhower waited for nearly two years to do that.
Larry Tye: And the ultimate enablers were the American people who at the time of the famous Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954 when Joe had reached his peak of popularity, a full 50% of Americans, according to the Gallup poll, thought this guy was great, and that was a higher popularity rating than anybody but President Eisenhower.
Jeff Schechtman: Why was that? What did you come to understand about why he had that kind of support?
Larry Tye: I think it was for two reasons. One is the fear that he was playing to was very real back then. We were in a cold war. The Soviet Union was a pretty scary adversary. We were watching spies being uncovered. In the early days when McCarthy was rising, spies like the Rosenbergs who had supposedly and believably given away our atomic secrets, so at a moment when children were being taught that they had to learn how to duck under their desks in case there was a nuclear attack, the idea that there was a real fear of Communism was out there and was legitimate. The fact was, however, that Joe McCarthy was the last one to know where those Communists were. Most of the 24 karat reds and spies had been uncovered long before McCarthy joined the hunt, but there was a real fear that he was playing to.
Larry Tye: And the other thing was that he was an incredibly effective populist, an incredibly effective public speaker. When he would get up there and raise his right hand and point his finger and say, this is my latest evidence of a Communist hiding somewhere in our government, it was convincing. I think that if I had been around then and I hadn’t been a journalist and been able to go out there and explore who he was, I think I would have found him convincing. So you have a fear and you have a credible fearmonger, and that combination can be really dangerous and it was in his case.
Jeff Schechtman: And a big turning point was the speech that he made in 1950 where he talked about the state department being infiltrated with Communists. Talk about that.
Larry Tye: Sure. That was a speech on a day that Republicans all across the country gather to hear speakers like him. It was the Lincoln Day, the Lincoln birthday dinner, and he was the keynote speaker in as out of the way places you could find in Wheeling, West Virginia. And to the people who gathered that night, if they had known what was in his briefcase, wouldn’t have been sure which speech they were going to get. He had one speech which was on national housing policy and was serious and was credible and was a snoozer. He had a second speech which was on 205 Communists supposedly hiding in the State Department that was a barn burner.
Larry Tye: Now, he was the wrong guy to give that speech because he really wasn’t an expert. You could have probably randomly picked any member of the Senate and they would have known more about foreign policy and more about the Soviet threat and the Soviet Union and in America than Joe McCarthy. But he was the one with the speech, he was the one who got up there naming names, and he knew that if you put real names to something like the charge of being a traitor, that instead of talking vaguely about Communist infiltration, he said he had the names of 205 spies and they were in our state department and they were posing a threat to the country, and the press couldn’t resist it. And within days he was on the front page of every newspaper in America and his anti-Communist crusade was given birth.
Jeff Schechtman: Didn’t Truman in some ways set the predicate for this when he created loyalty oaths back in ’47?
Larry Tye: Yes. Truman who railed against Joe McCarthy and the irresponsibility of his crusade had in fact had a quieter crusade of his own going. He was worried that he would be charged as not being tough enough on communism. He was worried. President Truman was worried, having come from the Roosevelt administration, that he would be seen as a red-sympathizing New Dealer, and so he went out there, he instituted loyalty oaths, he set up this whole predicate, as you say, for what Joe McCarthy came along and lit a flame to.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you think was a primary reason Eisenhower didn’t do anything sooner or say anything sooner?
Larry Tye: What Eisenhower said when his brother told him to do something, he said that if the President of the United States names you as a good guy or as a bad guy, you’re only fanning their flames. You’re giving them a podium that a single Senator wouldn’t have otherwise. He basically said Joe McCarthy will self-destruct and the way to take him on is for his fellow Senators to attack him and for the president to wait for the right moment when he’s destroying himself. And that would have been a very convincing argument if in the interim Joe McCarthy wasn’t out there ruining lives.
Jeff Schechtman: And it would have been even more of a crisis, I suppose, if McCarthy had lived longer, if he hadn’t been as ill as he was all the time.
Larry Tye: It would have been more of a crisis if he had lived longer. But I think that actually the time from the moment in December of 1954 when he was condemned, what amounted to a censure by his fellow Senators, that was in fact his political death knell. He had no more real impact in the country. His polls that had been at 50% popularity at the start of 1954, by the end of the year, Gallup said that they were down in the mid-30s. And by then, even though he lived for another three years, he was all but finished. He was all but finished health-wise as well because what had been a modest drinking problem before then became one that ended up being his death sentence.
Jeff Schechtman: In that respect, in many ways Eisenhower was right.
Larry Tye: Eisenhower was right in that he did self-destruct. Eisenhower was waiting for McCarthy to take on an enemy that was too big to bully, and that enemy turned out to be the American military and especially the US Army. And when McCarthy went after the Army, that was when he started to self-destruct. That was when an old general like Eisenhower partly stood up against him and partly knew that the Army standing up against him would bring the American people on their side and take away Joe McCarthy’s public support. So Eisenhower was right, again, if what was needed was the easiest and sort of the least heavy lifting to bring McCarthy down, which was to let McCarthy destroy himself. But if you believe a political leader is out there and is somebody who, when he recognizes a demagogue should take them on and not wait for them to take themselves down, we’ve seen in today’s world that it is easier to just wait for things to happen than to stand up and call a liar a liar.
Jeff Schechtman: Was Eisenhower right, though, do you think in that if he had attacked McCarthy earlier, it would have only given him more fuel?
Larry Tye: I think if anybody else said that they would have been right. If Dwight Eisenhower, who was the most popular president, he still goes down in history as being the most popular post-World War II president month by month that we’ve had in the White House, and I think Eisenhower had enough personal credibility and enough personal popularity that he could have taken on Joe McCarthy and he could have proved his own apologia to his brother wrong, that he could have instead of just giving McCarthy a podium, he could have taken the podium right out from under him.
Jeff Schechtman: Tell us a little bit about what his fight was with the Army, why he took that on, and did he have any sense that he was going against an institution that he couldn’t necessarily win against in going against the Army?
Larry Tye: He took them on because he said that Fort Monmouth in New Jersey was a hotbed of spies, and he said that it had, I think this was partly an attempt to play on the connections that Julius Rosenberg had had there, and he said that there was a spy ring that Julius Rosenberg had left behind at this critical institution at Fort Monmouth that was essentially the command and control nerve center for all the elements of the US military. And McCarthy picked the perfect army institution to go after. He picked one that had been tainted by Julius Rosenberg and he picked one that had a disproportionate number of Jewish workers, and that McCarthy went after a disproportionate number of those disproportionate number in what I think was a reflection of some latent and maybe not so latent anti-Semitism. And he had what looked like the perfect target.
Larry Tye: And in the early days, the Army brass laid down and said, you want to go after them, we’re going to help you. We will root out anything that you tell us is wrong here. And the Army realized finally, with help from Dwight Eisenhower, that if you let McCarthy dictate the terms, he was going to be irresponsible in this whole crusade. So finally the Army found their backbone. They stood up to him. Congress investigated in the famous Army-McCarthy hearings. And all you really had to do was put Joe McCarthy on national television, wagging his finger, looking half-shaved, looking a bit like the schoolyard bully that he was, and McCarthy in the course of that, by taking on the Army and just by being on national television day after day, became exposed for the inquisitor that he was.
Jeff Schechtman: With respect to this mix, you can’t sort of talk about the Army-McCarthy hearings without talking about Roy Cohn.
Larry Tye: You can’t talk about Joe McCarthy in his later years at all and his most powerful years without talking about Roy Cohn. Roy Cohn was an exceedingly smart, exceedingly arrogant young lawyer who came from New York, was hired by Joe McCarthy for lots of reasons, partly because he had a track record in effectively prosecuting and convicting Communists, partly because I think he was a fig leaf against the charges that were starting to percolate up that McCarthy was an anti-Semite. So what better than to hire a smart young Jewish lawyer from New York? And Roy Cohn, I think, played to every one of McCarthy’s worst instincts. You can’t blame Roy Cohn. He was after all the young staff guy for what Joe McCarthy did, but you could say that Roy Cohn was the perfect wrong guy to put McCarthy back on a right track. The job that Roy Cohn got, if Roy Cohn wasn’t there, would have gone to a young lawyer named Bobby Kennedy, and we can only dream what different tap drum McCarthy might’ve taken if it was Bobby Kennedy whispering in his ear rather than Roy Cohn.
Jeff Schechtman: Did Roy Cohn learn from McCarthy or did McCarthy learn from Roy Cohn?
Larry Tye: Great question, and it was a two way street. Clearly McCarthy was the older and more seasoned guy and Roy Cohn learned all the things that Joe McCarthy had learned on his way up about how to do things and how to kick hard and how, when one charge proved wrong, you simply lobbed another bombshell. But those were also things that Roy Cohn picked up so instinctively and echoed back to McCarthy that I think it was a two-way process.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s impossible not to think about, and you sort of had this fresh in your mind as you were working on this, the connection between Roy Cohn, then, to Donald Trump.
Larry Tye: Yes. Joe McCarthy’s protege was nearly half a century later Donald Trump’s tutor. There was a connection that remains strong enough that even though Trump understands how controversial McCarthy was, he’s perpetually being quoted as saying, “I wish Roy Cohn had my back today.” The Cohn was the tutor. Trump was a student, but he was an extraordinarily apt student, so all the things that Roy Cohn had picked up from Joe McCarthy and passed on to Trump, Trump was brilliant at taking in his own directions and magnifying.
Jeff Schechtman: There does seem to be a sense that what Cohn was able to do was kind of intellectualize or maybe define and memorialize the things, the evil that McCarthy was able to do by instinct.
Larry Tye: He did. I think Cohn had the instinct as well, but he was brilliant at refining all the techniques he had learned from McCarthy. He learned that when somebody kicks you, you kick them back twice as hard in a place that’s going to hurt. He learned that when one manufactured charge was exposed as untrue, you invented another one, and he learned that when the news was bad, you just blame the newsman. And those were things that yes, they came from Joe McCarthy, but nobody was better at refining them than Roy Cohn.
Jeff Schechtman: To this day, these techniques are so effective. Why is that? What is it about Americans that makes them so effective even today?
Larry Tye: I think it’s exactly what we started talking about a while ago, which is the enabling. Americans want to believe that immigration is responsible for all their problems. They want to believe that newsmen are evil and when they report something you don’t like, that they must be lying. I think we are naturally gullible, we naturally want easy answers because they’re easier to understand to our very real problems, and I think we want somebody who seems like they’re one of us, that they are not some elitist Washington career politician. And whether that was Joe McCarthy or Donald Trump, there is some reason why populism is so appealing. And it’s not just America. I mean, we saw what happened in Germany, we can watch it across Europe where populist leaders have arisen, in Brazil, in Africa, all over the world, and we have our own home-grown version of this. I think there were demagogues before Joe McCarthy, but for everybody who came after, he became the archetype and it was his playbook that was easiest to use and borrow.
Jeff Schechtman: And yet what’s also so interesting is that these demagogues, the effective ones like Joe McCarthy and even Donald Trump, don’t come along that often. It is a particularly unique and arguably sui generis skillset that is required.
Larry Tye: I think two things are required. One is absolutely what you said, which is the set of skills. He’s able to use ability to understand fear and to articulate it with easy solutions. But I think the other thing that happens is there are a set of circumstances that make us especially vulnerable to it.
Larry Tye: We might be coming off a certain kind of presidency that Barack Obama represented appealing to what I think of as our higher instincts, and it opens the way for an appeal to a lowball kind of appeal. I think that it is having certain problems that make the appeal to an easy answer like build a wall and get rid of immigrants. We have very real problems that a lot of people feel left behind in America in terms of economic recovery that was happening, and it is somebody who understands those circumstances and who is brilliant at appealing to them. The combination is conflagration. And it has happened repeatedly in our history, whether it was George Wallace or David Duke or Father Coughlin or Huey Long. Before and after Joe McCarthy, people have done it well. They just haven’t done it as well as he has.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there anything redeeming about McCarthy?
Larry Tye: I think one of the things that intrigued me about him and that got me to write the book about him was when I interviewed for my last book, which was a biography of Bobby Kennedy, I interviewed Bobby’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, and she said, “Joe McCarthy may have been a monster to much of America, but to us, he was the guy that we would bring our toddler Kathleen over when she was a baby to talk to, and she loved him. He loved her. He was a really good guy and a fun guy, and Joe McCarthy’s the kind of guy that I would have loved to have gone out for a drink with, but I would not have wanted to be on his firing line.”
Jeff Schechtman: Larry Tye. His book is Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. Larry, I thank you so much for spending time with us.
Larry Tye: It was great to be with you. Thanks a lot.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from National Archives (PDF), The White House / Wikimedia, and Library of Congress / Wikimedia.

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