McCarthy Lost: So Will Trump
Gilbert N. Kahn is a professor of Political Science at Kean University.
In the early days of the Trump Presidency, there were frequent references made comparing the behavior of President Trump to Hitler or Mussolini. Similarly, over the past few days there has been a dramatic resurgence of attacks by the President against the Special Counsel invoking the name of Senator Joe McCarthy and McCarthy’s counsel Roy Cohn. Not to minimize the implications, but the problem with both of these suggestions is that they are really name calling and blustering with no historical context.
Mussolini was an authoritarian, fascistic leader, while Hitler was one of the most despicable leaders in history. Whatever authoritarian tendencies Donald Trump has exhibited and regardless of his disdain for many democratic institutions, he has not exhibited the horrific behavior which was exemplified by the Hitler or even Italy’s Mussolini. Stylistically, Trump is modeled somewhere between Hitler and Stalin.
For Trump it is power, the cult of personality, and the adoration of the masses upon which he thrives. His followers really do not care what he does, they will follow him regardless. Trump does not actually seek to do wicked deeds but rather pursues selfish decisions which are self-serving and in the interests of his moneyed supporters not on behalf of the concerns of the nation. Many of his decisions in fact are based on the goal of overturning that which previous Presidents have done, especially Obama. There is no specific rationale or argument. In fact, Trump is not focused on a decision-making process but is saying and doing whatever he—the leader– wishes.
The ultimate question whenever Trump leaves office will be what kind of damage has he done to this democracy and to the nation’s values? It is in this regard that his latest outbursts with and associations to McCarthy and Cohn present such concern. This is true with respect to the freedoms of speech, association, and the press.
American has known few periods more challenging to fundamental First Amendment rights than the McCarthy era. McCarthy at his peak in 1954 had support from over 50% of the American people. His base was largely Republican—primarily non-elites—white, non-union working class, small business people, and unskilled workers. Some, although not all, are similar to Trump’s solid base. What is therefore so absurd and dangerous is that Trump is attacking Mueller and the special counsel’s investigation. It is Mueller who is conducting an investigation, which like McCarthy. Trump is seeking to discredit. This what McCarthy attacked and which the President is now seeking to duplicate.
The very term “fake news” is an effort to undermine the press from seeking to enlighten the public. Some media outlets have biases but that has historically always been part of the tension within the news gathering business. The conduct of news organizations is not illegitimate but, in a democracy, is left to the populous to determine.
Presidents have always favored some media over others, but those with which they disagreed were not dishonest. The more robust the conversation the better for national dialogue and conversation. Freedom of the press is not constrained except by the law and the courts.
In the late 40’s through the mid-50’s Joe McCarthy sought to undermine freedom of speech and association. The nation suffered but the law and the Constitution ultimately won. President Trump can seek to emulate this tactic. Once again, the nation may suffer, but President Trump ultimately will lose.