The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s revenge campaign borrows from Joe McCarthy’s playbook

The Wisconsin senator understood that inspiring fear brought him political power

Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), at a 1954 news conference. In 1950, McCarthy successfully targeted several colleagues for defeat, including Sen Millard Tydings (D-Md.). (AP)
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Donald Trump’s revenge machine has worked without a break through the summer, ousting Republicans who dared to vote for his impeachment — most recently Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). But while the former president’s machinations are both hardhearted and ethically challenged, they are hardly original.

Trump is resurrecting the blueprint cooked up three-quarters of a century ago by another right-wing Republican, “Low Blow” Joe McCarthy. By 1950, the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin, like the ex-president, already had established himself as the most divisive man in America. Yet he also was determined to become the most feared, just as Trump is today. Both recognized that inspiring dread is the key to political power.

For McCarthy, that meant ousting a titan who had crossed him to warn others not to try the same. The senator couldn’t forget a slight, and none of his colleagues had maligned him more than Sen. Millard Tydings (D-Md.), who called his holy war against communism a mirage. Tydings — among the Senate’s richest members (by marriage) and most pontifical (by not knowing when to muzzle himself) — was a perfect target for the farm-raised McCarthy. While Tydings had risen from a one-room schoolhouse, truth mattered little to McCarthy and he painted the faceoff as Man-of-the-People McCarthy vs. “Mi-Lord” Tydings. McCarthy “was so preoccupied with Tydings,” reported one person close to the Badger State senator, “that he’d sit by the hour figuring out ways to get revenge.”

Taking on a four-term incumbent like Tydings, who even President Franklin D. Roosevelt hadn’t been able to topple, seemed pointless — especially since the Marylander only faced seemingly token opposition in 1950. But for McCarthy, those long odds made it just the attention-getting gambit he sought — a chance to help unseat his opponent and, in the process, bolster the claim that most Americans believed in his anti-Red evangelism.

McCarthy enlisted Bazy Miller, publisher of the Washington Times-Herald and a sometimes girlfriend, to lead a media campaign against Tydings. The Wisconsinite also made three personal appearances in Maryland and went on the radio. He turned over his anti-Tydings speeches and cartoons to the senator’s Republican opponent, John Marshall Butler, and worked to shift the focus of the campaign from butter-and-bread issues like taxes to whether the incumbent was “protecting Communists for political reasons.” And McCarthy’s Senate staff managed the essentials of the campaign, from research and press outreach to ferrying money from Washington to Baltimore.

Crucially, McCarthy was able to tap into a deep-pocketed network willing to contribute wherever he directed. With funds flowing in from Oklahoma and Texas, Maine and Minnesota, Butler’s campaign was able to spend a total of $75,000 ($922,000 in today’s terms) — five times the limit under the Federal Corrupt Practices Act.

At the time, waging a vengeful blitzkrieg against a fellow senator was unheard of. The McCarthy forces were slugging lower and harder than Tydings knew how to, and his campaign simply could not keep up. McCarthy, for example, laid out “instructions for filling out postcards” that echoed those he’d used on his own campaigns, and his staff helped address and mail a half-million of them to voters. Team McCarthy also helped prepare more than 300,000 copies of a four-page tabloid called “From the Record,” which made 18 charges against Tydings — from undermining American war aims in Korea, to underwriting a lecture tour by alleged Soviet spy Owen Lattimore. According to a bipartisan 1951 Senate probe, it contained “misleading half truths, misrepresentations, and false innuendos.” The back-cover photograph made it look like Tydings was enjoying a tête-à-tête with Earl Browder, the former Communist Party boss — but it was an artful fake, one that merged a picture of Browder with a 12-year-old photo of a smiling Tydings.

McCarthy’s strong-arm tactics worked. Maryland voters rendered a clear verdict: 53 percent for the unknown Butler, 46 percent for the seemingly unsinkable Tydings. It was a landslide and an earthquake. Several factors were at play. Voters were angry at the increasingly unpopular President Harry S. Truman, and after so many years in Washington, Tydings had become out-of-sync with Maryland. Still, the biggest factor in the race was Joe McCarthy. “One lighted match might have sufficed to singe Tydings’s reputation; McCarthy ignited a scorching election campaign,” said Tydings biographer Caroline Keith. “McCarthy salted every wound and fostered unity among unlikely allies.”

The message of the crusading McCarthy was unmistakable: sign on, stand aside or beware the battering ram.

The shadow of McCarthyism spread well beyond Maryland during the 1950 midterm elections. McCarthy had 2,000 speaking requests, which was more than all other senators combined. Republicans may not have liked him any more than Democrats did, but they held their noses and, in 15 states, asked him to cast aspersions on their behalf. “Only by ‘mucking’ can we win,” one GOP leader told a reporter. “And only a mucker can muck.” Sen. John Bricker (R-Ohio) put it less delicately in a story McCarthy liked repeating: “Joe, you’re a dirty son of a b---h, but there are times when you’ve got to have a son of a b---h around.”

And again it worked, at least in part. McCarthy’s second biggest enemy, Majority Leader Scott Lucas (D-Ill.), fell after McCarthy urged large crowds to elect Everett Dirksen, which McCarthy said would be “a prayer for America.” In Florida, he was all-in for conservative Democratic challenger George Smathers and adamantly against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claude “Red” Pepper, whom he’d been warning for years was “viciously dangerous.” And from North Carolina and California to Idaho and Utah, McCarthyism, if not McCarthy, was front and center as voters decided.

When the senator’s picks triumphed, the way Dirksen and Smathers did, pundits didn’t look deeper to see that it often was local issues that made the difference, not McCarthy. Instead, to the press, the public and his Senate colleagues, McCarthy had proved to be a dragon-slayer — just like he said he was. Nothing was by accident. Harvey Matusow, an ex-communist-turned-professional-witness who worked for the senator, recalled suggesting nudging a sympathetic reporter to write an article that depicted McCarthy “as a human being, a guy who gets along with children, and is friendly with people in general?” Leaning back in his chair and stewing on the suggestion, McCarthy finally said, “No, Harvey. That wouldn’t be any good. Because as soon as my enemies see me as anything but the villain with three horns who spits fire, I’ll lose my effectiveness.”

Would Trump have known about McCarthy’s machinations? He might not be a student of history, but one of the ex-president’s early teachers was Roy Cohn, the bare-knuckled political fixer who, a quarter-century earlier, was McCarthy’s ingenious and imperious protege. Cohn was the pulsing artery, channeling the senator’s playbook to the eventual commander-in-chief and setting the template for Trump’s recent purge of Cheney and others in Congress who had dared challenge his excesses.

McCarthy’s bare-knuckle tactics and baldfaced lies eventually led the Senate to censure him by a 67-22 vote in 1954. Time will tell whether that, too, is a temple for Trump.