One such episode occurred in August 1974, when three Republican congressional leaders trudged to the White House to let Richard Nixon know that he was fast losing his party’s support. Another took place in late 1954: A Republican-controlled Senate voted to censure Joseph McCarthy, one of their own, after four years of lies and vitriol. In that nobler age, the story goes, McCarthy’s colleagues recognized the threat he posed to democratic institutions and political fair play, and voted to bring an end not only to McCarthy’s personal reign of terror but to the broader phenomenon of McCarthyism — just as many Democrats (and more than a few Republicans) hope that Trumpism will disappear, or at least diminish, once Trump himself leaves office.
But the afterlife of McCarthyism is not nearly as clear-cut x— or as comforting for Trump opponents — as the legend might suggest.
Though we now think of McCarthy as one of the most hated men in American politics, even in 1954 he retained a passionate base of support, with about a third of the public backing his anti-communist campaign. Once the Senate voted against him, the tale of how he had been victimized by a corrupt and self-interested Washington establishment helped fuel the far right’s grievance politics — and spark what would become the modern conservative movement. Far from bringing an end to McCarthyism, the 1954 Senate vote mainly pushed it out of Washington, and a new generation of right-wing activists took up his cause.
Something similar is likely to happen as Trump departs the Oval Office warning of elite conspiracies and rigged ballots, encouraging his base to see themselves as noble warriors against an illegitimate political order. While the Trump presidency will soon be over, the history of Trumpism is just beginning.
Like Trump, McCarthy burst on the political scene as a self-proclaimed outlier, nominally part of the Republican Party but with a style all his own. Though nearly everyone in Washington could be considered “anti-communist” in the early 1950s, McCarthy knew how to turn vague affinities into shocking headlines, accusing the Truman administration of harboring secret communists at the highest levels. Even without Twitter, McCarthy dominated the news cycle, introducing one outrageous claim and then switching to another if the first came under challenge. As with Trump, not everything he said was false, but the constant slippage between truth and lies served to destabilize the national conversation and upend political norms.
Millions of Americans loved what they saw. At the peak of his influence, McCarthy boasted a 50 percent approval rating; like Trump, he divided the country with near-perfect precision. Among Republicans, he was even more widely admired, if not quite universally. In June 1950, Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith delivered what she described as a “Declaration of Conscience,” accusing McCarthy of promoting “fear, ignorance, bigotry and smear” and of turning the Senate into “a forum of hate and character assassination.” Though six other Republican senators joined in her dissent, the rest remained silent.
Their keep-quiet strategy seemed to pay off in 1952, when the Republicans retook the White House for the first time in 20 years, along with both houses of Congress. Many credited McCarthy with the victory, citing his ability to capture public attention and persuade working-class White voters, Catholics especially, to vote for the Republican ticket. Dwight Eisenhower, the party’s presidential nominee, was no McCarthy fan. But he, too, chose not to speak out against the senator and even made a campaign appearance with McCarthy in Wisconsin.
After the Republican victory, McCarthy gained control of his notorious Senate subcommittee, hauling in accused communists based on scant information and attacking any institution, from the CIA to the U.S. Army, that stood in his way. By mid-1954, those attacks produced the stirrings of a backlash among his fellow senators, who reluctantly agreed to look into his treatment of Army witnesses. The Army-McCarthy hearings produced one of the most famous put-downs in American history, with Army counsel Joseph Welch demanding to know: “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” (It was a line that might have worked equally well for Biden during this year’s presidential debates.) A few months later, in the lame-duck session between the 1954 midterm elections and the Democrats’ resumption of Senate control, McCarthy’s Republican colleagues finally voted in favor of decency.
Less often noted is the counternarrative that began to build among McCarthy’s grass-roots supporters during those years, in which the sheer volume of criticism aimed at the senator became proof that he was right all along: that the country was, indeed, run by a menacing but elusive liberal-communist conspiracy aimed at taking down right-thinking, God-fearing Americans. Among those who signed on to this idea was William F. Buckley, the wunderkind intellectual of the emerging conservative movement, hot off the success of his anti-socialist polemic “God and Man at Yale.” In 1954, Buckley published a second book, co-written with his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, a future McCarthy staffer and speechwriter, in which they argued that the merits of McCarthy’s cause largely outweighed qualms about his style and methods. In a sign of the combative lost-cause ethos already taking hold among McCarthy’s supporters, they titled the book “McCarthy and His Enemies.”
After McCarthy’s censure, this tale — of a courageous warrior taken down by illegitimate foes — helped fuel a wave of institution-building on the right. In 1955, Buckley founded National Review magazine, a bid, as he described it, to break up the “identifiable team of Fabian operators” who were “bent on controlling both our major political parties.” Three years later, candy manufacturer Robert Welch established the John Birch Society, a conspiratorial far-right organization that attracted millions of members with claims that even Eisenhower secretly sympathized with communism. The two camps never saw eye to eye, with Buckley sneering at the Birchers’ paranoid style. When it came to McCarthy, though, they shared a common view: Though Buckley expressed certain reservations about the senator’s methods, he agreed that McCarthy’s censure in 1954 revealed the workings of a corrupt, soft and traitorous political establishment.
McCarthy died of complications from alcoholism in 1957, cast out of the Republican inner circle but still beloved by millions of far-right admirers. Over the next few decades, the story of his role in inspiring the early conservative movement began to disappear, as other politicians — Barry Goldwater, then Ronald Reagan — rose to the fore as more palatable standard-bearers. On the right, though, the legend of his victimization lived on. As recently as 2003, conservative provocateur Ann Coulter (an on-again, off-again Trump ally) published the book “Treason,” arguing that McCarthy was right and his critics were not only wrong but, as the title suggests, traitorous. Trump himself was schooled at the knee of Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s infamous committee counsel, who long insisted that his good friend Joe had been the victim of an outrageous elite conspiracy.
Trump’s story of what happened in the 2020 election bears all the hallmarks of McCarthyite myth: conspiring elites, hidden corruption, even the threat of an imminent socialist takeover. And though Trump will no doubt leave office on Jan. 20, that story — and the powerful sense of grievance behind it — is sure to thrive in the years ahead. Trump has all but vowed to run again in 2024. Even if he doesn’t, he will continue to sell the tale of his martyrdom through Twitter and cable news and talk radio and conspiracy sites — forms of direct public communication that McCarthy would have envied. After 1954, when media gatekeepers such as Edward R. Murrow turned against him, McCarthy was hard-pressed to find mainstream outlets willing to tell his side of the story. Trump now has an entire right-wing media universe at his disposal, while social media allows him to bypass the gatekeepers altogether.
As a president rather than a mere senator, Trump exercises far more power and influence than McCarthy ever did. And despite his age, he shows few signs of being willing to relinquish them. When he no longer has access to the White House, he will still have his base, tens of millions of Americans whose identities and aspirations are wrapped up in the amorphous but energetic politics of Trumpism. Even in the unlikely event that Trump himself disappears or retreats or, like McCarthy, succumbs to despair, this vast swath of citizens who love and admire him will still be here, better organized than they were four years ago, now with a martyr’s tale for inspiration.
Today’s Republican establishment may ultimately repudiate the man who has held it in thrall — and in fear — for four-plus years. But it is Trump’s base, and their interpretation of his ouster from Washington, that will determine the future of Trumpism.