The similarities between Donald Trump and Joe McCarthy are vast. Of course there’s the Roy Cohn connection. That’s the real giveaway. But there’s also the relationship between McCarthy and the Republican Party. McCarthy was tremendously useful to the Republican Party. Nobody really liked the guy. But after being out of power for nearly 20 years, they were willing to take a chance on anyone to gain power. Clowns like Martin Dies weren’t good enough. McCarthy was enough of an open liar and thuggish bully that combined with a certain swagger, he could make a major impression on a paranoid American electorate to make the nation fear Democrats in power. The Republican Party of 1952 was far less ideologically coherent than in 2016 and thus, you had a general with few known political positions named Dwight Eisenhower winning the nomination and the general election. But Eisenhower was more than happy to let McCarthy run roughshod over the Democratic Party because the latter was very useful to him.
Of course, McCarthy went too far. Everyone was afraid of him until the very moment that Joseph Welch called him out on national television. The bubble burst and all those Republicans (not to mention Democrats like JFK and RFK) who thought McCarthy was the greatest thing ever turned on him with a fury. He became a complete pariah and drank himself to death a few years later, even as the Republicans never repudiated his horrible politics.
Trump is similar to McCarthy. They were both mentally disturbed, both bullies, both put the fear of God into anyone they met. They both loved to dominate and humiliate. They were both mentored in this by Roy Cohn. But they also both are only useful so far. Given the utter clown show this has become, I really do wonder whether Republicans, facing a national revolt against this nonsense in the next couple of years, won’t find a way to eliminate Trump and raise Pence to the presidency. Pence of course can do anything that Trump can do but without the distractions and compromises to basic national security that are going to make at least a few powerful Republicans uncomfortable.
Like with McCarthy, I have to think that someone successfully standing up to the bully is going to blow that balloon and everyone will repudiate him overnight. Maybe not his core voters. Maybe it would blow up the Republican Party. And maybe that’s why my perhaps wishful thinking will never take place. But I do think that Republicans will tolerate Trump precisely to the point that he is no longer useful to them. And that point might not be so far off.
There is of course one gigantic difference, which is that McCarthy did not become president. The impact of Trump is likely to be far greater than that of McCarthy, even though his name became synonymous with an entire era of oppression. But a week into this hellscape, I think we are all coming to terms with the fact that the very nature of this nation as anything with a plausible claim to a democratic republic is deeply threatened.