The McCarthy comparison

The growing sense of paranoia in the United States has prompted me to read up on the McCarthy era. What, I find myself asking, is the proper comparison, if any, between McCarthyism and Trumpism?

And I find what I have learned to be oddly comforting. Joseph McCarthy, for a time, managed to create a mass hysteria that swept through all levels of both government and the secular economy. For a number of years, large numbers of Americans were the victims of devastating accusations made in secret — accusations that the accused were never permitted to see — with no legal recourse to defend themselves.

Under Trump, even while he is in power, roughly half of the nation mainly considers him to be an embarrassment. By those who do not support him, he is is perceived as ignorant, a grandstanding buffoon, a crudely misogynistic and xenophobic former Reality TV host attempting to reach far above his level of competence, vainly trying to impersonate someone he is not and never will be.

At the height of his power and influence, McCarthy was never seen as a buffoon. In this sense McCarthy was far more dangerous. For a time, our nation was largely united in the belief that his various political machinations represented objective reality.

It doesn’t look as though Trump is ever going to achieve anything like that level of support. For most voters, he is merely a perverse symptom of something gone wrong with our democratic process.

In a way this is comforting. Our nation once endured the ravages of McCarthyism, and many innocent lives were devastated. At this point, even as Trump holds some of the ostensible reigns of power, it doesn’t look as though he has the ability to create a similar distortion of reality beyond those in his loyal base.

6 Responses to “The McCarthy comparison”

  1. Stephan Ahonen says:

    I feel the more appropriate parallel with the McCarthy era is the fact that where Communists were the boogeyman of McCarthy’s time, nowadays my entire social circle is convinced that “Nazis” are a real and imminent threat to American civilization despite the actual population of White Supremacists in the country being almost unmeasurably small, a rounding error, in the mid four-digits at most. In my city I’ve seen people get run out of their jobs for having been war re-enactors who played on the German side of WW2, and after one business owner was discovered to have made a donation to David Duke’s failed senate campaign, his *employees* were assaulted in the streets. There’s a gigantic hysteria being raised over a non-existent threat which is distracting all of us from issues we should *actually* be worried about, like climate change, economic inequality, access to health care, etc.

  2. admin says:

    I agree with you that the actual self-professed Nazis are marginal, more of a circus Sideshow than anything one should take seriously when taken by itself. But to me there is a real worry that the discourse at the level of the Federal government itself has moved away from rational debate and engaging seriously with people who have differing opinions, and has descended into mindless name-calling, and an increase in an authoritarian mindset which in some ways resembles a precondition for a slide into fascism. In addition to the serious issues that you mentioned at the end of your comment, these are also issues that we should be taking very seriously.

  3. Andy says:

    Small correction: Trump was not a Talk Show host. He was and is a reality show host.

  4. admin says:

    Ah, thanks for catching that. Fixed now.

  5. Stephan Ahonen says:

    I would argue that what’s going on right now has a lot less to do with Trump than it does with the increasing levels of political polarization and tribalization in the US. This didn’t just start happening this election, it’s been building for decades, it’s just finally starting to boil over. The 2008 and 2012 elections felt almost apocalyptic to me, and 2016 was worse. As appealing as it is to think of these things as being caused by a single person who manages to singlehandedly influence an entire country and make history, I think history teaches us that these people are actually just expressions of much larger cultural forces. I think Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and the true cause runs a lot deeper through our society. Impeaching Trump won’t actually change anything. We need to fundamentally change how we as a culture approach politics.

    Check out this article from the New York Times: (

    You’ll notice the last time we were this polarized was the end of the civil war, and the graph is still trending upward. We’re at a level of polarization that was sending bullets through the air the last time it existed, and it’s *rising.*

    The big problem as I see it is that people have allowed themselves to start thinking of “the other side” as “the enemy who must be stopped” rather than “people who sincerely want to do the best for their constituents and their country but have different ideas than me about how best to do it.” We have a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation where both sides are mashing “defect” as fast as they can, and anybody who says “what if we tried convincing them to hit ‘cooperate’ instead?” gets kicked out of the tribe. I’ve literally lost friends and been called a Nazi for saying “maybe legitimizing anarchist violence isn’t the best idea in the long run.” The way I see it, the way we stop Trump-like things from happening is to actually start listening to the people who voted for him, and figuring out how to craft policy, and advance candidates that appeal to them. And figure out how to talk to our neighbors who disagree with us without calling them “Nazis.”

  6. admin says:

    Stephan, I completely agree with everything you are saying, and have often said the same to anyone who would listen.

    There are deep economic forces at work here, which long predate the rise of Trump. The only way out of this mess is for people on both sides of the aisle to learn how to listen to those on the other side, and figure out how to work together.

    Indeed, to call people Nazis because they voted for Trump is absurd. And for someone to call you a Nazi because you are against violence is even more absurd.

    That said, Trump has essentially been pouring kerosene onto a simmering fire with his deliberately inflammatory rhetoric. It’s not easy to build bridges across a difficult political divide when the person at the top keeps blowing stuff up.

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