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Joseph McCarthy and Donald Trump: a shared contempt for democratic institutions

Joseph McCarthy

In 1952, a young assistant dean at the University of Wisconsin Law School became the first president of the Wisconsin Citizens’ Committee on McCarthy’s Record, which published “The McCarthy Record” in that year. The 100-page booklet was a public indictment of the lies, fraud and character assassinations perpetrated by the Wisconsin senator and set the stage for public reaction to the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations hearings that Joseph McCarthy would chair in 1954. By then, McCarthy had planted evil seeds of suspected conspiracy, treason and Communist sympathy in the State Department and elsewhere and had developed a large following in Republican circles, the conservative national press and the public.

The Citizens’ Committee sold over 100,000 copies of “The McCarthy Record” over the next two years. The committee was composed of a few Wisconsinites brave enough to proclaim publicly that McCarthy should be defeated and dishonored. Those who signed the “Record — including Nathan Pusey, then president of Lawrence College in Appleton (McCarthy’s hometown), who later became president of Harvard — risked their professional lives to make that statement. Many in the Citizens’ Committee had been Progressive Republicans, followers of “Fighting Bob” La Follette Sr. and his sons (McCarthy had defeated Robert M. La Follette Jr. for Senate in 1946). Most weren’t Republicans anymore.

People were afraid to confront McCarthy directly

The former president of the Citizen’s Committee told me that so many people were afraid to confront McCarthy publicly that they would rather support the effort by handing briefcases full of $100 bills to Citizen’s Committee members at train stations outside of Madison. He had been chosen to lead the committee as a law professor, former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Western District and for a war record that included the Bronze Star for service as an officer under George S. Patton in the 3rd U.S. Army, going from Omaha Beach to Berlin in 1944-45. I know this because he was my father, Carlisle P. Runge. He had grown up 20 miles from McCarthy in the little town of Seymour, Wisconsin.

Carlisle Ford Runge

“The McCarthy Record” was responsible in part for McCarthy’s ultimate downfall and disgrace, coupled with McCarthy’s obvious lies and growing public revulsion at his abusive contempt for democratic institutions.

There is an interesting thread of depravity connecting Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. Roy Cohn, the infamous New York lawyer and Red-baiter, was McCarthy’s ghoulish chief counsel during the Senate witch-trial hearings in 1954 and architect of McCarthy’s character assassinations in the name of Communist conspiracy theories. Less well known are Cohn’s close ties to Trump, detailed in a June 20, 2016, examination by the New York Times: “What Donald Trump Learned from Joseph McCarthy’s Right Hand Man.” The Times’ Jonathan Mahler and Matt Flegenheimer wrote that until Cohn’s death from AIDS in 1986, he and Trump spoke as often as five times a day and partied regularly at Studio 54 and Cohn’s apartment. Peter Fraser, Cohn’s lover during the last two years of Cohn’s life, told the Times: “That bravado, and if you say it aggressively and loudly enough, it’s the truth — that’s the way Roy used to operate to a degree, and Donald was certainly his apprentice.” As the Times writers observed: “Mr. Trump’s wrecking ball of a presidential bid, the embracing of bluster as a brand — has been a Roy Cohn number on a grand scale.”

GOP’s complicity

Part of the reason for McCarthy’s rise, with Cohn as his Rasputin, was the weak-kneed Republican establishment’s unwillingness to stand up to his bullying even as he sucked the blood from the GOP’s reputation for honest dealing. Indeed, it is little known that McCarthy’s electoral success in Wisconsin was supported by volunteers from Minnesota recruited by boy Gov. Harold Stassen. These fellow travelers of the Right are well in evidence today, as they rationalize, excuse and run from confrontation with Trump’s lies. Gov. Mike Pence, Rep. Paul Ryan, Rudy Giuliani, Gov. Chris Christie and millions of other Republicans are a chorus even more complicit in Trump’s behavior than many in the 1950s were in McCarthy’s. Old Joe had only one conspiracy theory; Trump has too many to count.

The reason to reach back to the dark days of McCarthyism, a period Trump evokes as when America was great (and white), is that our democracy is again threatened by fear and loathing. Whatever is wrong with America’s governing institutions, and it is a long list, they have one central vulnerability: They can be called illegitimate. Trump’s position is that our government is, like himself, a fraud, and thus he feels free to debase the electoral system even as he participates in it as a hedge against the likelihood that it will find him unfit.

Roger Stone, the ‘black prince’

This dangerous hype has been fed by another Trump consigliere, Roger Stone, known as the “boastful black prince of Republican sleaze,” and a former Nixon dirty trickster. Stone is currently head of Stop the Steal and The Committee to Restore America’s Greatness. As reported in the August 2, 2016, Guardian newspaper, Stone has urged Trump to make his voter fraud line a “constant.” Stone said: “He needs to say for example, today (August 2) would be a perfect example: I’m leading in Florida and the polls show it. If I lose Florida, we will know that there’s voter fraud.” He continued: “If there’s voter fraud, this election will be illegitimate, we will have a constitutional crisis, widespread civil disobedience, and the government will no longer be the government.”

If those who support this position persist, the result will be a political and perhaps a more general civil conflict unfitting any cause. This is the violence that a deranged and evil candidate for democratic office, succored by sycophants and supported by the spineless, will have spawned. The fallout from Trump’s political nuclear winter is yet to be reckoned, but its half-life for the GOP will be long. Like Old Joe, Trump is a Republican vampire, arrived just in time for Halloween to suck the blood from Republican veins.

For my own part, I recall a remark by Lyndon Johnson, who noted in the time of Barry Goldwater: “I like small parties. … And the Republican Party can’t be small enough for me.” Like Monty Python’s ex-parrot, the ex-GOP’s plumage obscures its mortality. It will not rest in peace.

Carlisle Ford Runge is Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Applied Economics and Law at the University of Minnesota. This article reflects his view and not those of the university.


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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Craig Johnson on 10/17/2016 - 09:55 am.

    Some Conspiracies are real

    I know since I’ve been victimized by the global male pattern baldness haters conspiracy, Not just them, but others whose goal is to marginalize my life. The anti competency triad that controls our education, government and business has fought me every step of the way in my efforts to achieve a satisfactory education, representation and career.

    You may think I’m making light of a real, dark and sinister part of American life. If you you are obviously a tool of the puppeteers that try to keep their nefarious goals hidden from an unsuspecting and naive public.

    Its time to rise up and shine the bright light of day on those whose ceaseless criminal efforts to deny me my rightful place at the top of the mountain. Honestly, if you examine your own life you too have probably been victimized by the dark side, for heavens sake, nothing bad that has ever happened to you could possibly be your fault. I know in my instance my indifference to my follicle issues has been amplified by those who hate me for it. Nothing is ever my fault. Nothing. Believe me.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 10/17/2016 - 12:14 pm.

    Nice, but too subtle, Craig!

    In an electoral season in which we hear daily exaggerations and lies repeated vigorously by a charlatan like Donald Trump, satire like Craig’s can’t be riding such a fine line: Trump is already his own satire (a burlesque exaggeration in and of himself). His buffoonery, now verging on monomaniacal raving, can only be countered by the most sober of truth-telling, straight news, and careful analysis. We can have our fun with satirical riffs on Trump after he’s defeated at the polls!

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 10/17/2016 - 12:27 pm.

      When misgiving becomes mania…

      That seems to be where many voters have settled their personal forms of ambivelence.

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