Trump mimes Joe McCarthy, Republicans writhe anew

    Left: Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis) wags his finger during a hearing in 1954. (AP Photo) Right: Presidential candidate Donald Trump wags his finger during a GOP debate in 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

    Left: Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis) wags his finger during a hearing in 1954. (AP Photo) Right: Presidential candidate Donald Trump wags his finger during a GOP debate in 2016. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

    Here’s the thing about Joe McCarthy. The infamous ’50s demagogue, who wrecked careers and ruined lives with his baseless accusations of treason, never even sought the GOP presidential nomination. Nor would he have come close, because the ’50s GOP had grownups in charge, people like Dwight D. Eisenhower. Back then, the GOP had adult insurance.

    But alas, today’s GOP has canceled its adult insurance and entrusted its fate to a latter-day McCarthy whose overriding impulse is to splash in the sewer and accuse the President of the United States of treason. Two days in a row, via blasts of blithering innuendo.

    And all the abject Republicans can do is tsk-tsk or writhe in silence.

    The attack in Orlando has not inspired Donald Trump to act presidential. The low road is his preferred mode. In fact, you’ve gotta wonder: What are the odds that his vanilla noggin will explode in a spray of proto-fascist flotsam before he even gets to Cleveland? 

    Rest assured, lots of Republicans would love to see it happen. Because this guy’s rancid antics have already exhausted their patience.

    One senior GOP lawmaker said yesterday (under the cloak of anonymity), “He just blows up everything …. Every time you turn around, he’s said something new. It’s impossible for us to keep up.” Sen. Bob Corker — who’s supposedly on Trump’s short list for veep — sounded yesterday as if he’s jonesing to get off when he said, “I continue to be discouraged by the direction of the campaign and the comments that are made.”

    Corker was referring to comments like these, about President Obama. Trump served them up in a word salad to Fox News on Monday:

    “We’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind, you know, people can’t believe it … There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on …. He doesn’t get it, or he gets it better than anybody understands. It’s one or the other, and either one is unacceptable.”


    By now, it doesn’t take a genius to decode Trump. He was recycling his 2011 birther garbage, insinuating that Obama is a secret foreign-born enemy agent planted in our midst to aid the people who seek to destroy us. Like any McCarthyesque demagogue, he naturally kept it vague enough (“something else in mind … he gets it better than anybody understands”) to give himself a fig leaf of deniability.

    When The Washington Post called him on it, by writing a provocative headline (“Donald Trump seems to connect President Obama to Orlando shooting“), he called the paper “dishonest” and revoked its press credentials. Yeah, the headline was click-bait, but Trump plays that game all the time. He’s the ultimate click-bait candidate, spewing innuendo and hoping that credulous saps connect the dots. 

    That was Monday. Yesterday was worse. Trump inadvertently validated The Post’s headline by accusing Obama of treason again — this time, without the fig leaf. I’ll flag the key phrase:

    “President Obama claims to know our enemy, and yet he continues to prioritize our enemy over our allies, and, for that matter, the American people. When I am president, it will always be America First.”


    When Joe McCarthy said junk like that — though never about the president — he was at least confined to the U.S. Senate. The deal right now is far more dangerous. It’s bad for the country (whatever happened to the bipartisan tradition of rallying behind a president in time of tragedy, a la 9/11?), and it’s potentially destructive for the GOP. A few elected Republican leaders mustered the energy yesterday to condemn Trump’s accusation of treason — Sen. Lindsey Graham called it “highly offensive” — but most of the sheep fled for the hills.

    Mitch McConnell said: “I’m not going to be commenting on the presidential candidates today.” Paul Ryan said, “I am not going to spend my time commenting about the ups and downs and the in-betweens.” Sen. Roger Wicker said, “I’m not gonna make a career out of responding to every comment.” Sen. John Cornyn said to a reporter, “There you go again, asking about Trump.” Sen John Barrasso said, “I’m just not going to comment on more of his statements. It’s going to be five months of it.”

    Five more months of it. Good grief.

    The upside, however, is that Trump is out there virtually alone. A normal nominee works in close coordination with his party; a normal nominee’s message is amplified by surrogates in the party. But Trump is historically abnormal, and few in the party (except for lickspittles like Chris Christie) are willing to buttress him. The sheep may be fleeing him, but at least they’re not amplifying or defending him.

    It’s the Republican alumni who have the best take on Joe McCarthy 2.0. For instance, here’s what Peter Wehner, former deputy assistant to President George W. Bush, said Monday: “[Trump] is the most massively ignorant person ever to run for president …. So everything he’s done from the day that he’s gone in is to set up these debates that appeal to the darkest impulses of the country. That is what he relishes, he wants to be in the gutter. The trouble is, he’s bringing a lot of people down there with him.”

    And that’s what happens when a political party cancels its adult insurance.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.






    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.