Demagogues and Their Enablers

DC Politics National Politics

New Orleans      It has almost become such an everyday appellation to refer to President Trump as a demagogue that it has almost lost its sting.  What might have been hurled as an accusation several years ago has become something more on the order, of “Yeah, Trump, the demagogue, went to Mar-de-Largo to play golf this weekend.”  Just an everyday observation, apropos of nothing, forcing critics to go dig deeper to describe the horror, tossing other descriptives his way, hoping they draw a tweet:  fascist, autocrat, dictator, whatever.

Talking to Larry Tye, author of Demagogue:  The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, on Wade’s World was a deep, dangerous dive into the heart and soul of one of the leaders of the pack.    McCarthy was the Republican Senator from Wisconsin and political scourge of the Cold War 1950s who led a personal crusade, often more of a vendetta, under the color of hunting for spies and fifth column commies in the State department, the Army, and wherever else he could point his fingers.  Lives were ruined, suicides were common, speech and action were chilled, despite the fact that usually the charges were baseless and unfounded.

Tye had access to family and Congressional records, now available after 50 years, and other declassified documents, including FBI and Army records on McCarthy, allowing him to present hard facts and the contradictory nature of McCarthy.  McCarthy’s attack on the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination led to some increased protections in its use.  His one-man, secret hearings were destructive and unprecedented.  Tye found them to be trial balloons for McCarthy so he could see if he could get press and make his attacks stick in a larger forum as chair of the subcommittee on Investigations.

What struck me in reading the book and in our discussion was the role of enablers, allowing McCarthy’s demagoguery to damage.  A journalist is quoted essentially thanking McCarthy for allowing him to write stories on the front page of the Chicago Tribune for four straight years.  Edward R. Murrow who often, incorrectly according to Tye, gets credit for bringing McCarthy down, admits he was late to the fight.  Drew Pearson who was the hero in more than sixty columns, paid the price but remained a consistent rock in the road.

Among politicians, the Kennedy family from paterfamilias Joe to Bobby and Jack were profiles in the opposite of courage.  Jack Kennedy, as Senator, even took a walk on the final censuring vote when two-thirds of the Senate and all the Democrats voted to do so. President Eisenhower allowed McCarthy to run roughshod over the military and other institutions by his failure to act and oppose him, until he was on his way down, saying that “McCarthyism is now McCarthy-wasm.”  Richard Nixon egged him on and threw shade simultaneously behind the scenes.

Trump is a different kind of demagogue in a much more powerful position therefore able to do much more damage.  His enablers in the press from Fox News to Breitbart to the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal are well-known.  His enablers in politics from Attorney General Barr to countless chicken-hearted Senators, led by Mitch McConnell, will also pay a price in legacy and reputation, just as McCarthy’s minions have.  Tragically, that price is merely a pittance compared to the price the American people and the world are paying for Trumpism.