McCarthyism, the Big Lie, and Tweeting

In 1950, Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy used fear-mongering in the Cold War to master the art of the Big Lie. In 2016, Donald Trump used fear-mongering to master the Tweet. Both were, and are, dangerous.

McCarthy entered the United States Senate in 1947, and by all accounts was a lazy, careless, slovenly representative. Half way through his first term, he decided he should do something that would ensure his re-election. Seeing that California Senator Richard Nixon had won fame tracking Communists, McCarthy thought he would emulate Nixon and become a Red Hunter.

Imagine, emulating Nixon!

McCarthy never had any evidence, but he made startling accusations of Communist infiltrators in high levels of the American federal government. That there were none didn’t matter. McCarthy would time his wild statements to match major newspapers’ deadlines.

In 1950 there was no page-making software for newspapers; close to deadline, the interior pages were already “put to bed,” and the only space left was on the front page. Newspapers could not afford to let other publications get a scoop, so they had little choice but to put a blurb about McCarthy’s accusations on their front pages. If it turned out wrong (and in McCarthy’s case, they always did), the newspaper could run a correction.

Thus, McCarthy had major press. As his notoriety grew, Americans panicked. Were Reds really about to tear the U.S. asunder from inside? Washington bureaucrats, senators, and representatives dared not challenge McCarthy for fear he would accuse them.

Today, President Donald Trump does the same thing with a diatribe or a tweet. No, he doesn’t accuse them of being Communist, but he does cajole and threaten. Remember “Little Marco,” “Low-Engergy Jeb,” and “Lyin’ Ted”? As Trump is so proud of noting, 17 other Republican primary contenders wilted under his attacks, which were all based on nothing but insults and name-calling. He called House Speaker Paul Ryan “weak and ineffective” in October; now Ryan is in Trump’s corner.

Democrats don’t care; most of them have pledged to block Trump’s agenda however they can. Republicans, though, seem intent to stay on the president’s good side, even it means approving sub-par cabinet picks or backing ludicrous plans, such as a southern “wall.” Simply, no one wants on Trump’s bad side for fear of a hostile tweet-storm. It’s obvious, and experts plying the Washington beat agree.

It didn’t work out well for Joe McCarthy. When he went too far and charged the U.S. Army with harboring Communists, Army counselor Joseph Nye Welch fought back, asking McCarthy if he had no sense of decency.

McCarthy crumpled in disgrace. He had won his second term, but he died in 1957 before he could finish it.

Trump? Who knows? Republicans need to shelve their fears and finally question if Trump has a sense of decency.


Reihan Salam, “Paul Ryan: Loser. Mitch McConnell: Also a Loser.” Slate. January 18, 2017.

Kevin Drum. “Republicans Are Afraid to Stand Up to Trump for Fear of Nasty Tweets.” Mother Jones. December 21, 2016.

Josh Dawsey and Shane Goldmacher. “Trump Rattles GOP Lawmakers With Twitter Power.” Politico. January 3, 2017.

We’ve got to do better than this, folks.

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