Much of Donald Trump’s success is based on his ability to turn the national conversation to one topic: himself. Every political discussion is about him, even when it isn’t. For Larry Tye, the event that “clinched” his decision to write a biography of the red-baiting senator from Wisconsin was Trump’s 2016 election.
The resulting detailed biography, Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, assiduously refrains from mentioning the 45th president outside of the book’s preface and epilogue, but Trump’s doughy specter haunts every page. He is present when McCarthy makes hyperbolic charges, fails to support his accusations with evidence, seeks to boost his own masculine bona fides, and lambastes members of the press. In one Trump-like moment, McCarthy yelled to a crowd about a Madison Capital Times reporter: “Get him out! That’s a representative of a Communist newspaper!” Audience members eagerly complied with the directive. The similarities between Trump’s and McCarthy’s approaches are nicely encapsulated in a comment the Wisconsin senator was reported to have made on numerous occasions: “I don’t answer charges, I make them.”
Tye’s journalistic chops are on full display here. Most notably, he gained exclusive access to McCarthy’s private papers, housed at Marquette University, the alma mater of his subject. This was a scholarly breakthrough. While McCarthy’s public papers — mostly composed of news clippings and speeches — have been open to researchers for years, these private papers include personal correspondence, internal staff communications, and a diary McCarthy kept while serving as a Marine in World War II’s Pacific Theater. Tye also uncovered unpublished memoirs penned by some of McCarthy’s closest confidants, including his wife Jean and top staff member Jim Juliana, and he gained access to McCarthy’s medical records housed at Bethesda Naval Hospital. The resulting revelations provide a welcome dose of nuance to our understanding of a man who is largely known by the “ism” that bears his name.
Some of the most important disclosures predate McCarthy’s infamous claim that 205 “known communists” were in the employ of the State Department. A number of historians and McCarthy’s contemporaries alike questioned his military record, claiming that the senator who styled himself as “Tail Gunner Joe” had never flown a combat mission and lied about the cause and extent of his wartime injuries. While the injuries were exaggerated — McCarthy did not have, as he once told an audience, “ten pounds” of shrapnel in his leg but had injured himself during on-ship shenanigans celebrating his first crossing of the Equator — it now appears that the combat record was likely accurate. His South Pacific diary and a series of letters written by his comrades-in-arms show that McCarthy probably did participate in a number of sorties under fire, perhaps as many as a dozen. There was likely no record of his missions because his immediate superiors did not want to explain to their bosses why an intelligence officer was allowed to partake in combat missions.
Other new details abound: though he presented himself as a self-made man, McCarthy’s upbringing was not as hardscrabble as he portrayed it, and his father likely paid most (if not all) of his college tuition; he planned a full-frontal attack on Albert Einstein in a 1950 speech on the Senate floor but abandoned it at the last minute; his medical records show that he may have suffered from bipolar disorder; his death at the age of 48 was almost certainly a by-product of his alcoholism. Tye is also the first McCarthy biographer to fully explore the executive (that is: behind closed door) sessions of McCarthy’s subcommittee, the records of which were released by the Senate in 2003.
Do any of these revelations fundamentally change how we should think about McCarthy? Probably not. But Tye has produced a compelling and rich biography that will become the new authoritative text on its subject. The book’s provocative title and Tye’s claim that the book is about “America’s love affair with bullies” stands in contrast to his evenhanded approach. He is more than fair to his subject, sometimes bending over backward to adopt an empathetic viewpoint.
In his attempts to be unbiased — a courtesy McCarthy never extended to any of his targets — Tye occasionally misses the forest for the trees. He terms McCarthy’s number of subcommittee investigations “impressive,” overlooking that such a deluge was undoubtedly facilitated by the slapdash manner in which those inquiries were undertaken. He is sympathetic to McCarthy’s fatuous claims of mistreatment by the press and neglects to critique Jean Kerr McCarthy — the Senator’s aide, closest confidante, and eventual wife — in an otherwise welcome chapter on the enablers of McCarthyism.
But the majority of what is here is a welcome reassessment of McCarthy for the Age of Trump. The inevitable question surfaces: is Trumpism a reincarnation of McCarthyism? The evidence is compelling. Both men present themselves as outsiders on a crusade to stop Beltway excess, taking as their targets the elite politicians and bureaucrats who have, in their mind, abandoned the average American and led the nation to ruin. It is not difficult to imagine Joe McCarthy railing against the “Deep State” as he sought to identify and remove communist influences from the federal government. Their bases are composed of a peculiar blend of white, blue-collar workers and wealthy, individualist entrepreneurs who fund the firestorm. They willingly manipulate and mislead — Tye at one point describes McCarthy as a man who “blithely ignored the boundary between truth and falsehood” — and rail against a free press that makes it more difficult for them to do so. They shamelessly hold others to standards they themselves cannot fulfill — Trump’s treatment of John McCain comes to mind — and are loath to compromise or capitulate on any topic. Both McCarthy and Trump at times identified as Democrats and migrated to the Republican Party for opportunistic reasons. And there is at least one explicit link between the two: McCarthy’s aggressive lieutenant Roy Cohn served as Trump’s lawyer in the 1970s and early 1980s, and reportedly pushed his client to become involved in politics.
Some of those comparisons are profound, others more trivial. Tye’s investigation does reveal a depth to McCarthy that Trump appears to lack. McCarthy’s bootstraps narrative was generally accurate, moments of generosity and grace appear throughout his life, and McCarthy seems to have been a true believer in a pet cause. These descriptors are more questionably applied to Trump.
In the end, McCarthyism most mattered not because of its namesake but because of the way it reverberated beyond the federal government and shook the lives of average citizens. For every headline-grabbing target like Irving Peress, George Marshall, and Alger Hiss, dozens of Americans were ostracized as a result of the anticommunist hysteria that McCarthy helped expand. The historian Ellen Schrecker has estimated that 10,000 Americans lost their jobs as a result of the anticommunist purges following World War II, and that for each of those 10,000, there were “five to ten” who resigned their posts to avoid an investigation.
Likewise, the list of those damaged by Trumpism goes far beyond Sally Yates, Preet Bharara, Andrew McCabe, and Steve Linick. Decades from now, a Trump biographer will have to take on the monumental task of tallying up all those who were separated from their parents at the border, openly regarded as suspicious because they were read as “un-American,” forced to resign from the military due to their sexual identity, deprived of federal funds for researching climate change, promised a manufacturing job that never materialized, and myriad other affronts.
Still, Tye’s comparison strikes a remarkably optimistic note, arguing that most autocrats “fell even faster than they rose, once America saw through them and reclaimed its better self. Given the rope, most demagogues eventually hang themselves.” Time will tell whether this adage holds true for Donald Trump.
Christopher M. Elias teaches at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. His book Gossip Men: J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, and the Politics of Insinuation will be published by the University of Chicago Press in spring 2021.