Trump’s debt to “Low Blow” Joe was apparent from the first. In lieu of solutions, the former president, like the senator, pointed fingers. Attacked, both bullies aimed wrecking balls at their assailants. When one charge against a manufactured enemy was exposed as specious, they lobbed fresh bombshells.
Each made his name into a ubiquitous brand. Neither had a master plan other than accruing and hanging onto power. Both astounded the world and themselves by rising as far and fast as they did.
But then McCarthy put in his crosshairs an enemy too big to bully, the mighty US Army, the most stouthearted and sacrosanct institution in America, and which had just waged a lethal war on the Korean Peninsula against Communists.
His medical records reveal one more malady that mounted alongside his political woes and likely exacerbated his physical ones: substance abuse. He was a drinking man in a drinking town. By the middle of 1956, a year before he died, McCarthy confided to doctors that his “alcoholic intake is 3 highballs daily.” A neurologist wrote, “Patient has been recovering from acute hallucinosis and delirium.”
Newspapers banished him to page 25, next to the corset ads, or wrote him out entirely. So did his Senate colleagues. Being subjected to a punishment so extreme that it had been meted out just five times in that chamber’s 165 years, meant trading in the badge of the outlier, which McCarthy had proudly worn from his first days in office, for the stigmata of the shunned that made him the butt of even the president’s jokes.
So while he remained a US senator, he did so softly enough that few noticed him anymore. And while he publicly insisted he’d run for reelection back in Wisconsin, he confided to a companion, “Jean and I have enough money for a small cattle spread in Arizona. I might open a little law office for friends and neighbors with my books and degree right on the place.”
Is there a chance that Trump might likewise just melt away? It seems inconceivable, but it did for McCarthy, too, who also coveted the spotlight and continued to inspire tens of millions of true believers.
What is clear is that the rogue ex-president has already taken matters several steps further than the outlaw senator ever did. McCarthy fought hard and dirty to win offices for himself and his allies, yet when either lost, he accepted the results. And while he delighted in riling up his unflinching disciples, he stopped short of inciting insurrection.
If the former president continues according to form, there is one outcome that seems certain: He’ll displace McCarthy as America’s archetypal demagogue, and McCarthyism will be replaced in the American lexicon by an ever more unnerving doctrine — Trumpism.