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What Donald Trump Shares with Joseph McCarthy

The President’s capacity to create confusion and turmoil is emerging as the mainstay of his reëlection campaign.

On January 6, 2017, at around 8:30 a.m., Donald Trump undoubtedly had serious matters on his mind. In just two weeks, he would come into possession of the nuclear codes, attempt to fill out the upper ranks of the federal government, and assume responsibility for the course of American policy at home and abroad. So he picked up his phone and began to tweet an assessment of his replacement on “The Celebrity Apprentice”:

Wow. The ratings are in and Arnold Schwarzenegger got “swamped” (or destroyed) by comparison to the ratings machine, DJT. So much for . . . being a movie star—and that was season 1 compared to season 14. Now compare him to my season 1. But who cares, he supported Kasich & Hillary.

In the years to come, Trump’s social-media goals expanded. His tweets and retweets, which can come at a fevered rate of more than a hundred a day, provide real-time talking points for right-wing media outlets, and are absorbed as doctrine by millions of faithful constituents. As President, Trump takes to Twitter to declare who is “pathetic” and who is “dopey,” who is a “total nut job” and who is a “low class slob.” He fires staff and touts the dimensions of his “Nuclear Button.” The tone is so consistently devoid of empathy, good faith, or good will that even “HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY” sounds like a threat.

The Library of America recently put out a collection of writings by the Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter. It includes two full-length studies published in the early nineteen-sixties: “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter was trying, in part, to understand right-wing leaders, such as Senators Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, and the prevalence of an antipathy toward expertise and an embrace of conspiracy theories that had been, he wrote, “catnip for cranks of all kinds.” Hofstadter, who died in 1970, saw the country as “an arena of uncommonly angry minds,” and it is hard to read him and not think of Trump’s dark descants on “the Deep State,” “the Enemy of the People,” and, now, “Obamagate.”

In “The Paranoid Style,” Hofstadter quotes McCarthy, speaking in 1951, on the “parlous” state of America:

“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”

McCarthy claimed that pro-Soviet Communist spies had infiltrated the military, the State Department, and the Eisenhower Administration. Joseph Nye Welch, the lawyer tasked with defending the Army against McCarthy’s charges, told him, in a 1954 Senate hearing, “You have, I think, sir, something of a genius for creating confusion, creating turmoil in the hearts and minds of the country.” That genius enabled McCarthy to win the support of nearly half of all Americans, but, after the Army-McCarthy hearings and a thorough dismantling by Edward R. Murrow, on CBS, he was brought low. McCarthy died at the age of forty-eight, in 1957.

Unlike McCarthy, Trump seems to have only one fixed idea, and it is about his own greatness. One day, he is talking about his abiding friendship with President Xi Jinping and China, “which has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus.” The next, he is insidiously referring to the “Chinese virus” and suggesting that Beijing should suffer consequences if it turns out that it was “knowingly responsible” for the existence of covid-19. What Trump shares with McCarthy is the capacity to create confusion and turmoil, and it is emerging as the mainstay of his reëlection campaign.

Before the pandemic hit, Trump had intended to lock in his base and then campaign hard in the battleground states, arguing that he had single-handedly built “the greatest economy in the history of the world.” Today, he must campaign as an impeached President who has grossly mishandled a devastating assault on the national health and economy. In early March, he declared that the United States would steer the global effort against the pandemic: “The world is relying on us.” Now the country leads the world only in the number of covid-19 cases and deaths.

Trump’s failure is rooted in a distrust of expertise, which has led him to rely on the dubious counsel of his circle of cronies and family members. One of his confidants told the Financial Times that, in the early weeks of the crisis, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, “had been arguing that testing too many people, or ordering too many ventilators, would spook the markets and so we just shouldn’t do it. That advice worked far more powerfully on him than what the scientists were saying.” Trump now rejects the cautions of Anthony Fauci and other scientists about returning children to school as “not an acceptable answer.” Meanwhile, more than eighty thousand people in this country have died of covid-19. Unemployment is approaching Depression-era levels. And no one is able to make a convincing case either for an imminent improvement in the epidemiological outlook or for a “V-shaped” economic recovery.

As a result, the reëlection campaign will be even more shameless than originally conceived. Trump is running Facebook ads depicting Joe Biden as excessively sympathetic to China and cognitively diminished (“Joe Biden: Old and Out of It”). The President is above all trying to whip up a frenzy of paranoia about the Obama Administration’s supposed efforts to promulgate the theory that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. “Obamagate,” according to the President, is an affair “worse than Watergate.” The Justice Department, undermining the rule of law, has obediently asked that charges be dropped against Michael Flynn, the former national-security adviser, who admitted to lying to investigators about his contacts with Russia. In 2016, Trump’s rallying cry was “Lock her up!” Now the calls for prosecution are directed at Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

The President, who began his political career with one Obama conspiracy theory––birtherism––now hopes to prolong it with a new one. Along the way, he has helped promote the idea that Antonin Scalia may have been murdered in his bed, that windmills cause cancer, and that voter fraud cost him the popular vote in 2016. Not that he is incapable of changing his mind. Trump used to tweet that vaccines may cause autism. Now he is hoping that a vaccine comes quick—sometime before November. ♦

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