The rise and fall of demagogues

Senator Joe McCarthy casts a long shadow over American politics. The radio program Fresh Air had an interview with Larry Tye, author of the book Demagogue, that chronicled McCarthy’s smear campaign that brought him such fame. Starting in 1950, his wild allegations of Communists having infiltrated pretty much the entire US government, including the military, led to many people being fired and their lives destroyed, with some dying by suicide.

McCarthy adopted scorched-Earth tactics against anyone who opposed him, piling on lie after lie, making unsubstantiated allegations just in time to make the news deadlines, and quickly moving on to new ones before the earlier ones were investigated and repudiated. He would also lash out at anyone who opposed him, even campaigning against fellow politicians, and was so successful that he became feared and few ventured to criticize him. The comparisons to Donald Trump just jump out at you, including the detail that McCarthy was advised by the same sleazy lawyer Roy Cohn (1927-1986) who was a mentor to Trump and represented him in defending the charges that Trump’s housing properties discriminated against potential black tenants.

[Tye] describes the Republican senator as an “an opportunist and a cynic” who deliberately preyed on public fears.

“His tactics included playing the press brilliantly,” Tye says. “He understood that if you lobbed one bombshell and that [proved] to be a fraud, rather than waiting for the press the next day to expose it as a fraud, he had a fresh bombshell ready to go.”

Many of the people McCarthy accused lost their jobs. Others went to prison. Wyoming Sen. Lester Hunt killed himself in his Senate office after McCarthy and his allies tried to blackmail him into resigning.

McCarthy’s impact on US politics was so huge that it comes as a surprise that his fame and influence lasted for just four years. Beginning in 1954, the fiasco over the Army-McCarthy hearings led to his popularity starting to plummet and this emboldened his senate colleagues and he was censured by them in December of that year. That began his ultimate decline, accentuated by his long-time alcoholism getting worse.

But after he was condemned by the Senate in December of 1954, the drinking got out of control. And that’s always been speculated, but we can now see in his medical records, his doctors documented the rising level of his alcohol consumption, the fact that he would get delirium tremens — the DTs — when he would come into the hospital. And in the end, while the coroner listed as the official cause of death as “acute hepatitis,” and while the press repeated that as what killed him, we now know that what killed him was his drinking.

By the time he died in 1957, McCarthy was an afterthought to the press, to the public and certainly to his fellow senators. He hadn’t been on the front page [in] forever. He was likely facing a reelection loss even if he even ran for reelection in Wisconsin. And he had a movement named after him that became the kind of smear: the word McCarthyism that he understood and couldn’t spin away.

There have been demagogues in politics from time immemorial that have used those skills to come into power. But how long they retain it may be a function of whether that can hold onto it by non-democratic means. McCarthy’s example suggests that demagoguery loses its potency fairly quickly unless the demagogue can subvert the democratic processes sufficiently to continue in power.

Our current demagogue Trump, like McCarthy, has been powerful for nearly four years and is similarly starting to unravel, getting more erratic and wild in his claims. Unlike the alcoholic McCarthy, though, Trump is tee-total.

There is an old saying that the hotter the flame, the sooner the ash. Let’s hope that the massive dumpster-fire that is Trump, like McCarthy, also burns out after just four years.

You can listen to the 36-minute interview with Tye.


  1. says

    Senator Joe McCarthy casts a long shadow over American politics.

    That always amazed me. He was obviously a liar about his list, and he ought to have been a laughingstock -- but, instead, he was taken very seriously. It’s an example of the herd behaviors of authoritarians and the power of propaganda, I suppose.

  2. Owlmirror says

    Unlike the alcoholic McCarthy, though, Trump is tee-total.

    Marcus Ranum has stated more than once that he suspects that Trump abuses other substances, possibly OTC ones. I forget which one(s) though. Methamphetamines?

    Trump’s abstinence from alcohol might have arisen either because he took the warnings not to mix whatever he was taking with alcohol, or he did mix them one time, and the bad results were enough to get him off alcohol permanently.

  3. says

    Adderall (amphetamine/dextroamphetamine)
    Definitely bad with alcohol. Also: amphetamines cause paranoia, sleeplessness, and dyskenisia.

    If you spend time around amphetamine abusers you learn to recognize the signs.

  4. Mobius says

    There are some right-wingnuts, such as Ann Coulter, that consider McCarthy an American hero. This is just evidence to me that the extreme right-wing is bat-s*** crazy.

    BTW, the term tee-total. For years, not having bothered to look it up, I assumed it was spelled “tea-total” since that seemed to embrace the idea.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    Trump has said that he quit alcohol after seeing how it killed his older brother, Fred. Jr.
    Though according to Fred’s daughter Mary, the alcohol was just a means of coping with a toxic family environment. Even the Donald has admitted he treated Fred Jr. shabbily.

  6. xohjoh2n says

    McCarthyism has always seemed such a long time ago (born in the 70s) and such a long way away (am a Brit).

    But whenever I see a photo of Mitch McConnell I always imagine that is what McCarthy must have looked like.

  7. mailliw says

    It doesn’t matter to demagogues if people believe their lies, the only thing that is important is that people fear them sufficiently to be forced to accept their lies.

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