Sometimes worthy causes have unworthy champions. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R., Wis.) was America’s most prominent anti-Communist in the early 1950s. By the end of 1954, following the Army-McCarthy hearings, however, he had been censured by his Senate colleagues and become a political pariah. William F. Buckley Jr., who had defended the senator in McCarthy and His Enemies (1954), concluded years later that “McCarthy did more damage to his cause than benefit,” by virtue of being “disorderly, reckless, [and] impulsive.”
Buckley’s criticisms of McCarthy closely track modern conservatives’ attacks on Donald Trump’s aversion to accuracy, complexity, consistency, and propriety. “McCarthyism” has come to be understood as his antagonists viewed it: vicious character assassination predicated on guilt by association. For the senator’s supporters, however, a very different meaning was equally clear. As Irving Kristol put it in 1952, “there is one thing that the American people know about Senator McCarthy: he, like them, is unequivocally anti-Communist. About the spokesmen for American liberalism, they feel they know no such thing.”
But McCarthyism helps explain Trumpism by highlighting its central component. As Buckley noted, McCarthy’s popularity has to be understood in context: “He appeared on the horizon as the man in Washington who said: We are screwing things up and we should get rid of the people who have been running things.” McCarthy’s rise followed China’s fall to Communism; the Soviets’ demonstrated ability to make nuclear weapons, facilitated by American and British agents; and the revelation by Whitaker Chambers that Alger Hiss had spied for the Soviet Union, after the entire liberal establishment, including President Truman, had insisted that he was innocent. All of that happened less than five years after we had fought a world war that culminated in Stalin’s subjugation of Eastern Europe, and at the beginning of a war in Korea against Communists, which cost tens of thousands of Americans’ lives.
“We are screwing things up.” This is the subtext of the entire Trump campaign. Or, as David Frum describes its core message, “We are governed by idiots.”
It’s not hard to construct a 21st-century counterpart to the defeats and humiliations that made McCarthyism possible. In Afghanistan, America embarked on what has proven to be its longest war. The invasion and subsequent occupation in Iraq — badly conceived, justified, managed, and terminated — poisoned American politics and destabilized rather than democratized the Middle East. And al-Qaeda gave rise to ISIS, a group even more lunatic and lethal.
And a diffident government encourages a diffident citizenry. Days after the San Bernardino killings, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that her “greatest fear as a prosecutor” is that terrorist attacks will inflame anti-Muslim sentiment. Fifteen years after 9/11, the violent anti-Muslim backlash is an outrage permanently on the verge of occurring, while bombings and shootings by Islamic zealots remain mere realities.After last week’s deadly attack in Nice, Prime Minister Manuel Valls said that the French people should “learn to live with terrorism” by showing “solidarity and collective calm.” Given Donald Trump’s numerous, manifest flaws, his rise cannot be read as anything other than a vote of no confidence in a political class that has, in effect, asked Americans to learn to live with terrorism. Those who entreat the 2016 GOP nominee to, at last, be more “presidential” fear that Trump will harm the cause of anti-terrorism, just as Joseph McCarthy harmed anti-Communism.
It is equally urgent, however, that “respectable” politicians do much more to belie the strong impression that their response to terrorism is feckless and weak. Trump’s voters believe that he, like them, is unequivocally committed to thwarting jihadism. About his political opponents, they feel they know no such thing.
— William Voegeli is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books. This essay was adapted from its forthcoming summer issue.