Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 | 2 a.m.
It’s news to absolutely nobody that politicians embroider and embellish. But President Donald Trump learned a career-shaping lesson from his political hero that sets him apart from fibbers who came before: There’s no worse penalty for a big lie than for a little one, so you might as well let her rip and bring on the crowd.
Thus, like his exemplar “Low-Blow” Joe McCarthy, Trump tells whoppers.
Listen closely, and you can almost hear the red-baiting senator as our fantasist-in-chief insists he didn’t mean to conceal the truth about the deadly coronavirus. He was just trying to protect America’s fine citizens. Those raging fires across the West? They’ve got nothing to do with phony climate change, they’re just the result of lousy forest management. And those meddlesome mayors and left-wing conspiracists aren’t exercising free speech, they’re terrorizing good people like you.
All told, Trump just may have outdone his teacher. The Washington Post, which tracks the president’s false and misleading claims, recently clocked him at 23 whoppers a day and put his total at over 20,000.
Some of that penchant for prevaricating comes naturally to Trump. The rest was learned from Roy Marcus Cohn, who in the 1950s served as McCarthy’s ingenious and imperious protégé, then, 30 years later, became Trump’s bare-knuckled preceptor. This snarling front man was the pulsing artery, channeling the fabulist senator’s playbook to the eventual president.
The playbook is the key, and McCarthy developed his early. In law school, he and his contender for class president each agreed to cast a gentlemanly vote for the other – but Joe won a runoff by two votes, his own and his rival’s. In his first successful bid for public office, an obscure county judgeship, McCarthy played up what he knew was the inflated age of his opponent to make him look doddering even as he was fudging his own age to make himself even more of a boy wonder. Later, in his winning run for U.S. Senate, he stretched the truth in at least three ways — saying he’d resigned his judge’s job when he joined the Marines during World War II, that he’d enlisted as a private, and that his opponent, Sen. Robert La Follette Jr., was a war profiteer.
All that was a warm-up for the falsifying that underpinned the crusade against communism that made his name into an ism synonymous with reckless accusation. Decrypted Soviet cables and other revelations make clear that most of those whom McCarthy targeted as Soviet moles were in fact small-time union organizers or low-level bureaucrats, and that most 24-carat spies had slipped away long before the Wisconsin senator joined the hunt.
Owen Lattimore, a fastidious political science professor from Johns Hopkins whom McCarthy slandered as the “top Russian spy,” said that nightmarish experience convinced him that “McCarthy is a master not only of the big lie but of the middle-sized lie and the little ball-bearing lie that rolls around and around and helps the wheels of the lie machinery to turn over.” Time magazine’s Thomas Griffith offered a more compact judgment on the senator: “Over his grave should be written the simple epitaph: The Truth Wasn’t In Him.”
His targets and the journalists who covered him weren’t the only ones alarmed. In 1950, a subcommittee of senators examined McCarthy’s numbers, names and corroborating witnesses, rejecting all of them. Joe had no lists. There were no spies. Owen Lattimore wasn’t a traitor, top-level or otherwise.
“We are constrained fearlessly and frankly to call the charges, and the methods employed to give them ostensible validity, what they truly are: A fraud and a hoax,” the report said. No courtly Senate-speak there. Nor here: “For the first time in our history, we have seen the totalitarian technique of the ‘big lie’ employed on a sustained basis. The result has been to confuse and divide the American people.”
The searing language split the Senate in two. Every Democrat endorsed the report while every GOP member refused to reign in a fellow Republican. Democrats whispered that Republicans were privately laughing at McCarthy, which many were, although it would be four long years before they, too, would be willing to censure the renegade from the Badger State. Joe knew before it spoke what the subcommittee would say and was ready with a blistering rejoinder. “The most loyal stooges of the Kremlin could not have done a better job of giving a clean bill of health to Stalin’s fifth column in this country.” Columnist Jack Anderson figured this was more McCarthy flimflam; the senator assured the journalist, “No, no, no. This is the real thing, Jack. This is the real thing.”
The truth was simpler and more telling for our times. McCarthy hadn’t proved his charges, but the former country judge knew he didn’t have to. He wasn’t out to prove guilt beyond reason, but only to raise doubts and raise hell. Rather than muzzling McCarthy, investigations by his colleagues gave him a louder bullhorn. His audience never was fellow senators, or even reporters in the gallery, but the chicken farmers and grocers with whom he’d grown up. Ask God-fearing people anywhere who their white knight was in the crusade against the Red Menace and there no longer were ifs or buts: It was Jousting Joe McCarthy.
Larry Tye is an author and former reporter for the Boston Globe. His latest book, “Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy,” was recently released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.