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McCarthy to Trump Connections

- by Laura Malone Elliott

September 19, 2017

I didn’t set out to write a novel that would have such relevance to our current political scene. As much as the journalist in me would like to claim such prescience—I can’t! After turning in the manuscript spring 2016, I watched Trump’s campaign and presidency turn my novel into a metaphor for today. I simply tweaked it a bit during galley edits to strengthen the existing parallels between McCarthy and Trump, and, I hope, provide a thought-provoking historical prism through which to look at current events.

No, SUSPECT RED began as an unnamed, boy-centric narrative, the 2nd in a two-book contract. (The first was a stateside companion to Under a War-torn Sky.) I didn’t know what its topic would be until the horrific Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 and the subsequent debate about surveillance: national security versus Americans’ right to privacy, proactive caution versus unfair racial profiling.

McCarthyism seemed the perfect springboard to explore those issues. The same questions had been raised during the 1950s, when a handful of people endangered and betrayed the United States by spying for the Soviet Union. Much like radical Islamic terrorist groups today, the USSR was infiltrating and taking over its neighboring countries, aggressively spreading Anti-American fervor across the globe, and trying to plant agents to “radicalize” our citizens. The USSR also armed communist armies (North Korea) to fight our democratic allies (South Korea). What ensued was the Red Scare—a terrible time in our democracy, when our constitutional rights and devotion to freedom of thought, speech, and assembly were under siege.

Playing off legitimate concerns about communism, McCarthy inflamed terror of potential “subversives” and sympathizers. With the help of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, some populist bombast, hate-language and labeling, xenophobia, and a campaign to discredit the media and the intellectual establishment, McCarthy would say just about anything to catch him some “Reds.” For a long time he got away with it—largely because of his oddly charismatic bad-boy, “skunk-hunter” image that captivated many.

Sound a little familiar?

McCarthy’s rhetoric spawned nationwide Red-hunts, pitting Americans against one another. Thousands were called in front of Loyalty Review boards or Senate hearings, lost their jobs and reputations, were blacklisted, or succumbed to McCarthy-inspired finger-pointing to protect themselves. Often, being investigated resulted from something as simple as a person’s choices of friends or reading material. Guilt by association ruled. “If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s gotta be a duck” became a favorite catch-phrase justifying a person being placed on a watch-list. Data was collected on people who signed petitions, who voted a progressive or “radical” ticket, or advocated for labor reforms and civil rights—all things Red-baiters deemed “Un-American.”

Harry Truman succinctly described the era: “McCarthyism is the corruption of truth... It is the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation in the name of Americanism.”

Because I have the pleasure of speaking to students fairly regularly, I knew that relatively little historical fiction for teens has been set during McCarthyism. The great thing about the genre is readers get caught up in a good story (if the author has done his/her job!) but still learn a great deal without realizing it, by osmosis.

I consciously created characters to present the two sides of the Red Scare argument: Richard and his All-American family, whose WWII veteran dad works for the FBI and believes deeply in American freedoms and love of country; and Vlad, whose State Department, career foreign service dad, his Eastern-European immigrant mother, and his progressive, beatnik sister bring bold, unconventional ideas about art and politics to their Washington DC neighborhood.

How do the boys connect given their diverse backgrounds? By books, of course! Books, music, movies, and sports are wonderful common ground for seemingly polar-extreme teens. Plus, one of the many shocking things I discovered while researching was the 1950s’ rampant censorship. I am sad to share that included some instances of book burning. When I saw that even Robin Hood was banned (he took from the rich to give to the poor—a communist concept), I knew I needed my protagonists to be book-lovers. Especially since the 1950s was the decade two beloved works of English Lit canon— Fahrenheit 451 and The Crucible—were published. (I hope knowing their historical context will deepen the bravery and urgency of their themes for students.)

Richard is quickly drawn to Vlad’s musical sensibilities (he’s a jazz-loving saxophonist) and his passion for literature. But as pressures mount on Richard’s dad at the FBI to root out good cases for Hoover and Richard witnesses things at Vlad’s house that many would suspect “Red,” the lines between friend and foe, to whom Richard owes his loyalty, blur. For me, Richard became an “everyman” of the paranoia and social/professional stresses that seduced some and poisoned the nation under McCarthy. His story is a parable of choices—the heroism it takes to not succumb to pack-mentality or gossip, and the devastation to others if we do. These are perennial issues for teens, of course—varying degrees of peer pressure. But thinking-as-a-herd can also paralyze adults.

SUSPECT RED looks at the dangers of accepting insinuation as fact, of indiscriminately labeling all of a group because of the bad actions of a few, and of condemning others simply because of rumor. My hope is the novel spawns conversation—particularly among teens—about the profound need to be critical consumers of information. To verify the facts within stated opinion—whether those judgments come from national leaders, classmates, or our neighbors. To form our own individual ideas based on personal reflection, research, and experience.

SUSPECT RED has fun, whimsical scenes in it, too, I promise! Provided mostly by Richard’s precocious, earnest little sister who picks Jackie Kennedy and her neighbor Ladybird Johnson as her role models, and Vlad’s slightly outrageous and very hip big sister. There’s also a popular girl who sets the boys’ hearts racing. That opportunistic alpha girl we all know and hate. And there’s a near drowning at the beach!

Now to the connections between McCarthy and Trump. Many political reporters have written about their echoes as well as the direct link between the two men provided by Roy Cohn, who was first McCarthy’s right-hand man and then a young Trump’s mentor. What follows is a quick compellation of those insights:

A nation primed: when McCarthy burst into celebrity, a mere five years after the end of WWII’s carnage, the country was weary of what they saw as European-born crises. They had recently witnessed the atrocities brought by an atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and now the Soviets had developed their own. Within that context, many were “fed up” with FDR’s New Deal liberals and their tolerance. Nativism burgeoned. McCarthy played off that by dismissing East Coast Ivy-Leaguers who permeated Washington DC as weak, clueless “egg-heads.” As veteran broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow said, McCarthy, “has caused alarm and dismay…And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully.”

Compare that to what many term as this past election’s “white-lash” against our first African American president, his progressive policies and erudite diplomacy, plus Trump’s blustery promise “to drain the swamp,” and his dismissal of “coastal elites” as liars.

McCarthy and Trump exuded a brash, irreverent outsider, a renegade persona that appealed to the disenfranchised and to voters deep in our nation’s heartland with little personal exposure to immigrants or cultures outside the United States. Such citizens were susceptible to fear-mongering stereotypes. Both men used conspiracy theories to whip up support for their anti-foreigners policies. For McCarthy that was communists and Soviet spies embedded within the U.S. trying to overthrow it from within. (Hoover fanned the panic, claiming commies were everywhere seeking to corrupt and confuse—in schools, churches, the corner grocery.)

For Trump it’s immigrants and Muslims, starting with his birtherism claims that President Obama was not a legitimate American citizen.

Coining catchy, character-assassination labels to ridicule and undercut opponents. McCarthyism’s favorite terms: “Pinko,” “dupes,” “5th Amendment communists,” “fellow travelers,” and the not-so-veiled threat of “better dead than red.” For Trump: “Lying Ted,” “Crooked Hillary,” “bad hombres,” “criminal aliens,” “rapists,” and the chilling, witch-burning chant: “Lock her up.”

Deflecting criticism by attacking the questioner. This is particularly true with the press. When Murrow did an expose on McCarthy, the senator tried to smear the reporter as being a “pinko,” citing Murrow’s involvement with student exchange programs with Russia in the 1930s. McCarthy called for a boycott of businesses that advertised with newspapers critical of him. He physically assaulted one columnist. He threatened another by saying he’d hate for that journalist to give McCarthy a reason to investigate him considering the man had six kids, adding, “When you write stuff like that, you’re helping the communists.”

Trump also implies journalists are essentially an enemy of the people and discredits them by demeaning—“fake news,” “lightweights,” “over-rated,” and even debasing female reporters as having “blood coming out of her wherever.”

Still, both men knew constant media attention was their ticket to power. At first, the press covered them as titillating sideshows they didn’t take seriously, unwittingly lending them credibility. In 1953, the managing editor of the Raleigh News and Observer said, “The press made McCarthy. We go hog wild whenever he speaks. How long are we going to quote irresponsible statements?”

Unsubstantiated innuendo: McCarthy was all about “guilt by association” and strategic exaggeration, what Trump himself would later dub “truthful hyperbole” and his staffers would call “alternative fact.”

McCarthy burst out of political obscurity into the American psyche by holding up a piece of paper and braying: “I have here in my hand a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party, and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” Within days he had to backtrack, first claiming he’d left the list of names in his other suitcase when journalists asked for clarification. Then he reduced the number to 81, then to 57, and finally specifically targeted only four people.

With Trump, we are still learning exactly how deliberately untruthful his statements may be. (But the New York Times—which he derides as the “failing New York Times” has been keeping a list. )

These include his claims about the size of his inauguration crowd; his making up Time magazine covers of himself to hang in his resorts; his stiffing small businessmen in real estate projects while crowing he’d “make America great again” by thinking about “the little guy.” He seems to have taken some tactics straight from McCarthy. For instance, his standing in front of piles of manila folders, saying, “These are just some of the many documents I’ve signed turning over complete control (of his businesses) to my sons,” yet not allowing any reporter to open a single folder, (much like McCarthy’s list of so-called State Department moles).

During the Army-McCarthy hearings, McCarthy’s staff would even doctor evidence, cropping a photograph to make it more incriminating and perhaps faking an officer’s letter accusing the Army of “being soft” on communists. Only special prosecutor Robert Mueller will be able to answer definitively what Trump and his inner circle might have done to spin the truth. But the revelation that a meeting with Russians which participants now admit was about digging up damaging information on Clinton belies Trump’s initial statement that the gathering was only to discuss adoption. Same with his first and then contradictory statements about why he fired FBI Director Comey.

Intimidation and bullying. McCarthy browbeat witnesses—sometimes asking if they felt they deserved the same fate as the executed Rosenbergs. Trump eggs on crowds to boo reporters standing behind them as “the biggest liars” ever, or even to manhandle opponents as he did during an Iowa campaign, telling his rally listeners to “knock the crap out of” protestors who might throw tomatoes, and then promising, “I will pay the legal fees.”

Both men seemed determined to dismantle the State Department and target the LGBTIQA+ community. During the 1950s’ “lavender scare,” any hints of homosexuality became grounds for dismissal from federal agencies, the claim being it made individuals susceptible to blackmail and therefore national security risks. Among other things, Executive Order 10450 included this reason for investigation or dismissal: “immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, sexual perversion.”

Trump’s recent banning of transgender service members from the military, and Vice President Pence’s opposition to gay rights leave many deeply concerned about future actions of the administration.

Finally: Roy Cohn. An attack-dog style attorney, Cohn graduated Columbia Law School at the age of 20, quickly became an expert in “subversive activities,” and was an assistant U.S. attorney in the 1951 atomic espionage trail of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. In his autobiography, Cohn claimed it was he who influenced the judge to order Ethel’s execution as well, despite the scant evidence against her and the fact she was the mother of two small boys.

Cohn joined McCarthy’s crusade as chief counsel. Photos of the subcommittee hearings typically show McCarthy covering his table microphone as Cohn leans over and whispers in his ear. Cohn was known to brag of purposefully planning to “wreck” those he investigated, earning him the reputation of being McCarthy’s vengeful “hit man.”

After the Senate censored McCarthy, Cohn returned to private practice and became one of the most feared lawyers in New York City. He would be indicted and acquitted four times on charges including bribery, extortion, conspiracy, securities fraud, and obstruction of justice. Right before he died in 1986 from AIDS, Cohn was disbarred for “unethical, unprofessional and particularly reprehensible” conduct.

Trump and Cohn met at a Manhattan club, when a 27-year-old Trump approached the legendarily combative lawyer to ask how he and his father should respond to the Justice Department suing them for housing discrimination. The Civil Rights Division had accused the Trumps of refusing to rent apartments to African Americans. The 46-year-old Cohn replied: hit back harder, countersue.

For the next thirteen years, Cohn was one of Trump’s closet allies, representing him in scores of contentious lawsuits. “He brutalized for you,” Trump told one reporter. Cohn tutored Trump in his credo: never settle, never admit fault; attack, counter-attack; counter-sue any plaintiff or person who criticizes you. Play the martyr and claim detractors are simply persecuting you. All things McCarthy excelled at.

One can’t help but wonder if the irony of one of his most infamous tweets about President Obama hit Trump before he sent it out into the world: Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!


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