The silence of congressional Republican leaders as President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud grow wilder and more venomous increasingly resembles the party’s deference to Sen. Joe McCarthy during the worst excesses of his anti-Communist crusade in the early 1950s.
In McCarthy’s era, most of the GOP’s leaders found excuses to avoid challenging conspiracy theories that they knew to be implausible, even as evidence of their costs to the nation steadily mounted. For years, despite their private doubts about his charges and methods alike, the top GOP leadership – particularly Senate Republican leader Robert A. Taft, the Mitch McConnell of his day – either passively abetted or actively supported McCarthy’s scattershot claims of treason and Communist infiltration. A significant faction of Senate Republicans didn’t join with Democrats to curb McCarthy’s power until the senator immolated himself with his accusations, in highly publicized 1953 and 1954 hearings, that the Army was riddled with Communists during the presidency of fellow Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
In many respects, the congressional GOP response to Trump has paralleled the party’s response to McCarthy. Whatever their private concerns about Trump’s behavior or values, the vast majority of congressional Republicans have supported Trump since his 2017 inauguration at almost every turn, brushing aside concerns about everything from openly racist language to his efforts to extort the government of Ukraine to manufacture dirt on the eventual Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden.
That pattern of deference has continued since the election as Trump has raised unfounded claims that he lost only because of massive voter fraud; as an array of state and federal courts have rejected those claims as lacking any supporting evidence, Trump has only heightened his allegations.
In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Trump broadened his claims to suggest that the FBI and Department of Justice were part of a plot to defeat him; after weeks of excoriating Georgia’s Republican secretary of state for failing to overturn the state’s election results on his behalf, Trump this week extended his criticism to the state’s staunchly conservative Republican governor, Brian Kemp. On Monday, Trump added a new Republican target when he fired a volley of attacks against Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey after the state certified Biden’s victory there.
Through it all, as Trump’s charges have grown more and more untethered and vitriolic, Senate Majority Leader McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other top GOP legislators in both chambers – not to mention the vast majority of Republican governors – have raised not a peep of dissent.
“For me it’s the dog that hasn’t barked,” conservative strategist and Trump critic Bill Kristol says of the party’s silence about the President’s unfounded fraud claims. “This is as if we’ve had the Army-McCarthy hearings and everyone is just quiet. No one is rethinking anything.”
It took years for the GOP to unshackle itself from McCarthy, and even then the separation came only after a figure as formidable as Eisenhower, a sitting President and national hero, privately encouraged it.
As Kristol notes, with McConnell and other GOP leaders deferring to Trump so completely – and many in the GOP breathing a sigh of relief over the party’s surprisingly competitive performance in the House and Senate elections – it’s not clear where a critical mass of resistance to him might develop, despite his increasingly open attacks on basic pillars of American democracy.
“It was easier to get beyond McCarthy than it will be to get beyond Trump,” Kristol predicts.
If anything, today’s congressional Republicans have surrendered even more abjectly to Trump’s feverish claims than their predecessors did to McCarthy’s. While Taft always supported McCarthy in public, a defiant minority of Republicans confronted him in ways that have been matched today mostly by the unelected Republicans who identify as “never Trumpers.”
The birth of McCarthyism
McCarthy was first elected to the Senate from Wisconsin in 1946, part of a Republican surge that year fueled by dissatisfaction with the transition back to a peacetime economy after World War II. From that first campaign on, he frequently tarred any force that stood in his way – from liberal Wisconsin newspapers to the Democrats nominated against him – as sympathetic, or fully allied, with Communists.
“This Communist infiltration is a vital issue in America,” he insisted in one radio broadcast during that race, according to Thomas C. Reeves’ comprehensive 1982 biography, “The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy.”
These allegations didn’t make McCarthy unique at the time. As the Cold War began in Europe and China fell to Mao Zedong’s Communist forces, a wide array of Republicans and conservative Democrats raised alarms about alleged Communist infiltration through a broad range of American institutions; the 1947 hearings by the House Un-American Activities Committee led to the film industry’s blacklist of actual and suspected Communists in Hollywood.
McCarthy pushed himself to the head of this parade with a speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, on February 9, 1950, in which he claimed to hold a list of 205 “active members of the Communist Party” in the State Department. At other points, he changed the number of alleged Communists to 57, but the speech set the pattern for the next four years of his fierce reign: sweeping and shifting accusations, the immediate deployment of new charges anytime one was disproved and the constant allegation that his critics were advancing (either knowingly or unwittingly) the Communist cause.
In many respects, McCarthy’s rhetorical style prefigured Trump’s. Like Trump today, McCarthy constantly tried to fan resentment against allegedly soft and un-American elites, what he called “bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths.” Just as Trump has repeatedly encouraged violence from his supporters, McCarthy presented himself as the “manly” alternative to his critics: “McCarthyism,” he often declared, “is Americanism with its sleeves rolled up.”
McCarthy, like Trump, singled out reporters by name for attacks during his speeches. And, like Trump today, McCarthy insisted that his supporters alone represented the “real Americans.” (Roy Cohn, the feral attorney who was McCarthy’s chief Senate aide and decades later a legal adviser to Trump, provided a living link between the two men.)
Many Republicans from the outset recognized the irresponsibility of McCarthy’s endlessly mutating accusations. Taft, the longtime GOP Senate leader, son of a former president (William Howard Taft) and a figure so revered in the party that he was known as “Mr. Republican,” privately expressed doubts about McCarthy early on. As author Larry Tye recounts in “Demagogue,” his 2020 book on McCarthy, after the Wheeling speech Taft privately called the senator “perfectly reckless” and complained he had “made allegations which are impossible to prove” and “may be embarrassing before we get through.”
But in public, Taft almost always defended and encouraged McCarthy. Though he later denied it, most historians agree that early on he told McCarthy to “keep talking and if one case doesn’t work out he should proceed with another.” When Harry Truman criticized McCarthy’s widening allegations in a speech to the American Legion, Taft called the President “hysterical.”
Almost from the start, a larger group of congressional Republicans resisted McCarthy’s wild charges than have pushed back against Trump at any point in his presidency (and certainly since the 2020 election). On June 1, 1950, first-term Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, in a statement joined by about half a dozen other GOP colleagues, took to the Senate floor to denounce not only McCarthy but also others in the party who hoped to ride “to victory through the selfish political exploitation of fear, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance.”
Even Time magazine, a media pillar of the anti-Communist coalition, by fall 1951 put the senator on its cover under the title “Demagogue McCarthy,” according to Reeves.
Yet the GOP leadership remained steadfast behind McCarthy in the first years of his rampage. During an extended Senate investigation of his initial accusations in Wheeling against the State Department, wrote Reeves, “Republicans rallied behind McCarthy even though most understood that his allegations were fraudulent.”
Whatever their private doubts about his claims, Taft and other GOP leaders concluded that McCarthyism was a political winner for the party, a belief reinforced by the GOP’s gains in both the House and Senate in the 1950 midterm elections, and the further gains that swept the party to control of both legislative chambers in Eisenhower’s 1952 landslide. Gallup polls showed that about three-fifths of Republican voters viewed McCarthy favorably well into early 1954.
The bill comes due
In another parallel to Trump, congressional Republicans were deferential not only because they considered McCarthy an ally, but also because they recognized him as a potential threat. The journalist William S. White captured their skittish ambivalence when he wrote, “In McCarthy, embarrassed Republican leaders know they have got hold of a red-hot bazooka, useful in destroying the enemy but also quite likely to blister the hands of the forces that employ it. Their private fear is that a lethal rocket may at any moment blast out through the wrong end of the pipe.”
Just like congressional Republicans now with Trump, GOP legislators then found themselves following McCarthy into deeper and deeper waters of conspiracy theories. An early indication of how far McCarthy might go came in June 1951, when he delivered a 60,000-word attack on George Marshall, the brilliant Army chief of staff in World War II and later secretary of state for Truman. It was in that speech that McCarthy famously (or infamously) declared that he was unraveling “a conspiracy … so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
Yet even after that unhinged attack – the equivalent at the time, perhaps, of the chimerical claims by Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell and other Trump attorneys in their mid-November news conference – McCarthy was honored with a prime speaking slot at the GOP convention the next summer. And even Eisenhower was intimidated enough by the senator’s power to eliminate a passage from his speech defending Marshall when he campaigned in Wisconsin during the presidential race the next year.
Like today’s GOP with Trump, Republicans then thought they could benefit from McCarthy’s bark without feeling his bite. But the bill came due for years of enabling McCarthy after Eisenhower took office in January 1953. Congressional Republicans who had expediently welcomed McCarthy’s attacks on Truman’s administration found themselves caught in the crossfire as the senator targeted Eisenhower’s. Throughout Eisenhower’s first two years, McCarthy continued to allege Communist infiltration in the Voice of America, the CIA and eventually – in the cause that ultimately doomed him – the Army.
Even then, GOP opposition to McCarthy coalesced only slowly. Taft’s death in 1953 eliminated a critical McCarthy defender. But Republican leaders like William Knowland of California, Taft’s successor, vacillated between defending McCarthy and trying to restrain him. And though Eisenhower consistently resisted a full-scale public confrontation with McCarthy – and Vice President Richard Nixon repeatedly tried to broker peace between the two – the breach inexorably widened, with McCarthy more openly attacking the President and Eisenhower more quietly supporting moves against the senator.
As McCarthy’s conduct became more indefensible, Republican Sen. Ralph Flanders of Vermont – a leader in what might have been called the “Never-McCarthys” of the day – publicly acknowledged what so few in his party would say: “The responsibility for this thing lies squarely on the heads of the Republicans who have been obsessed with the value of McCarthy to the party. We are reaping what they have sown.”
Parallels with Trump
Ultimately, McCarthy was destroyed by his overreach in the Army investigation, which snapped back at him when the Defense Department produced detailed evidence that Cohn, his top aide, had systematically pressured the Pentagon to ensure favored treatment for another McCarthy staffer who had been drafted into the Army.
The national fever that McCarthy had ignited over four years earlier seemed to break in a single cinematic moment in June 1954 when Joseph Welch, the Army’s patrician special counsel, defended yet another young man accused of Communist sympathies by McCarthy with the immortal rejoinder, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?”
McCarthy’s influence rapidly declined after that. That December, the Senate, which had conducted numerous investigations of McCarthy’s behavior, finally voted to censure him. (Even then, Republicans divided exactly in half between support and opposition of the measure.) His influence further receded when Democrats, after picking up seats in the 1954 election, regained control of the Senate, pushing McCarthy into the minority. Embittered, isolated and ravaged by alcoholism, McCarthy died in April 1957.
McCarthy didn’t create the “red scare” of the early 1950s, but he magnified and intensified it. In the same way, Trump didn’t create the anxiety about demographic, cultural and economic change that’s at the core of his political movement, but he has sharpened those fears into a powerful political weapon. Each man stirred enormous excitement in parts of the GOP coalition – particularly working-class voters without college degrees – and intimidated into silence most of the Republican elected officials who feared his divisive impact on the party and the country.
Reeves reports in his biography that while McCarthy was still riding high in early 1954, Walter Lippmann, the most influential newspaper columnist of his time, wrote that the senator’s goal was to establish himself as the GOP’s “supreme boss.”
Wrote Lippmann, “This is the totalitarianism of the man: his cold, calculated, sustained and ruthless effort to make himself feared. That is why he has been staging a series of demonstrations, each designed to show that he respects nobody, no office, and no institution in the land, and that everyone at whom he growls will run away.”
Each of those words could apply as well to Trump and the GOP today. The cowering silence of McConnell and almost all other leading Republicans as Trump expands his illusory fraud charges to a “conspiracy … so immense” that it encompasses the Justice Department, the FBI and Georgia’s Republican governor shows how much the outgoing President has succeeded in silencing dissent across the party.
Some Republicans may fear Trump; others may find his fraud accusations a useful tool for weakening Biden or justifying a new wave of voter suppression measures. But whatever their motivation for enabling Trump’s baseless and corrosive claims, Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy and the vast majority of other Republican legislators are likely consigning themselves to the same withering verdict that history has applied to the party predecessors who found their own reasons not to object as Joe McCarthy tore for years at the nation’s deepest values.