In a recent tweet, President Donald Trump charged that President Obama had wiretapped his calls in Trump Tower during the election campaign. “This is McCarthyism!” he exclaimed.
That allegation is rich in irony since Trump himself is sometimes compared these days to Senator Joseph McCarthy, the notorious political demagogue of the ’50s. Indeed, there is a direct connection between McCarthy and Trump in the person of Roy Cohn, who was chief counsel to McCarthy’s permanent investigations subcommittee in 1953-54.
Twenty years later, when Trump and his father were sued by the Justice Department for discriminating against black tenants in their housing developments, Cohn advised them, “Tell them to go to hell and fight the thing in court.” They did and eventually settled.
Thus began a 13-year relationship. Cohn was more than Trump’s attorney; he was an intimate mentor who taught Trump to fiercely attack his critics and never apologize. Cohn shepherded Trump through the jungle of New York City politics and finance, representing him in libel cases against journalists, fashioning a pre-nuptial agreement with one of his wives and, among other things, brokering Mafia-linked financing for Trump projects.
Coached by Cohn, Donald Trump absorbed the tactics he has since applied to his campaign and the presidency. Exploit people’s deepest fears. Provide the public with scapegoats for their problems. Do anything for a headline; the more outrageous the better. When necessary, tell a big lie and stick to it.
Cohn had honed these strategies while serving Joe McCarthy. By 1953, McCarthy had thrown the nation’s capital into turmoil with unsubstantiated charges that respected citizens and government employees were Soviet agents. His disrespect for the truth, insatiable appetite for headlines, and willingness to damage reputations turned “McCarthyism” into an enduring epithet in our political language.
When McCarthy hired Cohn, the young attorney insisted that McCarthy add G. David Schine, the son of a wealthy New York family, to his committee as an unpaid “Chief Consultant.” Their intimate relationship and Cohn’s pleading for special privileges for Schine when he was drafted into the Army in July 1953 would eventually trigger the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings. Cohn constantly harassed the Army, insisting that Schine be made available for “committee business” on nights and weekends. Thwarted at every turn, Cohn angrily threatened to “wreck the army.”
In August 1953, at Cohn’s behest, McCarthy launched hearings on communists in the United States Army—with a five-star general in the White House.
Dwight Eisenhower loathed Joe McCarthy. But he believed that giving McCarthy presidential attention would only elevate his status. Ike would not mention the senator’s name in public. In early 1953, Eisenhower warned advisers, “McCarthy has the bug to run for the presidency in 1956.” Ike swore he would never let that happen.
In January 1954, McCarthy’s prestige was at its zenith with a Gallup Poll rating of 50 percent favorable, 29 percent unfavorable. But Eisenhower’s team uncovered potent ammunition in Cohn’s relationship with Schine. Ike secretly ordered the Pentagon to mold the material on the Schine-Cohn scandal into a publishable report.
On March 11, the Army released the report detailing McCarthy and Cohn’s attempts to secure special treatment for Schine. The report spawned a firestorm of controversy, leading to the televised Army-McCarthy hearings. For two months, the American public watched as the cameras unmasked McCarthy as an obnoxious bully. McCarthy’s humiliation reached a climax on June 9 when the Army’s attorney, Joseph Welch, charged, “Have you left no sense of decency?”
Behind the scenes, Eisenhower repeatedly vetoed any attempt to shorten the hearings, declaring, “No! Now we have the bastard right where we want him!”
By the time the hearings ended, McCarthy was upside down in the polls. On Dec. 2, 1954, his senatorial colleagues censured him by a vote of 67-22. In July, Roy Cohn resigned to return to his New York law practice and eventually become a mentor to Donald Trump.
Trump’s current attacks on the press, the courts, immigrants, and alleged government conspiracies reflect Roy Cohn’s McCarthyite training. Steve Bannon, Cohn’s replacement as Trump’s adviser, is on record asserting that McCarthy was right about traitors in the government. Trump’s new invocation of “McCarthyism” fits the Cohn-Bannon playbook. Accuse adversaries of doing whatever you are doing, diverting their attention from the truth.
But there is one important difference between Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump. Thanks to Dwight Eisenhower, Joe McCarthy never became president.
David A. Nichols, a leading expert on the Eisenhower presidency, holds a Ph.D. in history from the College of William and Mary. A former professor and academic dean at Southwestern College, he is the author of A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution, Eisenhower 1956: The President’s Year of Crisis, and other books. His latest book, Ike and McCarthy: Dwight Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Joseph McCarthy, goes on sale today. He lives in Winfield, Kansas.