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Donald Trump's McCarthyite Presidency, In 5 Unhinged Steps

Left: President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP) Right: Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.), in Washington on Feb. 26, 1957. (John Rous/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
Left: President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP) Right: Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wisc.), in Washington on Feb. 26, 1957. (John Rous/AP)

So, this is apparently how the White House now operates:

Step 1: The president throws a tantrum because another of his handpicked staffers gets caught lying, drowning out the fawning coverage of his ability to read a speech off a teleprompter without insulting a person of color.

Step 2: The president spots a fake news story based on a rant by a conservative radio host, claiming that his predecessor, President Obama, wiretapped his office.

Step 3: The president flies down to his private club in Florida, at the cost of more than $3 million taxpayer dollars per trip and plays golf for the eighth time in six weeks on the job.

Step 4: The golf doesn’t help, so our president repairs to his rhetorical panic room—a.k.a. Twitter—to assert, unequivocally, that Obama wiretapped him.

Step 5: The president does not provide any evidence for this potentially libelous assertion, though he oversees all the agencies that could supply such evidence. Instead, he calls on Congress to investigate the allegation, for which he already, supposedly, has proof.

What happens next?

Does he get sued? Does he get ignored, like our cranky, Fox News-watching uncle would? Does he receive mental health counseling?

Nope.

What happens next is that media outlets offer breathless coverage of this “controversy,” despite knowing that it’s complete paranoid hogwash.

Reporters—and the public—are thus distracted, for at least one dizzy news cycle, from the president’s cruel and senseless policies, such as his newly watered down Muslim ban. And his mounting scandals, which now include an attorney general who misled senators under oath; an ongoing investigation into potential collusion with the Russian government; and his involvement in a hotel deal apparently put together by oligarchs tied to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

How nice.

McCarthy rose to power by means of calculated slander. Whenever he felt cornered, he would simply make a new explosive accusation, claiming to have proof but never supplying it.

There is, of course, a word for smearing political opponents by slandering them without evidence. And it’s a word that the sitting president can actually spell correctly, even on Twitter: McCarthyism. We know this because the president claimed to be a victim of this tactic.

The term derives from the notorious senator, Joseph McCarthy, who led the infamous anti-Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s.

McCarthy rose to power by means of calculated slander. Whenever he felt cornered, he would simply make a new explosive accusation, claiming to have proof but never supplying it.

Of course, Trump is already familiar with McCarthy. The president’s political mentor, the late attorney Roy Cohn, the man whose services he and his late father retained when they were accused of refusing to rent apartments to African-Americans, also happened to be McCarthy’s right-hand man and most loyal flunky. (If you watch the footage of the Army/McCarthy hearings, you can see Cohn whispering advice into the senator’s ear.) Cohn, a Jew, responded to the discrimination charges against Trump père and fils with a $100 million counter-suit accusing the feds of acting like “storm troopers” who used “Gestapo-like tactics.” The lesson for our president? In the face of an attack, launch an even more vociferous counter-attack.

For the moment, America’s new president is busy applying his scatterbrained McCarthyism to domestic enemies.

But the day will surely come when a foreign enemy, or enemies, attempts to exploit Trump’s fatal flaws: his brittle vanity, his reflexive aggression, and his towering ignorance of the damage he might do in using American military might to settle his scores.

Does [Trump] get sued? Does he get ignored, like our cranky, Fox News-watching uncle would? Does he receive mental health counseling? Nope.

The journalists who have bull-horned the president’s every intemperate tweet will have to face their own complicity in having helped usher a wave of McCarthyism into the Oval Office.

And the Republicans in Congress who have stood by and watched him trash the integrity of the American presidency, in the naked hope of passing a rich man’s legislative agenda, will rue their cowardice. If any of them have even a speck of decency, they do already.

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Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond is the author of 11 books of fiction and nonfiction. He writes Cog's advice column, #HeavyMeddle, and is the co-host of Dear Sugar Radio.

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