A demagogue is defined as a political leader who gains support by appealing to people's prejudices instead of using rational arguments or moral reasoning.
Author Larry Tye says at the core, a demagogue is a bully. In his new book, Tye profiles a poster boy for 20th century demagoguery — Joseph McCarthy.
The Republican senator from Wisconsin became known in the 1950s for whipping up fear with unfounded claims that everywhere from Washington to Hollywood had been infiltrated by communist spies.
It was known as the Red Scare.
Tye says he started writing his new book, "Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy," when Donald Trump had just been elected president. He says he would scour the secret documents he'd been given about McCarthy. Then he'd pick up a news article about President Trump, and it was easy to confuse the two.
As demagogues do, both McCarthy and Trump pointed fingers and created scapegoats for the world’s problems, Tye says. Whether it be the alleged communists infiltrating the State Department or the immigrants pouring across country borders, the two men had a similar effect on the people they accused — and in some cases, bullied — in public.
“I think Donald Trump has had a devastating effect on a lot of people that he bullied from people in Congress to people throughout the federal bureaucracy, to people throughout the country,” he says. “And I think we will be taking the same kind of body count with Donald Trump that we did with Joe McCarthy.”
In February of 1950, McCarthy mounted his attack on communism during a speech given at a celebration for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in Wheeling, West Virginia. He showed up to the dinner with two speeches in his briefcase: one on national housing policy and another claiming 205 communist spies were hiding in the shadows of the State Department.
He chose to deliver the second speech.
“What he was holding in his hand that night may have been his grocery list,” Tye says. It may have been some recycling of ancient charges, but it sure as heck wasn't a list of 205 spies in the State Department because they didn't exist. But it worked.”
McCarthy succeeded in spreading the message that then-President Harry Truman knew about the communists in our midst, and that was why Americans were living in “mortal fear” of the Soviet Union, Tye says. But the truth is there were never that many spies.
“It was said over the years in a joking way, but I think it was true, that Joe McCarthy could have been dropped into the middle of Red Square on May Day and not known how to pick out a communist,” he says.
Over the next four and a half years, McCarthy invented a slew of charges at the slightest sniff of liberalism, Tye says. His actions created a chilling effect on dissent, ruined the careers of hundreds of people he targeted and even pushed some of his victims to suicide, including Democratic Sen. Lester Hunt.
Despite all of his destruction, McCarthy never uncovered any real spies, Tye says.
“He did, however, make his name synonymous with reckless accusation and political double-dealing to the point where 70 years later, Joe McCarthy may be dead, but McCarthyism is alive and well,” he says.
McCarthy’s reign of terror came to an end in 1954 when he tried to take on the U.S. Army in the so-called Army–McCarthy hearings. The military was an enemy that was “too big to bully,” even for McCarthy, Tye says.
“The American public got to see that this guy who they thought was their champion, in fact, looked more like the town rowdy,” Tye says. “And there was a famous lawyer from Boston named Joe Welch, who in the middle of those hearings stood up and said, 'Senator, have you no sense of decency?' And I think what was compelling about what Welch said was that all of America wanted to ask the same question by that point.”
McCarthy’s approval rating plunged so badly that by the end of 1954, the Senate “developed the backbone to censure him,” Tye says. He faded into obscurity and likely died from complications due to alcoholism in 1957.
McCarthy’s lasting legacy is still seen and felt today in the age of Trump. In the McCarthy-era, liberals were afraid to speak out for fear of being called a communist. Now, when people disagree with Trump, they're afraid of being named in a Twitter rant or being called a socialist.
To understand what enables a demagogue to wield power and influence, we have to look at what helped them rise to power, Tye says.
“It's partly the public that elects them,” he says, “but it is also, in the case of Donald Trump, all the people in the Senate and throughout the government that understood the absurdity of some of his charges, but never stood up for fear of his political wrecking ball that he would aim at them in exactly that same way. Back in Joe McCarthy's days, his fellow senators only stood up at the end when McCarthy's popularity had taken a deep dive.”
When considering the results of this November’s election, the American public has hardly turned its back on Trump even though he lost reelection. Tye says he remains optimistic because it was the voters who ultimately tossed Trump out from behind his “megaphone of the White House.”
“While it took Joe McCarthy's death to end McCarthy's political career … in the Donald Trump era, it was the voters who tossed out the bully,” he says. “And I think I have ultimate faith in the American public and they lived up to my faith in this last election.”
This segment aired on December 17, 2020.