A recent copy of The New Yorker included an interesting article. Frankly, at first glance it didn’t seem that compelling: titled “Sloppy Joe” it featured a photo of Joseph McCarthy at some congressional hearing back in the 1950s. McCarthy was a senator from Wisconsin. He started in politics as a Democrat and switched parties to Republican, running as a decorated Marine veteran with the nickname “Tail Gunner Joe.”
Senator Joseph McCarthy
According to the article, he was known in Washington as having no ethical or ideological compass other than Joe McCarthy. He was known as a scofflaw, as he routinely exaggerated his record and was accused of falsely gaining campaign funding and failing to submit accurate tax returns. He broke into the national consciousness with a routine speech (in Wheeling, WV) in which he more of less blurted out an accusation that a piece of paper he was waving included the names of over two hundred communists working in the US State Department. The sheet of paper had no names - the senator had no list. The accusation seemed to generate interest in the crowd however, and he repeated the claim later in Reno Nevada, where the “list” how had fifty-seven names. This was the start of constant headlines for the next four and a half years and Senator McCarthy emerged as a leader in the anti-communist movement at the height of the Cold War.
McCarthy soon became a one-man investigative unit, subpoenaing over five-hundred witnesses for the purpose of ferreting out communists in the government. He would make outrageous charges, almost always with little or no evidence, and then would “surf the aftershocks.” He would throw out another claim or accusation when the news subsided, a master of the news cycle. He knew that reporters had two options: present what he said neutrally, or contest his veracity. What mattered was that he was in control of the conversation. McCarthy had a major media ally: the Hearst newspaper syndicate, which printed and amplified everything he did and said. Key national commentators such as Westbrook Pegler and Walter Winchell sided with him and reached millions of readers daily at a time when newspapers were the way to reach the public.
From the start, McCarthy had prominent critics, but the political establishment was afraid of him and his media allies. He had easy access to money from wealthy Texas oilmen, and used the money to help unseat politicians who crossed him. If McCarthy came out against you, you probably lost in the Republican primary, if not the general election. George Gallup, the pollster, said in 1954 that, “Even if it were known that McCarthy had killed five innocent children, his (supporters) probably still would go along with him.” His fans liked that he was a bully and that he scandalized the genteel and privileged.
McCarthy almost never proved anything. It was enough for him to make the accusation using his media outreach and public podium. The important thing seemed to be that he said something that was “manifestly preposterous” and got away with it. He lied all the time. He lied even when he didn’t need to lie. When he didn’t have any facts to embellish, he just made them up. He found that if he just kept repeating himself, people would figure that he was “onto something.”
He had the reputation of following the advice of the last person he had talked to and trusted his instincts. He loved chaos and had a much higher tolerance for it than most do, using it to confuse, distract, and disrupt. Like the Don in Mozart’s opera, he never admitted he was wrong. (Note, this cost Mozart’s protagonist eternal damnation.) McCarthy valued loyalty over almost anything else, including ability, and was loyal to those he believed were loyal to him, as long as they were.
The article goes on. At the end, the senator was made accountable for his serious misdeeds. He was censured by the Senate and ignored. He could handle most things, but not being ignored, and descended into alcoholism and died in 1957. He was forty-eight years old and is a tragic figure representing the worst of leadership values.
McCarthy scoffing at charges of his false claims
If the accusations, bullying, political pressure, and media support remind you of someone else, you’re correct. Of course there are differences. "Someone" is a strict teetotaler, and certainly presents himself with trappings of grandeur. Yet the article correlates many of the techniques of a classic narcissistic demagogue to the present. We shall have to see how this turns out.
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