The biggest news story of 2022 was the implosion of the career of American history’s most notorious demagogue, former President Donald J. Trump.

During the past year, Trump has seen his popularity plummet in the polls and his company convicted of tax fraud. He has been roundly blamed by Republicans for the poor mid-term election results and cast as the central villain in the Jan. 6 Congressional hearings. He is a target of various federal and state criminal investigations and has been named as a defendant in numerous civil suits.

Trump’s astounding resilience to date in the face of scandals swirling about himself, his businesses and his presidency have made commentators reluctant to predict his political demise.

I’m confident it will happen, though, because I’m familiar with the 1950s career of America’s second most notorious demagogue, the late U.S. Sen. Joseph (“Joe”) R. McCarthy, a rabble rouser whose fame rose precipitously and fell meteorically in just about the same time span as Trump’s.

McCarthy, Wisconsin’s junior Senator, resembled Trump in many respects.

Belligerent, reckless and unscrupulous, McCarthy had an insatiable desire for attention and power. A bully and pathological liar, he had a feral instinct for finding scapegoats, for insulting, demeaning and defaming opponents and critics, and for turning government into political theater and capturing media attention. He had no respect for rules or norms. He cowed the establishment into collusion or silence. He became immensely popular and influential overnight, and he lost his popularity and influence just as suddenly.


Just as there would have been no Trump presidency without white, populist backlash against economic globalization and illegal immigration, there would have been no Joe McCarthy without the Cold War, the atomic bomb and Soviet espionage.

From December 1941 through August 1945, the U.S. fought a titanic struggle against the Axis Powers, Imperial Japan, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, in World War II. The fight was a righteous one against aggressive, murderous regimes bent on world conquest. In order to succeed, however, the U.S. had to acquire some disreputable allies, especially Communist Russia (the Soviet Union), ruled by Joseph Stalin, an autocrat of exceptional brutality. The Soviet military, with material assistance from America, was responsible for at least 75% of the nearly 5 million German fighters killed in the European Theater.

After World War II came to an end, the Soviet-U.S. alliance quickly fell apart. Stalin moved to exercise an iron grip over areas of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, which Russian forces had liberated, in order to create a buffer zone against potential future German invasion. In 1948 the Soviets and Americans nearly came to blows over their joint military occupation of Berlin.

It was also revealed that Soviet spies had penetrated the super-secret U.S. Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project, gaining possession of know-how that enabled Russia to produce its own bomb by 1949 and breaking our nuclear monopoly. The same year, a civil war in China ended with Russian-supported Communists under Mao Zedong defeating American-supported Nationalists under Chang Kai-shek.

In 1950 a Russian-backed Communist regime in North Korea invaded U.S.-backed South Korea, touching off a three-year war in which a United Nations military coalition, headed by the U.S., engaged in a see-saw battle to check North Korea’s attack at a cost of some 37,000 American servicemen’s lives.

By the early 1950s, the Cold War, a long, simmering, undeclared worldwide conflict between the U.S. and its allies, on one hand, and the Soviet Union and its proxies, on the other, was in full swing, and the American public mood had turned anxious and paranoid. How could the U.S. have gone from being the world’s most confident, prosperous and militarily dominant nation, with a monopoly on the atomic bomb, to a beleaguered, outmaneuvered and spy-infested country unable to meet the challenges of Communism? The “red menace” seemed to be everywhere, even in the halls of government, where a handful of civil servants had been outed as Russian agents or at least as Communist “sympathizers.”


McCarthy was a first-term Wisconsin Senator who rocketed to prominence by exploiting this paranoia in a phenomenon which soon became known as “McCarthyism.”

He first won election to the Senate in 1946 by exaggerating his war-record and lying about his opponent. His legislative career was lackluster until February 1950, when, in a widely publicized speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, he claimed that he had possession of a list of known Communists in the State Department. He then used a Senate investigating subcommittee as a platform to accuse nine career diplomats of being Communist or pro-Communist, ruining their reputations and careers.

After the subcommittee’s report labeled his charges a “fraud and a hoax,” McCarthy escalated his outlandish claims, going after other government employees and agencies as “reds” and “fellow travelers,” including Voice of America, the U.S.-funded international broadcaster employed to counter Soviet propaganda during the Cold War, and finally the Department of the Army.

Republican establishment figures despised McCarthy, but, with the single courageous exception of Maine Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, dared not speak out against him publicly for fear he would destroy their political careers. He had become, overnight, the best known and most powerful Republican on Capitol Hill. Even GOP President Dwight Eisenhower, elected in 1952, refused to openly denounce him.

Finally, in 1953, McCarthy launched an investigation of the U.S. Army, claiming Communist subversion of the military. This time he had bit off more than he could chew. The Army was a tough adversary. The hearings, which were televised over 36 days in 1954, ended up making McCarthy appear a bully and a buffoon. His reputation tanked, and he was censured by the Senate in December 1954.

Like a Roman candle, McCarthy’s career had glowed dazzling bright and then fizzled. He died 2½ years after his censure, discredited, abandoned by his colleagues and largely ignored by the media.

If anything, Trump’s future in 2023 looks bleaker than McCarthy’s in 1954. For all the political chaos and human wreckage he caused, McCarthy, unlike Trump, never committed any indictable criminal offenses.

Elliott Epstein is a trial lawyer with Andrucki & King in Lewiston. His Rearview Mirror column, which has appeared in the Sun Journal for 16 years, analyzes current events in an historical context. He is also the author of “Lucifer’s Child,” a book about the notorious 1984 child murder of Angela Palmer. He may be contacted at [email protected]

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