Trump is like Joe McCarthy — just not in the way you might have thought.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Marc.fisher@wash­

Joe McCarthy loved to sav­age re­porters, sin­gling them out by name at his ral­lies in the 1950s. The Repub­li­can sen­a­tor from Wis­con­sin knew the work of each re­porter who cov­ered his years-long cam­paign aimed at root­ing out the com­mu­nists who were sup­pos­edly seeded through­out the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. “Stand up, Dick, and show them what a re­porter for a com­mu­nist news­pa­per looks like,” he’d say, and the crowds would roar their ap­proval as their plain-speak­ing hero fin­gered the en­emy, the cause of their coun­try’s woes.

Then, mo­ments af­ter leav­ing the stage, McCarthy would si­dle up to a re­porter he’d just fin­ished flay­ing and toss an arm around him: “That was just good fun.”

Re­porters who’ve cov­ered Don­ald Trump in the past four decades know that sense of whiplash all too well. Trump and McCarthy share a pop­ulist, dem­a­gogic speak­ing style and a propen­sity to say any­thing to win the mo­ment. The two men are of­ten com­pared be­cause they both ag­gres­sively hit back at their crit­ics and tended to in­flate mi­nor slights or par­ti­san rows into threats against the na­tion.

But their sim­i­lar­i­ties go deeper: Both won and ce­mented sup­port by us­ing, at­tack­ing and foil­ing the news me­dia. Both de­ployed a crazy quilt of be­hav­ior to de­mand news cov­er­age — and then stomped on those same or­ga­ni­za­tions as dis­loyal liars con­spir­ing against them.

And both en­joyed ex­tended pe­ri­ods of pop­u­lar sup­port even amid re­port­ing about their er­ratic be­hav­ior and their false­hoods. In the end, McCarthy fell from grace, but jour­nal­ism alone wasn’t enough to end his de­struc­tive cru­sade. The news re­port­ing about McCarthy’s ex­cesses did over time di­min­ish his pop­u­lar sup­port, but ul­ti­mately that sour­ing of sen­ti­ment had to fil­ter up from the pub­lic to their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives. It took years, but McCarthy was fi­nally held to ac­count.

For nearly a decade, a rene­gade loner who rel­ished be­ing seen as an out­sider dom­i­nated the news. From 1946 to 1954, McCarthy used threats, bo­gus as­ser­tions and per­sonal at­tacks to cap­ture an al­most un­prece­dented level of at­ten­tion.

It was one of Amer­ica’s pe­ri­odic dives into deep skep­ti­cism and dis­be­lief. Ex­per­tise and fact were so widely re­jected that the press, which col­lected and ver­i­fied facts for a liv­ing, proved largely pow­er­less against McCarthy.

The press was the sen­a­tor’s pri­mary tar­get and tool as he soared to power and promi­nence, in­still­ing fear of a trai­tor­ous fac­tion in­side the U.S. gov­ern­ment. He kept the factcheck­ers and truth-tell­ers at bay for years by spread­ing a virus of mis­trust of the news. By por­tray­ing the press as Amer­ica’s en­emy, he ral­lied his base and de­fended him­self against in­creas­ingly se­ri­ous al­le­ga­tions of dis­hon­esty. (It would take more than four years be­fore McCarthy’s party and his sup­port­ers reached a con­sen­sus that he was a danger­ous and men­da­cious dem­a­gogue.)

McCarthy was a model for Trump. The pres­i­dent’s ap­proach to build­ing his per­sonal brand grew out of his close bond with Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s chief coun­sel dur­ing his in­ves­ti­ga­tions tar­get­ing com­mu­nists and ho­mo­sex­u­als in the gov­ern­ment. Two decades later, as Trump’s men­tor and lawyer in New York, Cohn taught the young real es­tate de­vel­oper the strate­gies that would de­fine his ca­reer: Use the news me­dia to stay firmly and con­sis­tently in the pub­lic eye, and when crit­i­cized, hit back far harder than you’ve been hit.

McCarthy, like Trump, was bet­ter known as a

Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.), left, with chief coun­sel Roy Cohn in 1954. Like Pres­i­dent Trump, McCarthy ral­lied sup­port for his causes, built his per­sonal brand and de­fended him­self against al­le­ga­tions of dis­hon­esty by both re­ly­ing on and at­tack­ing the news me­dia. Cohn later be­came a men­tor and lawyer to Trump in New York.

critic of the press than as some­one who curried re­porters’ fa­vor. “The heads of ev­ery one of our in­tel­li­gence agen­cies say that, ex­cept for com­mu­nist uti­liza­tion of the so-called re­spectable news­pa­pers and ra­dio sta­tions, they could de­stroy the en­tire [com­mu­nist] move­ment,” he told a Repub­li­can club in Wis­con­sin in 1950.

But like Trump, McCarthy also craved the me­dia’s re­spect and even acted with sur­pris­ing so­lic­i­tude to­ward re­porters. He liked to be around re­porters, and he liked to at­tack them both in pri­vate and be­fore au­di­ences. Edwin Bay­ley, in his 1981 book, “Joe McCarthy and the Press,” con­cluded that McCarthy “never did un­der­stand why his at­tacks on news­pa­pers . . . should have af­fected his per­sonal re­la­tion­ships with those whose pa­pers he cas­ti­gated.”

McCarthy courted, ca­joled and carped at jour­nal­ists. “When you write stuff like that, you’re help­ing the com­mu­nists,” he told the United Press re­porter who cov­ered the Se­nate in 1950. McCarthy did not hes­i­tate to get per­sonal, telling As­so­ci­ated Press re­porter Marvin Ar­row­smith, “I know you’ve got six kids, Marv, and I don’t want to kick about your work, so I hope there is no rea­son to do so.”

But like Trump, McCarthy could pivot and turn on the charm. When he didn’t like a story by the AP’s John Chad­wick, the sen­a­tor froze him out, re­fus­ing to speak to him, mak­ing him sit in the rear of the cam­paign plane and blast­ing him in a speech in Ok­la­homa City. After­ward, McCarthy walked up to Chad­wick, of­fered to shake hands and said, “I hope you don’t mind the rib­bing.” Then, on the flight back to Wash­ing­ton, he sat next to Chad­wick and of­fered him a drink from the bot­tle McCarthy kept in his brief­case.

For decades, Trump has sim­i­larly trashed re­porters in pub­lic, then called them with a juicy story, in­vited them to din­ner or asked them to visit his Palm Beach, Fla., es­tate. For a time last year, Trump an­grily banned The Wash­ing­ton Post from his cam­paign events. That hap­pened when we were con­duct­ing in­ter­views with the can­di­date for The Post’s bi­og­ra­phy, “Trump Re­vealed.” When Trump pulled out of a cou­ple of in­ter­view ap­point­ments, I called his of­fice, wor­ried that the ban now ex­tended to our re­port­ing for the book.

Trump’s sec­re­tary re­peat­edly asked me, “Is this go­ing to be a good book?” I told her that it would be fair and ac­cu­rate. She wasn’t es­pe­cially sat­is­fied with that an­swer, but she re­layed the mes­sage to Trump, and he im­me­di­ately agreed to sched­ule our next in­ter­view — which he ex­tended well beyond its al­lot­ted hour. “This is fun,” he said. “Let’s keep go­ing.” McCarthy de­liv­ered his at­tacks on the press in the hope of un­der­min­ing their cred­i­bil­ity. He called for a boy­cott of busi­nesses that ad­ver­tised in the Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal and other pub­li­ca­tions that were crit­i­cal of him. The calls fell flat, but McCarthy said that was fine; his pur­pose was to spread the idea that the pa­pers were bi­ased and un­trust­wor­thy. “If you can show a pa­per as un­friendly and hav­ing a rea­son for be­ing an­tag­o­nis­tic, you take the st­ing out of what it says about you,” he said. “I think I can con­vince a lot of peo­ple that they can’t be­lieve what they read in the Jour­nal.”

Last year, in an in­ter­view for The Post’s bi­og­ra­phy, Trump said that if he didn’t like the book, he’d come af­ter us, just as he had sued the au­thor of a pre­vi­ous book, Tim O’Brien. I asked Trump if he was dis­ap­pointed that he never got any­where with that li­bel suit. No way, he said: His pur­pose was not to win but to cost O’Brien lots of money, time and ag­gra­va­tion.

As much as McCarthy’s and Trump’s meth­ods broke with tra­di­tions, they were ef­fec­tive — even against years of ef­forts by news or­ga­ni­za­tions to counter their rhetoric with facts.

Some his­to­ri­ans be­lieve that had news cov­er­age of McCarthy been more ag­gres­sive, much ear­lier, his cru­sade might have fiz­zled long be­fore the bulk of the na­tion came to see him as an ab­surd, out­ra­geous fraud. But Bay­ley con­cludes that the prob­lem was not any lack of truth­ful, clear re­port­ing: In the ma­jor pa­pers in McCarthy’s home state, and later The Post and some other large out­lets around the coun­try, “al­most ev­ery as­pect of McCarthy’s record was in­ves­ti­gated and his dere­lic­tions ex­posed, over and over. No one cared, though, be­cause it was not McCarthy’s char­ac­ter, morals, or de­port­ment that con­cerned peo­ple; the only is­sue that mat­tered was the Com­mu­nist is­sue.”

In 1953, at a de­bate among news ex­ec­u­tives over how to han­dle McCarthy, the manag­ing ed­i­tor of The Post, J.R. Wig­gins, said pa­pers were giv­ing too much space to the sen­a­tor’s base­less charges: “If we cir­cu­late . . . day af­ter day, week af­ter week, month af­ter month, the in­fa­mous al­le­ga­tion that there’s trea­son in the White House . . . and in all the other de­part­ments of gov­ern­ment, we need not be sur­prised if an hour comes when the Amer­i­can peo­ple have con­fi­dence in no one.” (The Post’s car­toon­ist, Herb Block, had al­ready been por­tray­ing McCarthy as a bully for a few years by then.)

Since straight cov­er­age of McCarthy seemed only to bol­ster his al­le­ga­tions, a con­sen­sus de­vel­oped that news or­ga­ni­za­tions needed to em­pha­size the mean­ing and con­text of the news, not just the ba­sics of what hap­pened. Ed­i­tors who had re­sisted the no­tion of “in­ter­pre­tive re­port­ing” came to agree that read­ers de­served both facts and anal­y­sis that would give them the tools to de­cide whether McCarthy’s at­tacks were le­git­i­mate.

In 1953, the ed­i­tor of the Den­ver Post — which had pre­vi­ously sup­ported McCarthy’s cru­sade, fret­ting in ed­i­to­ri­als that “there are many traitors among us” — in­structed his staff to avoid be­ing used by McCarthy. When his charges were clearly false, re­porters were told to write that the sen­a­tor reg­u­larly prac­ticed “poor doc­u­men­ta­tion and ir­re­spon­si­ble con­duct.” In­stead of trum­pet­ing each McCarthy al­le­ga­tion on Page One, the ed­i­tor di­rected, it should be re­ported in a less-promi­nent place with a head­line such as “To­day’s McCarthy­ism.” Over time, jour­nal­ists grew bolder about call­ing out McCarthy’s slan­ders.

Of course, that de­bate echoes to­day, as jour­nal­ists strug­gle to find the right pre­sen­ta­tion for Trump’s patently un­true state­ments. Some peo­ple have called on the press to min­i­mize cov­er­age of the pres­i­dent. When that ar­gu­ment was made about McCarthy, on the grounds that he was es­sen­tially a mis­chievous ado­les­cent who thrived on the game of bat­tling the press, Post re­porter Mur­ray Marder coun­tered that “you had to take him se­ri­ously. It was a pe­riod of na­tional tur­moil. . . . Ca­reers and fam­i­lies were de­stroyed, peo­ple com­mit­ted sui­cide . . . . It was the clos­est we ever came to a real to­tal­i­tar­ian at­mos­phere.”

Did in­creas­ingly overt crit­i­cal cov­er­age of McCarthy turn the tide against him? In some places, yes, and in oth­ers, barely at all. In the 1952 elec­tion, McCarthy lost much of his sup­port in Wis­con­sin’s big cities and sub­urbs, ex­actly where lo­cal news­pa­pers vig­or­ously op­posed his un­founded al­le­ga­tions. But in ru­ral and low-in­come ar­eas, where some pa­pers ar­gued that Democrats were com­mu­nists, he gained sup­port.

What McCarthy de­pended on through those years was what Trump long ago sum­ma­rized: All cov­er­age is good cov­er­age. Both men mas­tered the art of trum­pet­ing any pos­i­tive cov­er­age they got and turn­ing crit­i­cism into fod­der for the slash­ing at­tacks that en­hanced their pop­ulist ap­peal.

News­pa­pers and the new medium of TV even­tu­ally helped show Amer­i­cans the im­pact of McCarthy’s lies, but no sin­gle force, no sin­gle blow, brought him down. In 1954, the sen­a­tor be­gan ac­cus­ing fel­low Repub­li­cans in Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower’s ad­min­is­tra­tion of trea­son. That led even news­pa­pers that had stood with McCarthy for years to break with him.

Then, for­mer pres­i­dent Harry Tru­man went on TV and ac­cused McCarthy of us­ing “the big lie and the un­founded ac­cu­sa­tion against any ci­ti­zen in the name of Amer­i­can­ism and se­cu­rity.” Tru­man lamented “the rise to power of the dem­a­gogue who lives on un­truth; it is the spread of fear and the de­struc­tion of faith in ev­ery level of our so­ci­ety.”

McCarthy de­manded equal time, and the three net­works gave him half an hour. He de­clared that Tru­man’s ad­min­is­tra­tion had been in­fested with com­mu­nists and had “sold out the na­tion to its en­e­mies.” This re­sponse proved to be a turn­ing point. At long last, many fel­low Repub­li­cans re­al­ized that there would be no ap­peas­ing him, that the sen­a­tor would do any­thing to stay in the lime­light.

Al­ready, just one-eighth of the way into Trump’s term, many Repub­li­cans are say­ing sim­i­lar things about him, most only af­ter ex­tract­ing a prom­ise that they won’t be quoted by name. And in Trump’s case, the news me­dia has been re­port­ing from the very start about his im­pul­siv­ity and propen­sity to en­gage in what he long ago called “truth­ful hy­per­bole.” But as the na­tion ex­pe­ri­enced with McCarthy, re­port­ing about a pop­ulist’s ex­cesses doesn’t erode his base of sup­port un­til and un­less vot­ers and the leader’s party see that those per­son­al­ity flaws are hurt­ing the na­tion.

In De­cem­ber 1954, when the Se­nate fi­nally voted 67 to 22 to cen­sure McCarthy, half the Repub­li­cans joined all the Democrats in the vote against their col­league. For years, news out­lets had been de­tail­ing McCarthy’s false­hoods. His fall to earth may not have been pos­si­ble with­out that re­port­ing, but in the end, it was only when the Amer­i­can pub­lic could see his snarling abuses for them­selves that they re­al­ized they’d been had.

Marc Fisher, a se­nior ed­i­tor at The Wash­ing­ton Post, is a co-au­thor of “Trump Re­vealed: An Amer­i­can Jour­ney of Am­bi­tion, Ego, Money, and Power.”


Yes, they had sim­i­lar po­lit­i­cal styles, writes Trump bi­og­ra­pher Marc Fisher, but they also had a key in­sight about how the news me­dia works

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