Is Trump the new McCarthy?

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD -

Some jour­nal­ists are cru­saders, fire­brands, provo­ca­teurs. They show ev­ery­one where they stand and in­vite — some­times de­mand — oth­ers to stand with them. Marvin Kalb, who en­tered the news busi­ness in 1957, was never that kind of jour­nal­ist.

Whether work­ing as a di­plo­matic cor­re­spon­dent for CBS and NBC, host­ing “Meet the Press,” or ex­am­in­ing the news me­dia from a va­ri­ety of aca­demic perches, Kalb pro­jected an aura of cool, de­tached ob­jec­tiv­ity. Now, at age 88, as he says in his new book, “Enemy of the Peo­ple,” he has de­cided to “pull back the green cur­tain of jour­nal­is­tic ethics” and ad­vo­cate his per­sonal opin­ions in pub­lic.

The im­pe­tus, nat­u­rally, was Pres­i­dent Trump. It was not Trump’s pol­icy po­si­tions that drove Kalb to speak out — he has voted for many Repub­li­cans, he says — but his au­thor­i­tar­ian in­stincts. When Trump la­beled news out­lets “the enemy of the peo­ple,” in Kalb’s view, he “crossed a flash­ing red line.” Trump was at­tack­ing the “very foun­da­tion of Amer­i­can democ­racy,” as Kalb re­peat­edly re­minds his read­ers.

Some might ac­cuse Kalb of over­re­act­ing — in­flat­ing the dan­ger of the pres­i­dent’s Twit­ter bom­bast be­cause it tar­gets his own beloved pro­fes­sion. But Kalb ar­gues that “enemy of the peo­ple” is not just an­other run-of-the-mill in­sult like “Crooked Hil­lary” or “Lyin’ Ted” or even “you are fake news.” There is a long and ter­ri­fy­ing his­tory of au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­ers (Robe­spierre, Stalin, Goebbels, Mao) ap­ply­ing the phrase specif­i­cally to writ­ers, in­tel­lec­tu­als and re­porters — of­ten be­fore mur­der­ing loads of them. Kalb knows this bet­ter than most. He was in Moscow in 1956 (as a State Depart­ment staffer) when Nikita Khrushchev de­liv­ered his fa­mous speech re­pu­di­at­ing Stalin and the phrase “enemy of the peo­ple.”

But Kalb, wisely, does not com­pare Trump to Stalin or Hitler. For him, Trump’s clos­est his­tor­i­cal an­tecedent is Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who be­came a na­tional sen­sa­tion in the early 1950s by al­leg­ing (with lit­tle to no proof) that com­mu­nist agents had in­fested the U.S. gov­ern­ment. Kalb de­votes nearly half of his book to chron­i­cling McCarthy’s rise and fall, fo­cus­ing in par­tic­u­lar on the role that the renowned broad­cast jour­nal­ist Ed­ward R. Mur­row — who hired Kalb at CBS — played in ex­pos­ing the base­less­ness and vi­cious­ness of McCarthy’s ac­cu­sa­tions.

Kalb pro­vides an en­gag­ing recita­tion of the Mur­row vs. McCarthy saga, but it is the stan­dard telling that Ge­orge Clooney can­on­ized in his 2005 film, “Good Night, and Good Luck” (a telling that ex­ag­ger­ates Mur­row’s im­pact, given that McCarthy was al­ready flail­ing by the time of Mur­row’s big broad­cast in April 1954). And as Kalb con­cedes, the no­tion of Trump as a lat­ter-day McCarthy “has be­come a fairly stan­dard com­par­i­son.”

Still, Kalb mines some fas­ci­nat­ing nuggets from the Trump-McCarthy vein. Just as Trump has called CNN “dis­gust­ing,” “sick” and “a dis­grace,” de­spite claim­ing that he does not watch it, McCarthy blasted the TV net­works as “dis­hon­est” and “un­moral” while say­ing he hadn’t seen Mur­row’s pro­gram (“I never lis­ten to the ex­treme left-wing, bleed­ing heart el­e­ments of ra­dio and TV,” McCarthy de­clared). And Never-Trump Repub­li­cans will surely nod along when they read that many GOP politi­cians dis­liked McCarthy and felt he had hi­jacked their party, but dared not speak out against him be­cause “he was sim­ply too pop­u­lar with rank-and-file party mem­bers.”

One key dif­fer­ence be­tween Trump and McCarthy, of course, is in the ti­tles that pre­cede their names: pres­i­dent vs. se­na­tor. McCarthy had the power to wreck in­di­vid­ual lives, but Trump has the power to wreck Amer­i­can democ­racy — and that’s pre­cisely what he’s do­ing, in Kalb’s view. If you ac­cept Kalb’s con­tention that Trump “must be chal­lenged and ei­ther stopped or some­how per­suaded to change his ways,” it leads to an ob­vi­ous ques­tion: What is to be done?

Kalb of­fers few spe­cific pre­scrip­tions, but he iden­ti­fies the two in­sti­tu­tions needed to “save the na­tion” from “a pres­i­den­tial swing to­ward au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism”: the ju­di­ciary and the press (one won­ders if, in the wake of the midterm elec­tions, he would add the Demo­crat-con­trolled House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives). It’s no co­in­ci­dence that th­ese are the two in­sti­tu­tions that Trump has tried hard­est to un­der­mine.

To Trump, the jour­nal­ists, judges and bu­reau­crats who try to hold him ac­count­able and pre­serve demo­cratic norms are “fake news” and “the deep state.” To Kalb, they are he­roes. Read­ing this book may stiffen their re­solve. Matthew Press­man is an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of jour­nal­ism at Se­ton Hall Univer­sity and the au­thor of “On Press: The Lib­eral Val­ues That Shaped the News.”


ENEMY OF THE PEO­PLE Trump’s War on the Press, the New McCarthy­ism, and the Threat to Amer­i­can Democ­racy By Marvin Kalb Brook­ings. 174 pp. $21.95

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