Paul Pillar

The Lessons of the Past for the Present

Three differences between the McCarthy era and the Trump era help to explain why we have not seen in the latter any 1954-type pivoting of opinion.  An obvious difference is that Trump is president and McCarthy never was. Trump has all the powers of the presidency and the political deference that goes with them.  A second and related difference is the partisanship that is far more intense in the A.G. (After Gingrich) era than it was in the 1950s. A Republican President, Dwight Eisenhower, had a lot to do with bringing down McCarthy.  Now, extreme methods against domestic political opponents are condoned more than before, and partisan domination is elevated to a sine qua non that it was not before.

A third difference involves how ideas get communicated to the public.  The Army-McCarthy hearings were broadcast on live television, gavel-to-gavel on two commercial networks and in part on a third.  Even though in 1954 television sets were still a new accoutrement to the typical American home, as many as eighty million people were estimated to have viewed at least part of the hearings.  Americans could see and judge for themselves. Today, far fewer Americans would be exposed directly to such a televised reckoning on Capitol Hill than would get the Fox version of it, or Rush Limbaugh’s comments on it.  The explosion of social media and of real fake news, to the company of which alleged fake news can be consigned, has crippled the ability of many Americans to see and judge for themselves. Trump has skillfully exploited a farrago of truth and falsity, news and lies, and accountability and defamation. Today, the nation has not yet had its Welch moment.  It is uncertain whether it ever will get it.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor at the National Interest and the author of Why America Misunderstands the World.

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes the 2017 NCAA Football National Champions, The Alabama Crimson Tide during an event at the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, U.S., April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Barria