Donald Trump, Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon

During the past six or eight months, it seems as though every conversation on a general topic that I’ve engaged in has come around to the topic of Donald Trump.

Yesterday morning I led a discussion at First Universalist Church on the topic of spirituality.  It was a good discussion overall, but the conversation soon drifted to the lack of spirituality of Donald Trump and how people’s spirits were lifted by taking part in protest demonstrations against Trump.

donaldtrumpczeur4ixuaaryrYesterday evening I took part in a group that is reading and discussing Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Quo Vadis.  Sure enough, we soon started talking about the resemblances between Donald Trump and the Emperor Nero.

I don’t hang out with pro-Trump voters on a day-to-day basis, but my guess is that they also are talking about Trump and his opponents.

It is amazing to me how President Trump has managed to dominate public discourse, and on his own terms.

The Washington press yesterday was talking about estimates of crowd sizes.  It wasn’t talking about what Trump’s policies will be concerning the economy, the environment or foreign wars.  Still less was it talking about what we Americans ought to be doing concerning these issues.

No, the national press—as well as all my friends who get their information from network television—were reacting to Trump’s tweets and sound bites—that is, to an agenda set by Trump.   And so is most of the national press, even though in their own minds they are opposed to Trump.

I feel as if I am the target of psychological warfare, intended to induce despair and fear.


I am old enough to remember how Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s was able, like Trump, was able to dominate the headlines.

joemccarthy-time-1101540308_400He made a constant stream of outrageous charges, many of them inconsistent with each other, which reporters were unable to keep up with.

While they were bogged down in discussing just how many known Communists McCarthy said were in the State Department, he was going on to making new charges.

If he had made just one accusation, it would have been possible for reporters to debunk it.  But McCarthy’s constant stream of charges became a blur in the mind.

Reporters were also constrained by standard journalistic practices.   The standard was that if a public figure said something of public interest, you were obligated to report it.  If you knew of a fact that contradicted the public figure’s lies, you also could report the fact, but without overtly expressing your own opinion.

But most newspaper readers and television viewers don’t have the time to sit down and weigh the false against the true claims.  They just go away with a general impression.   Joe McCarthy and Donald Trump understood this very well.


richardnixon-time-2cf025cc46ce7a838f246e408e5aeaadThe protest demonstrations against Donald Trump remind me of the protest demonstrations against Richard Nixon after his election in 1968.

The United States was even more divided then than it is now.   The US military was bogged down in the Vietnam quagmire war, which resulted in the deaths of ever more Americans and more foreigners than the military interventions of the past 15 years.

College students were so strongly against Nixon that he could not give a speech on any major college campus, and be allowed to finish and allowed to be heard.

Riots by black people in major American cities were much larger and destructive than the riots of today; most of them were sparked by real and alleged abuse of black citizens by police, the same thing that sparks the Black Lives Matter demonstrations today.

But despite all this violent and all this protest, Nixon was re-elected in 1972 in one of the great landslide victories of American history.


Another interesting historical parallel is that both Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon were brought down by what some people nowadays call the Deep State.   McCarthy over-reached himself by charging that the Army harbored Communists; the congressional Army-McCarthy hearings were his downfall.

Nixon made an enemy of the FBI and CIA when he organized his own covert operation—the Watergate “plumbers”—outside their purview.   Mark Felt, deputy director of the FBI, was Bob Woodward’s source who validated the accuracy his and Carl Bernstein’s reporting on the Watergate scandal.

Donald Trump has filled his administration with enough retired generals to reassure the Pentagon he is on their side, the FBI was already on his side and I expect him to make his peace with the CIA, probably on the CIA’s terms, just as President Barack Obama did.


One of my big mistakes about Donald Trump was in thinking that he was only interested in winning and that he would delegate governing to Mike Pence, Steve Bannon and others.  He has acted more quickly and decisively to advance his policy agenda than any President I can remember since Lyndon Johnson.

Donald Trump is what the writer Nassem Nicholas Taleb calls Antifragile.  If you ignore him, he becomes stronger.  If you become obsessed with every little thing he does and says, he also becomes stronger.


Authoritarianism and Post-Truth Politics by Jacob T. Levy for No Virtue.

The Horrible New Normal by Rod Dreher for The American Conservative.

Does Trump Get Impeached or Get Two Terms? by Ian Welsh.


Tags: , , , , ,

One Response to “Donald Trump, Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon”

  1. Edward Says:

    I think we still need time to see how the Trump presidency will shape up. It is amazing how much furor has been raised before he has even entered office. His critics may turn out to be correct, but what they are saying at this point is mostly speculation. I don’t think his policies will work and I hope he will change course/fire people as he did during his campaign.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: