Trump Imitates Joe McCarthy

Heather Cox Richardson

Trump’s lawyers rested their defense of the former president today, putting an end to the testimony we will hear in the case. Trump did not testify. 

Trump’s refusal to take the stand encapsulates the MAGA approach to politics. Since the 2020 presidential election, he and his surrogates have made repeated accusations and statements about how the system is rigged against them and alleged there is evidence that proves them right. 

Crucially, they make those arguments only in front of television cameras or on podcasts and radio. They refuse to make them under oath in a court of law, where there are penalties for lying. 

After the 2020 presidential election, for example, lawyer Sidney Powell insisted to media outlets that voting machines switched votes from Trump to Biden. When Dominion Voting Systems sued her for defamation, her lawyers defended her by saying: “No reasonable person would conclude that the statements were truly statements of fact.” “[R]easonable people would not accept such statements as fact but view them only as claims that await testing by the courts through the adversary process,” they said.

Similarly, Trump ally Rudy Giuliani insisted that Georgia election officials Ruby Freeman and Wandrea ArShaye (Shaye) Moss were changing votes from Trump to Biden. When they sued him for defamation, he conceded that “to the extent the statements were statements of fact…, such…statements were false.” When a jury awarded Freeman and Moss more than $148 million in damages, Giuliani filed for bankruptcy and continued to defame them. 

Freeman and Moss sued him again, asking a court to stop him. Today, in a settlement in bankruptcy court, Giuliani “agreed to never again accuse either [Ruby] Freeman or [Shaye] Moss of engaging in any wrongdoing in connection with the 2020 election,” according to the women’s lawyers.

Like his colleagues who advanced lies to shape a narrative, Trump insisted that he would testify in his own defense. “I’m testifying,” he said before the trial. “I tell the truth, I mean, all I can do is tell the truth. And the truth is that there is no case.” 

Then he tried to weasel out of that promise by saying the gag order put in place to stop him from attacking witnesses or members of the court and their families prevented him from testifying. “I’m not allowed to testify, because this judge, who’s totally conflicted, has me under an unconstitutional gag order,” he told reporters. Judge Juan Merchan corrected him, clarifying that Trump had the “absolute” right to testify and that the gag order “does not prohibit you from taking the stand and it does not limit or minimize what you can say.”

Nonetheless, true to form, Trump declined to testify despite all his protestations. Instead, he has argued his case in front of the television cameras. “I had nothing to do with it,” he said yesterday. “A bookkeeper put it down as a legal expense. This is why I’m here, because we called it a legal expense, a payment to a lawyer.”

Dan Froomkin of Press Watch noted that juries cannot consider in any manner the fact that a defendant doesn’t testify. “But the court of public opinion is under no such obligation,” he wrote. “And, notably, it is the court of public opinion that is voting in November.”

The court of public opinion weighed in on the man who pioneered the practice of telling repeated lies to the cameras and then moving onto the next lie before journalists can fact-check the first. That man was Senator Joe McCarthy (R-WI), who as a mediocre freshman senator in 1950, during the Cold War, needed an issue for reelection. On February 12, 1950, at a meeting gathered to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday in Wheeling, West Virginia, he claimed there were 205 members of the Communist Party working in Democratic president Harry S. Truman’s State Department. 

By the next day, the number had dropped to 57, and the numbers bounced around after that, but it didn’t really matter. McCarthy insisted that Truman was protecting Communists, and he ramped up his claims that there were Communists in government after voters put Republican Dwight Eisenhower into office. McCarthy’s investigation of the State Department enabled him to bully witnesses, spread innuendo, and destroy careers. 

McCarthy loved attention and headlines. He kept them by concocting ever grander lies. His hearings produced little evidence of Communists in government, but newspapers found they had to reprint his false accusations—they were news, after all—and by the time they could issue corrections, the storyline had moved on. 

Finally, in fall 1953, McCarthy accused Eisenhower’s beloved U.S. Army of harboring “subversives.” In early 1954 the Army turned the tables, charging that McCarthy had pressured army officers to give a friend favorable treatment. This time, unlike McCarthy’s congressional investigations, which were behind closed doors and spread to the media on McCarthy’s terms, the Army-McCarthy hearings were televised.

The chief counsel for the Army, Joseph Nye Welch, repeatedly demanded that McCarthy’s aide Roy Cohn provide to the U.S. Attorney General the names of the 130 “subversives” they claimed were in defense plants. Unable to do so, McCarthy pivoted to accusing one of Welch’s young associates of being a Communist. 

“Have you no sense of decency, sir?” Welch asked. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

Up to 20 million people watched on their televisions as McCarthy was finally facing real lawyers and oaths in a congressional hearing about his accusations that Communists had infiltrated the U.S. Army. And when they saw him for what he was—a vicious, lying bully—most of them turned against him. His popularity plummeted, reporters ignored him, and the Senate “condemned” him in December 1954. When he died two and a half years later, Democrat William Proxmire, who won his seat, told voters that McCarthy was “a disgrace to Wisconsin, to the Senate, and to America.” 

But McCarthy’s serial lying had shown how to dominate politics with an unceasing string of lies. 

There is a direct line from McCarthy to Trump in the person of Roy Cohn, who became a New York power broker after his years with McCarthy, helped the Trump Organization when the federal government sued it for racial discrimination, and mentored Trump as he rose to fame in New York. That relationship is chronicled in the new biopic about Trump, The Apprentice, now debuting at the Cannes Film Festival. Trump campaign spokesperson said that the Trump campaign will be filing a lawsuit “to address the blatantly false assertions from these pretend filmmakers.”  

There is perhaps even a more direct line from McCarthy to Trump today than the one Cohn provides. After the trial today, Trump noted that the Department of Justice had “AUTHORIZED THE FBI TO USE DEADLY (LETHAL) FORCE. NOW WE KNOW, FOR SURE, THAT JOE BIDEN IS A SERIOUS THREAT TO DEMOCRACY. HE IS MENTALLY UNFIT TO HOLD OFFICE—25TH AMENDMENT!” In an email with a subject line “They were authorized to shoot me—I nearly escaped death,” the Trump campaign said: “Joe Biden was locked & loaded ready to take me out & put my family in danger…. But here’s the one thing they don’t know: WE WILL NEVER SURRENDER!”

Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) exaggerated the story further: “The Biden DOJ and FBI were planning to assassinate Pres[ident] Trump and gave the green light…. What are Republicans going to do about it?”

The truth, as former FBI assistant director Frank Figliuzzi noted, is that there was nothing special about the order for Trump’s search warrant. “[E]very FBI operations order contains a reminder of FBI deadly force policy. Even for a search warrant. Deadly force is always authorized if the required threat presents itself,” Figliuzzi wrote. 

MAGA lies have become part of the Russian state narrative. Following the 2020 presidential election, the Fox News Channel had to pay $787 million to Dominion Voting Systems after its personalities repeated MAGA lies on air. Less than a week later, popular host Tucker Carlson, who pushed those lies, left the channel and launched his own show on X. Today, news broke that Russian TV has been dubbing Carlson’s show into Russian and rebroadcasting it on state TV. 

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