Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy

Image of Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy
Release Date: 
May 5, 2020
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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“Demagogue is a beautifully written, richly researched tragedy, a morality tale in three acts. In the end, it proves that most demagogues, like the legendary emperor, usually have no clothes. And it’s not a pretty sight to behold.”  

Every generation has its demagogues, but few have ever ascended to such heights of demagoguery, only to descend to such depths of disgrace, as the one they called “Tail-gunner Joe”: Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy. Larry Tye’s new book, Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy, is part how-to for demagogues and part deconstruction of a train wreck.

One of the things that makes this book so outstanding—and there is more than one—is the insider’s view the author gained by being allowed access to McCarthy’s private records and writings, donated 60 years ago by McCarthy’s widow, Jean, to Marquette University and which were recently made available to the author.

These writings “reveal a figure far more layered and counterintuitive than the two-dimensional demagogue enshrined in history.” He’s no Genghis Kahn, Tye writes, but he’s no Joan of Arc either. Not a caricature but a complex, multi-dimensional figure who is neither all bad nor all good. But even with the nuance and shading found in McCarthy’s story, the result is still a demagogue.

Tye encapsulates McCarthy this way: “An adventurer rather than a strategist or a tactician, he improvised from instinct, used his fists and knuckles more than his intellect, and drew inspiration from P. T. Barnum and Jack Dempsey. Unlike most rabble-rousers throughout history, amassing dictatorial power interested this senator less than getting a favorable boldface headline.”

There are, of course, the inevitable comparisons between McCarthy and the current occupant of the Oval Office, who, the author says, is McCarthy’s “most apt student.” And it certainly appears that both men ran plays from the same playbook: “seizing upon public fears and rifts, faking evidence to support their assertions, and claiming vindication when there was none. Each railed against corrupt elites and crafted a handy scapegoat for America’s troubles—in McCarthy’s case, conniving Communists; in Trump’s, rapacious immigrants.”

It remains to be seen, though, whether the latter will ever earn his own “ism” as did McCarthy, placing him at the pinnacle of American demagoguery.

In tracing McCarthy’s rise from a little-known Wisconsin circuit judge, Tye debunks one of the popular history-look-back-criticisms that pervade modern tellings of McCarthy’s story—that his military record in World War II, which earned him the nickname “Tailgunner Joe,” was exaggerated, if not an outright fabrication; however, the author concludes that documentary evidence provides “confirmation that his awards were deserved.”

So that tells us that a germ of truth often feeds the growth of demagoguery, and McCarthy was certainly not above exploiting his war record. He had an insatiable ambition and, as his critics point out, was willing to ignore or bury inconvenient truths in favor of his own false narrative.

The danger for the demagogue, though, is that habitual dishonesty tends to create skeptics of any favorable truth, thereby depriving him of rightly owed praise. As Tye writes, “Two presidents, Truman and Eisenhower, surely would have relished the chance to prove [McCarthy] a fraud, even if that meant second-guessing the senior officers who approved the citations.”

But, as with most demagogues, there is plenty of room for legitimate skepticism, and McCarthy was no exception. In fact, he may have fueled more, or at least as much, justifiable skepticism as any other demagogue in recent memory, while outlining the path for those who followed him. “The tactics of McCarthyism, like Joe McCarthy himself, were self-created although not original—the big bamboozle with scant proof; narratives that were deliberately distorted and told with a shaking fist; remaining a step ahead of fact-checkers while never recanting anything.”

Despite his early successes, McCarthy’s downfall was ultimately that which most demagogues, drunk with power, often attempt: He tried to take a bridge too far. This is the warning chapter of the playbook that most of them fail to read, or at least to heed. At some point, there is, inevitably, an overreach that brings down the house of cards. For Joe McCarthy, it was the United States Army.

Demagogue has all the touchstones of a familiar tragedy: An ambition-fueled rise marked by sacrifice of principles, success leading to excess, and a precipitous fall resulting in ruin. In his song “The Pilgrim,” Kris Kristofferson raises the question whether “the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.” In McCarthy’s case, the answer appears to be an emphatic “no.”

In the final chapter, Tye tells us that McCarthy died a disgraced drunk, the immediate cause likely a fever “triggered by his severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, with seizures and delirium tremens” and an infection “in his urinary tract, around a catheter in his bladder, or in his lungs” that “aggravated his DTs.” A tragic end to a life that, itself, left tragedy in its wake in the form of ruined lives and careers, destroyed by McCarthy’s lies.

Demagogue is a beautifully written, richly researched tragedy, a morality tale in three acts. In the end, it proves that most demagogues, like the legendary emperor, usually have no clothes. And it’s not a pretty sight to behold.