Senator Joe McCarthy began his witch hunts by accusing Asian policy experts in the State Department of being Communists, and by the end of his volatile career he had charged General George Marshall, President Dwight Eisenhower, and the United States Army with treason as well. In 1954 the double punch of Edward R. Murrow’s “See It Now” exposÃ© and McCarthy’s televised bullying during the Army-McCarthy hearings finally brought him down. But before the double punch, in January 1954, 50 percent of Americans polled by Gallup were “highly favorable” of McCarthy.
In other words, 50 percent of Americans thought it perfectly reasonable to accuse General George Marshall, President Dwight Eisenhower, and the United States Army with treason.
And even after his dÃ©nouement, and even as the Senate and the Republican Party publicly were turning their backs on McCarthy, he remained a hero to a substantial minority of Americans. Gallup polls said 35 percent of Americans were highly favorable of McCarthy as late as November 1954, after the Army-McCarthy hearings had concluded.
I thought of McCarthy today after I saw this headline on a right-wing blog: “Question: Does Barack Obama Have Any Friends Who AREN’T Communists?” Tail-gunner Joe would be proud.
I believe — this is based on my observations, not scientific research — that Americans on the whole are harder to demagogue now than they were in 1954. But “on the whole” clearly doesn’t include everybody.
I also believe that people get suckered by demagoguery because, on some level, they want to be suckered. The demagogue is telling them something they want to believe, even if it’s nuts. For example, when people are genuinely afraid of something, many people prefer a demagogue to an honest statesman.
An honest statesman tells people that, while there’s a real threat and our options are limited, we can get through this crisis if we keep our heads and don’t let fear get the best of us. The demagogue validates and reinforces fear and promises absolute protection if people will follow him. Lots of people prefer option B. Option A is weak and, you know, French.
The problem with option B is that the demagogue is promising something — absolute protection from the bad scary thing — that he cannot deliver, especially if the bad scary thing is way bigger than he is and not under his control. So the next thing the demagogue does is identify proxy scary things, preferably small and weak ones that won’t bite back. Thus, McCarthy was much less focused on international politics than on domestic threats.
Yes, McCarthy accused the State Department of losing China and made a great show of clearing alleged Communist literature out of U.S. embassy libraries around the world. But most of his targets were domestic and about as threatening to the security of the United States as tapioca pudding. Yes, there had been Soviet espionage cells in Washington, but not one of McCarthy’s targets was ever found to be part of them.
Back to the present: The more volatile people at McCain rallies, especially the ones who booed McCain when he called Obama a “decent man,” are people who want to be demagogued. They don’t give a bleep about McCain’s policy proposals; they want him to lie to them. Apparently McCain has a couple of scruples still knocking about his psyche and isn’t really into the demagogue thing, although he’s been giving it his best shot.
Sarah Palin, on the other hand, is playing the demagogue role to the hilt. She’s got a natural talent for it. I don’t expect her to fade from the national political scene anytime soon.
And then there’s the perennial threat of intellectualism, also a target of McCarthy’s. I give you this rightie blog post, called “Intellectualism & Sarah Palin: Or How The Smarty Pants Set Are Threatened By Someone Who Knows Sense .” It’s a classic bit of anti-intellectual literature; someone should shove it into a bell jar to preserve it for posterity.
In her rantings in favor of “common sense” the blogger in truth is exposing her inner insecurities, neuroses and resentments for all the world to see. She divides the nation into “coastal elites” and everybody else. The “coastal elites” live inside their airy-fairy theories; “everybody else” is practical and makes decisions based on real-world experience. If you’ve read Hofstadterâ€™s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life you’ll recognize all the themes.
Here we see why the coastal elite hate Sarah Palin:
Why do they dislike her so?
- Her state school education and path to power devalues the eliteâ€™s Harvard training.
- Sheâ€™s homespun. Intellectuals despise homespun. They prefer the calculated indifference theyâ€™ve worked so hard to master over the years.
- Sarah doesnâ€™t seem to care what they think. Perhaps her most grievous error is that she just doesnâ€™t give a moose turd what David Brooks thinks. Everyone should care what David Brooks thinks. And Peggy Noonan. And the rest of the obnoxious snobs.
Speaking as a graduate of the University of Missouri with deep Ozark Mountain roots and who genuinely doesn’t give a bleep about what David Brooks or Peggy Noonan think, I suppose I should love Sarah Palin.
I, um, don’t.
Another rightie blogger links to the one above and expands some of her themes. Buried in this diatribe we see the yearning for a daddy figure who will take over and make everything better:
So if you’re Yin, you may feel anger like anybody else, but you get over it. You live in a world of IF…THEN. The Yang live in a world of protocol. “S’poseda.” You’re s’poseda cut your carbon emissions. You’re s’poseda behave humbly so the rest of the world likes us more.
The decision-making is always externalized to someone else. And that “someone else” is always some vague, non-corporeal, undefinable entity. “Them.” “The People.” “Everybody.” “Us.” “Out There.” You dare to make this distinction, after awhile you see this everywhere. I see it in this Charles Gibson interview with The Messiah — Gibson explicitly asks him “what will you do different from what the current administration is doing now” (or some such)…and here comes the reply. The People have lost confidence. It’s always someone else making the decision that matters.
People who populate this whole other world, have good reason to be jealous. Once they own a task, a task that depends on real decisions being made by an individual who’s directly responsible for how things turn out — they’re lost. And they know it. They’ve spent too much of their lives living theoretically…spooning out the right answers to please others. Ignoring cause and effect.
Government of the people, by the people and for the people be damned. This guy wants a dictator.
(Also, dude, if you are so concerned about cause and effect, you might want to consider the effects of not cutting carbon emissions. And I’m not sure you understand yin and yang. Yang is male, direct, assertive, rational, bright, clear. Yin is female, indirect, reticent, emotional, dark and murky. Obviously some male chauvinist guy came up with the yin and yang dichotomy, but that’s what it is.)
If you read these two posts, you see what I mean about absolute protection. Both writers seem to believe that the United States can absolutely protect itself and solve its problems without the cooperation of anyone else on the planet. They don’t want to believe there are big, scary things that we cannot control or bomb into oblivion.
Just as, fifty-something years ago, Americans didn’t want to believe that China was not ours to lose, or that Joe McCarthy’s threats and blustering would not protect them from the Soviet Union.
Still crazy after all these years.