In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof analyzed the president’s behavior: “One reason I’m increasingly suspicious is Trump’s furious denunciations of the press and of Barack Obama, to the point that he sometimes seems unhinged. Journalists have learned that when a leader goes berserk and unleashes tirades and threats at investigators, that’s when you’re getting close.” The chief executive, in other words, is bonkers, lashing out as journalists expose his folly.
With the greatest respect for the New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning columnist, I don’t think that’s what’s happening at all. The rationale behind Trump’s behavior, instead, is more clear, calculated, and persistent.
Joseph McCarthy is an infamous figure in American history, associated, more than anything, with a notorious anti-communist crusade that exposed no spies and defamed innocent people. But McCarthy’s original and longest-practiced tactic was not labeling others “Red”, but rather to attack and distract. From the very beginning of his career, McCarthy was guided by two rules: never apologize or stand down; and instead of defending, raise a fictitious claim to sidetrack the real issue.
McCarthy’s very first performance on the Senate floor came in 1949, during a debate on ending wartime price controls on sugar, a measure he supported. The Senator from Wisconsin presented a jumble of erroneous facts and statistics to defend his position. When reprimanded by another senator, he replied he didn’t give a “tinker’s damn” what the facts were.
McCarthy never discussed ideas, instead he attacked personalities, and raised false issues to sidetrack and distract. When pressed on his sugar bill remarks, the Senator did not try and justify his data or arguments. Instead he suddenly revealed that his opponents on the Senate floor were about to introduce “a fictitious amendment” to “deceive the housewife”. Of course, no such amendment existed or had ever been discussed, but the chamber was now consumed with discussing McCarthy’s charge, rather than rebutting his earlier flawed statements.
McCarthy’s top aide, his right hand man and foremost protégé, was Roy Cohn. After the Senator’s downfall Cohn became a prominent New York lawyer, political fixer, lobbyist. And Roy Cohn adopted a protégé of his own, trained and schooled him. That was Donald Trump.
In an article on the Trump-Cohn link, two reporters explained, “there was one client who occupied a special place in Roy Cohn’s famously cold heart: Donald J. Trump.” His importance to Trump’s career was monumental. Above all, Donald wanted to surpass his father, move past the outer boroughs into the elite canyons of Manhattan, and Cohn made this happen. “If Fred Trump got his son’s career started, bringing him into the family business of middle-class rentals in Brooklyn and Queens, Mr. Cohn ushered him across the river and into Manhattan, introducing him to the social and political elite while ferociously defending him against a growing list of enemies….For 13 years, the lawyer who had infamously whispered in McCarthy’s ear whispered in Mr. Trump’s….The two men spoke as often as five times a day, toasted each other at birthday parties and spent evenings together at Studio 54.”
Donald Trump is no wild-eyed madman in the White House, he is simply following his mentor’s text. Recently he accused the Obama White House of wiretapping his presidential campaign—with absolutely no evidence—and the press went crazy and gave the story massive coverage. The gist of their incredulous reporting: Trump is irresponsible, a mad character.
Yet, only days before Trump’s tweet, the big story was Jeff Sessions lies to Congress about meetings with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a major embarrassment to the administration. Guess what was no longer being discussed, as the press ate up Trump’s distraction? Similarly, there are questions about whether Trump released his own tax material, amidst rising criticism of the Republican health care plan, labeled ‘Trumpcare.’” The next day his tax forms (which revealed very little) became the number one story, rather than eroding support for a plan named after the sitting president. When the next crisis arises, expect a tweet on how Obama officials were secretly negotiating with Iran. Roy Cohn is wearing an ear-to-ear grin up in heaven, or wherever.
Donald Trump will continue to use this playbook, and the press and liberals will fall for it, staying outraged and distracted. We live in the age of President Joe McCarthy, disguised with a better suit and a flamboyant hairdo.