Sen. Joseph McCarthy's (R-Wis) at a March 9, 1950 session of a hearing on McCarthy's charges of Communist infiltration in the state department. McCarthy,...
AP Photo/Herbert K. White

Trump Jr. picks an unfortunate fight over ‘McCarthyism’

After the Republicans’ Nunes memo was released to the public, former FBI Director James Comey had the same reaction many neutral observers had: “That’s it?

The message came a day after Comey, whom Donald Trump fired last year in the hopes of derailing the investigation into the Russia scandal, wrote, “American history shows that, in the long run, weasels and liars never hold the field, so long as good people stand up. Not a lot of schools or streets named for Joe McCarthy.”

It wasn’t a throwaway reference. As Trump and his allies have gone after federal law enforcement with increased vigor, the parallels to ’50s-era McCarthyism have become clearer: the Wisconsin Republican falsely claimed to have secret evidence of communists, lurking in the executive-branch shadows, actively trying to undermine the United States. Now it’s a new group of Republicans, falsely claiming to have secret evidence of Trump opponents, lurking in the executive-branch shadows, actively trying to undermine the White House.

Politico ran an interesting piece last week from Norm Eisen, Caroline Fredrickson, and Noah Bookbinder, which argued, among other things, “Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: This memo is the latest escalation in an eight-month effort to tarnish the Russia investigation that might be the most significant smear campaign against the executive branch since Joe McCarthy.”

Evidently, the president’s oldest son believes the president’s critics have this backwards.

President Donald Trump’s oldest son suggested on Saturday that claims by Democrats of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia are ironic, since such accusations resemble McCarthyism.

“You see the Democratic senators [saying] ‘This is McCarthyism.’ I’m like what? You have a guy screaming, ‘Russia, Russia, Russia’ with no evidence,” Donald Trump Jr. said during an interview with Fox News Channel’s Jesse Watters Saturday night. “All this shade for 18 months, screaming about McCarthyism. I mean the irony is ridiculous at this point.”

And because Trump Jr. may not fully understand the nuances of “irony,” after suggesting his father’s critics are guilty of McCarthyism, he added that Democrats “are left of commie right now.”

At face value, part of the problem with the line Trump Jr. is pushing is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. When he says, for example, that there’s “no evidence” to bolster the Russia scandal, he’s overlooking the fact that there’s voluminous evidence – which has contributed to four people close to the president, including his former campaign chairman and former White House national security advisor, facing criminal charges.

But stepping back I can’t help but wonder: doesn’t much of the right actually like McCarthyism now?

After Comey’s comments about Joe McCarthy last week, a variety of conservatives pushed back, defending the former Republican senator’s legacy. One of them was a member of Trump’s transition operation, who wrote via Twitter, “Democrat dirty tricks were able to drive the heroic Joe McCarthy to an early grave.”

This kind of thinking has become alarmingly common in recent years in Republican politics. Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, argued in 2013, for example, that McCarthy was right. “The place was infested with either traitors that were on the direct payroll of Soviet military intelligence or fellow-travelers who were kind of compliant in helping these guys get along,” Bannon said at the time. “I mean, there’s absolutely no question of it. How has pop culture so changed it that white is black and black is white?”

As regular readers know, this wasn’t the only contemporary effort to rehabilitate McCarthyism. A reporter from the Dallas Morning News told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2013 that he’d been compared at times to Joe McCarthy. Cruz said that criticism “may be a sign that perhaps we’re doing something right,” which seemed like a curious response given the context.

Asked specifically, “Is McCarthy someone you admire?” Cruz wouldn’t answer.

Three years later, in 2016, a Cruz national security adviser said McCarthy was “spot on” about communists infiltrating the United States government in the 1950s.

This is far more common than it should be. Missouri’s Todd Akin, for example, compared himself to McCarthy in 2014, and he meant it as a compliment.

In 2010 in Texas, conservative activists rewriting the state’s curriculum recommended telling students that McCarthy was a hero, “vindicated” by history. In conservative media, headlines such as “It’s Time to See Joe McCarthy For the Hero He Was” are not uncommon.

Someone probably ought to let Donald Trump Jr. know.