How Donald Trump, Steve Bannon Get Joseph McCarthy Wrong

White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon at the White House in Washington, on February 16. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Joseph McCarthy, the Republican senator known for his Cold War investigations of Communist influence in the United States, seems to be back in the news. Last week, the president of the United States issued a totally unsubstantiated charge that his predecessor, Barack Obama, ordered "wires tapped in Trump Tower just before the victory." He added: "Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!" Perhaps coincidentally, an old interview was recently unearthed in which the president's counselor and chief strategist, Steve Bannon, praised McCarthy while interviewing conservative author Diane West. "Your book makes very plain that these guys were right," Bannon said to West in a 2013 radio interview, referring to McCarthy.

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Despite such pronouncements, the truth is that McCarthy has become simplified and bastardized in both Bannon and Trump's rendition of the Wisconsin Republican who died in 1957, after being censured by the U.S. Senate, at age 48 (cause of death: inflammation of the liver, fueled by drinking).

First off, there's no indication that there were "wires tapped" in Trump Tower, let alone that Obama ordered them. Even if somehow Obama had issued some such illegal order and federal agents had illegally carried them out, that has nothing to do with McCarthyism. The senator's sin was making reckless, ill-founded charges of Communist affiliation—whether it was against factions of the State Department, the CIA or the Army—as a member and chairman of the Senate's Select Committee on Investigations. The senator became notorious for using the legal powers of his office to pick on the innocent, not of illegally using his powers to pick on the (possibly) guilty.

Secondly, Bannon's statement offers a rare strain of conservative thinking: one that still idolizes McCarthy as a mainstream anti-Communist. (Ann Coulter has done the same.) But in McCarthy's time, anti-Communists of the left and right reviled him for what did to their efforts to root out Soviet espionage, something that was very real and sincere in the 1940s and 1950s. It's not that everyone fingered by McCarthy was working on behalf of Moscow, but many of them, as the historian Ron Radosh notes, had already been named. McCarthy, though, made no distinctions between Soviet agents and those who were just Communists with no foreign affiliation. His dragnet included anti-Communist socialists and liberals as well. As Radosh notes, McCarthy pilloried a Far East scholar named Owen Lattimore, accusing him of being a foreign spy and saying that he'd "stake my whole case" on this man. But the charge against Lattimore was dubious at best, as were many others that McCarthy fed to his audience, a public understandably afraid of Moscow's takeover of Eastern Europe, China's push into Korea and real espionage at home.

Trump's misunderstanding of who McCarthy was, albeit while viewing him critically, and Bannon trying to refurbish the senator's reputation are two sides of the same coin. In either case, an important episode in American history is being misunderstood by two men most in a position to misuse their power in ways that bear some parallel to McCarthy's actions. The reason McCarthy became so despised is because his use of power and demagogic skills was so beyond the pale. He employed the new medium of television to pursue vendettas and to fire off false allegations, completely divorced from reality. Sound familiar? It is, of course.

Most Americans were united in the larger cause of fighting Soviet expansionism in Europe at home and Communist spying in the U.S. But what McCarthy did was take that cause and discredit it. It was 63 years ago this week that Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS broadcaster, offered his denunciation of McCarthy. By that time, the country had sickened of McCarthy. Senator Prescott Bush of Connecticut, the father and grandfather of future presidents, joined the censure of McCarthy. He'd had an uneasy relationship with his fellow senator, having introduced him at a rally in his home state of Connecticut in 1952 and having been among his last visitors when he was dying at Bethesda Naval Medical Center. But on the floor of the Senate, Bush denounced the demagogue: "He has caused dangerous divisions among the American people because of his attitude, and the attitude he has encouraged among his followers, that there can be no honest differences of opinion with him. Either you must follow Senator McCarthy blindly, not daring to express any doubts or disagreements about his actions, or in his eyes you must be a Communist, a Communist sympathizer, or a fool who has been duped by the Communist line."

Impugning patriotism, misunderstanding history, making outlandish attacks: Those were dangers then, and they are now.