On Feb. 9, 1950, Senator Joseph McCarthy
disembarked from his Capital Airlines
plane at Stifel Field here, where he planned to speak at a Lincoln Day event hosted by the Ohio County Women’s Republican Club.
At the McLure Hotel downtown that night, Joe McCarthy, a 41-year-old junior Republican senator from Wisconsin, gave one of the most infamous speeches in American history, mixing right-wing demagogy and outright lies as he claimed that there were hundreds of Communists burrowed deep in the State Department and accused President Harry Truman’s Democratic administration of refusing to weed them out.
His speech electrified a crowd of 275 in the McLure’s Colonnade ballroom and transformed him into a frightening national force. Mr. McCarthy blamed “elite” Democrats in the Truman administration, particularly Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who he said had failed to purge “the enemy within” that threatened America’s security and way of life: “While I cannot take the time to name all of the men in the State Department who have been named as members of the Communist Party and members of a spy ring, I have here in my hand a list of 205 that were known to the secretary of state as being members of the Communist Party and who, nevertheless, are still working and shaping the policy in the State Department.”
By today’s standards, the news of Mr. McCarthy’s speech spread across the nation at a glacial pace. Only the local newspaper and radio station covered it (the radio station later mistakenly erased the only tape recording of the speech). It gained national notice because of a 110-word Associated Press story picked up by about two dozen newspapers around the country.
But within days, Mr. McCarthy’s accusation that there was a hidden Communist cabal at the heart of the American government blew up into a bitter national controversy. And before long, Joe McCarthy’s Wheeling speech had triggered a wave of paranoia and fear mongering that would forever bear his name: McCarthyism.
On June 28, 2016, another Republican politician landed at Stifel, now named Wheeling Ohio County Airport, to campaign here: Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump appeared first that night at a private fund-raiser held just blocks from the McLure Hotel. He went straight from the fund-raiser to a rally 15 minutes away in St. Clairsville, Ohio.
There, the Republican nominee for president spoke to a crowd of roughly 4,000. “There’s something going on that’s really, really bad,” he said. “And we better get smart, and we better get tough, or we’re not going to have much of a country left, O.K.?”
It was a dark speech that harkened back to the most fearful tones of Joe McCarthy. Drumming up fears about the Islamic State, which he said was “spreading like wildfire,” Mr. Trump said that if he was elected, he would bring back the use of torture techniques like waterboarding in the interrogations of terrorism suspects. “I don’t think it’s tough enough,” he said, of waterboarding, adding, “We can’t do waterboarding, but they can do chopping off heads, they can do drowning people in steel cages, they can do whatever they want.” Mr. Trump also highlighted his other hits from the campaign trail, reminding the crowd about the threats from Nafta, Mexican immigrants and China. There was so much in the world to fear, and Donald Trump
was the only one who could protect us.
One year after he walked in Joe McCarthy’s footsteps in Wheeling, Mr. Trump now practices Mr. McCarthy’s version of the politics
of fear from the White House. The two figures, who bear striking similarities — and who shared an adviser, Roy Cohn — both mastered the art of fear politics.
Since he took office, Mr. Trump has expressed an apocalyptic vision of the United States and the wider world at nearly every turn, starting with an Inaugural Address in which his most memorable phrase was “American carnage.”
Over the past few months, he hasn’t missed a chance to try to exploit fears over terrorism, using a series of attacks in Europe to argue in favor of his executive order calling for a travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority countries, which has been blocked by the courts. He has criticized other politicians, both in the United States and overseas, for “political correctness” on terrorism. He sticks to his scare tactics even when he is proven to be factually wrong and despite public rebukes from other world leaders.
He keeps doing it because it works for him, just like it worked for Joe McCarthy. Mr. Trump knows what people want to hear — how terrifying the world can be and how he can protect them. Fearmongering resonates with his political base, particularly white voters without college degrees.
Fear of the “other” increases when the potential threats — Mr. McCarthy’s Communists, or Mr. Trump’s Muslims or Hispanics — are poorly understood.
Underlying it all is a broad and unspoken fear of the looming loss of white dominance in American society. Increased diversity, notably the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the United States, is leading to a broader fear of all minority groups and foreigners, analysts believe.
“White working-class voters who say they often feel like a stranger in their own land and who believe the U.S. needs protecting against foreign influence were 3.5 times more likely to favor Trump than those who did not share those concerns,” concluded a study released in May by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic magazine.
Recent studies by psychologists have found that when they talk to white Americans about a future in which they are in the minority, that drives them to express more conservative views. “You see a pretty reliable shift to the right” when you emphasize the projected change in the demographics of the United States, says Jennifer Richeson, a professor of psychology at Yale University and one of the researchers involved with the studies. “Once you activate the fear of a threat to group status, then anybody who is seen as not part of that group is seen as more of a threat.”
Scott Crichlow, a professor of political science at the West Virginia University, sees that phenomenon in West Virginia, where whites without a college degree represent a larger percentage of the population than in any other state and where Mr. Trump saw one of his biggest margins of victory of any state in the 2016 election.
“Clearly there is an audience for speeches that rally nationalist causes and against amorphous perceived threats,” Mr. Crichlow said. “What I think may be driving some of the appeal of the politics
of fear is the state’s low education and demographics.”
Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott believes there were several reasons for Mr. Trump’s success here but thinks that fear of the other certainly played a big role.
“When you have 40 years of economic stagnation, that leads to frustration with the status quo and to zero-sum thinking,” the mayor said. “And I also think part of his appeal was that he said, I’m going to protect you from the Muslims, or Hispanics. There is a fear of that.”
Trump supporters want to make America great again, to go back to what they believe were the halcyon days of the 1950s, which, ironically, was the decade of the fearmongering of Joe McCarthy.
“I don’t think West Virginia is a state full of racists,” Mayor Elliott added. He does describe his state, though, as a place where cultural isolation and economic anxiety made it a perfect target for Mr. Trump’s speech. “There is also a fear of change that a skilled demagogue can tap into by focusing on the fear of the other,” he said. “Fear resonates.”