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Has Trump’s Popularity Reached a Tipping Point? Joe McCarthy's Fall May Give Clues

For more than three years, criticism of Donald Trump’s flawed presidency has been intense, yet his base of public support has remained solid. Commentators in the national media wonder, however, if Trump is beginning to lose his political grip. They point to public concern about his administration’s inadequate response to the pandemic, surging unemployment, and scathing criticism from generals and prominent officials who served in the White House. Opinion polls indicate some slippage in the president’s approval numbers. Might this be a tipping point, journalists ask? Could the President lose in November?

Much can happen between now and November 3. In the past Trump has pulled out of difficulty on numerous occasions, including the final weeks of the 2016 presidential election. But there are some intriguing similarities between Trump’s situation and that of Joseph McCarthy. Senator McCarthy seemed invincible at the beginning of 1954. In a matter of months, he fell from grace. Do Donald Trump’s recent difficulties suggest he, too, may experience a loss of public support? Trump’s situation resembles McCarthy’s in some ways, but there are also notable differences.

Joseph McCarthy, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, rose to prominence in early 1950 by stoking fears about communism. His speech at an event for Republican women attracted considerable media attention. McCarthy claimed misleadingly that he had a list of 205 names of disloyal officials that were “still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.” Journalists and politicians identified McCarthy’s lies and misrepresentations, but the senator managed to keep them off-balance. McCarthy often announced new charges about communist influence in America, diverting attention from controversies related to his previous assertions.

When a conservative Democratic senator, Millard Tydings, headed an investigation of claims about communist influence, McCarthy attacked him. McCarthy’s staff promoted a doctored photo that falsely associated Tydings with an American communist leader, and McCarthy aided Tydings political opponent. Millard Tydings had been a popular lawmaker before McCarthy targeted him. Tydings suffered a huge election defeat in 1950. His experience demonstrated the perils of resistance to McCarthy. 

During a four-year period, Joseph McCarthy wielded extraordinary power. Like President Trump, he bullied and threated opponents. Many of McCarthy’s fellow Republicans were troubled by his behavior, but they kept quiet. They understood that McCarthy’s aggressive tactics boosted the GOP’s political fortunes. Republicans also recognized the electoral power of McCarthy’s loyal followers.

Joseph McCarthy achieved broad public support largely because communism seemed to be expanding globally. In the years after World War II, the “Cold War” began. The Soviet Union tightened its grip on Eastern Europe, Mao Zedong’s communist revolution took control of mainland China, the Russians developed nuclear weapons, revelations indicated spies gave secrets to the Russians, and the Korean War dragged on without a settlement. “Reds” seemed to be making substantial gains. Americans wanted tough leaders who would stand up against communist aggression. McCarthy acted like the man of the hour.

In early 1954 Joe McCarthy’s popularity ratings were strong. A poll in January reported that 50% of Americans queried approved of him and only 29% disapproved. By late 1950, however, polls revealed a striking loss of support. 35% judged McCarthy favorably in the November 1954 survey, 46% unfavorably. 

What caused the senator’s fast decline? McCarthy overreached, especially when he attacked the U.S. Army. Newscaster Edward R. Murrow’s television program delivered a scathing indictment of McCarthy’s tactics, and the Army-McCarthy hearings, also broadcast on national television, revealed McCarthy’s lies and abuses. Changing conditions also weakened the senator. Dwight D. Eisenhower, a war hero and popular Republican president, restored public confidence. Cold War tensions eased. The Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, died in 1953, and a few months later fighting in the Korean War stopped. McCarthy’s tactic of stoking fear of communism lost much of its appeal in the changing political environment.

Similarities regarding Donald Trump’s situation are intriguing. President Trump has also attempted to frighten the public with scary claims about dangerous conspiracies and threats from radicals. Trump pounced on Republicans and former administration officials that criticized him publicly. His fierce attacks showed he intends to smash anyone who betrays him. Also, as in the case of Joe McCarthy, new developments have stirred discontent with Trump’s leadership. Presently, Americans are anxious about the pandemic and the economy. They worry, too, about angry clashes over politics, culture, and race. American society appears dangerously divided. 

Trump’s critics, long frustrated by his hold on power, wonder if these changes indicate a tipping point has been reached. Is Trump in serious political trouble, they ask?

The president’s standing has been damaged because of recent events and his bungling leadership, but his influence may not decline as rapidly as McCarthy’s did in 1954. Trump might hold on and win the 2020 election. He is President of the United States, not a senator, like McCarthy. Trump controls the bully pulpit. He receives free media coverage daily and numerous opportunities to promote his candidacy. Furthermore, Republicans in federal, state, and local governments are well positioned to create obstacles to Democratic voters in the 2020 elections. Vladimir Putin’s agents are also expected to use social media to influence American opinion prior to the election.

Still, the history of McCarthy’s rise and fall is suggestive. It reveals that sometimes political power can be more fleeting than pundits realize. New developments beyond a leaders’ control as well as the individual’s controversial actions can swiftly weaken public support. When a politician’s difficulties receive elevated attention in the national media, critics escalate their attacks. Others, long discontented, feel emboldened by the new signs of resistance. They pile on. Momentum for change builds rapidly.

Has Trump’s influence reached a tipping point? Or will his appeal with many voters, benefited by incumbency in 2020, produce another election victory? It is too early to tell. But the record of Joseph McCarthy’s decline in 1954 shows that power can diminish swiftly when changing societal conditions and flawed leadership create a perfect political storm.