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I finished "Senator Joe McCarthy," by Richard Rovere, published in 1959. This short book is more of a long essay on McCarthy's infamous 4-year stint (1950-'54) as the nation's top conspiracy-theorist and hunter of phantom communists than a biography. It refers here and there to his family and his career before he found the cause that would make him infamous, but mostly it examines his character in relation to his demagoguery on communism — it's about what made McCarthy tick.

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the book is the last section, where Rovere discusses why McCarthy faded away as suddenly as he did, and how he might have rebounded from the Army-McCarthy hearings and his censure by the Senate. This leads to a discussion of demagogues in general and how none has made much headway, nationally, in the United States. 

But the book was written in 1959, many years before the rise of Donald Trump. Trump has McCarthy's canny feeling for how to goad the electorate and gain support through fear-mongering and resentment-stoking, but he also has several qualities McCarthy lacked. Trump has resilience. McCarthy was a balloon — once pricked, he deflated. Trump has been pricked over and over, and has weathered one scandal after another that would have brought down any other national politician.

Trump also has passion and a belief in the righteousness of his cause, whatever it may be (Trump's real cause is himself, but he believes in it deeply). McCarthy, according to Rovere, didn't really take himself seriously. He loved the attention but knew he was a big faker. Trump is also a big faker, but he either believes his own lies, or he believes his lying is justified. McCarthy was willing to apologize, and did. Trump does not apologize.

And so the unimaginable has occurred. We now have someone who, like McCarthy, is willing to lie and manipulate and break the law, but who has obtained the power to impose his will that McCarthy never had and has the emotional toughness to persevere that McCarthy also lacked. We are in deep trouble.

Will Doolittle is projects editor at The Post-Star. He may be reached at and followed on his blog, I think not, and on Twitter at



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