Give a demagogue a pliant press and colleagues fearful of losing power if they protest his excesses, and you have McCarthyism—or perhaps the current Congress.
It only seems, writes Johnson (The Best of Times, 2001, etc.), that America “entered an unprecedented era of stress and danger—an Age of Anxiety unlike anything experienced before” after the 9/11 attacks. But the early Cold War years were more dislocating: Fear was everywhere in the air, and all a power-hungry politico like Joseph McCarthy, literally schooled in Mein Kampf, had to do was find the right nerve to probe. He found it in the widespread fear that Commies lurked under every bed and in every closet, and for a couple of years he ran the nation. “In retrospect,” writes Johnson in this incisive portrait, “it’s incredible to recall the depths to which McCarthyism descended and the damage it wrought.” But, Johnson adds, McCarthy would not have succeeded had he not been backed by “an ever-expanding network of anticommunists,” including conservative media commentators, think-tankers and clerics, to say nothing of employers and advertisers who withdrew support from those whom McCarthy denounced. The parallels are evident; what is absent from the modern stage, Johnson suggests, is a strong moderate Republican wing of the kind that eventually turned against the red-baiters and restored order. Johnson might have forged the linkage of the McCarthy era to the current days of Gitmo and the Patriot Act more strongly, and the genesis-of-fear thesis could have used some grounding in the terrible Reagan-era days of Ground Zero, but overall his point holds: The current political climate is much more reactionary, he writes, than that of McCarthy’s time, and it wouldn’t take much to break a democracy that in so many ways already appears broken.
A well-crafted book full of pointed lessons in how not to run a country—and sure to rouse suspicions of sedition in certain quarters.