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POV: The Grim Reaper Meets Tail Gunner Joe

Steve Bannon bears striking similarities to 1950s demagogue Joseph McCarthy


Former Trump aide Steve Bannon has a mission: to reshape the entire Republican party in his white nationalist image. And he may have a shot of doing so.

Bannon’s candidate in the recent Alabama senate race beat the man his former boss, the president, was backing. With Judge Roy Moore, a far right conservative, heading to Washington, Bannon says he is recruiting more candidates to knock off Establishment Republicans. Can he pick enough dark horses to accomplish this? Maybe so.

Not since Senator Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) have we had a major player on the political scene whose objective appears to be to shred the fabric of the American nation. Bannon, after being fired from his White House post as chief strategist, declared war on the GOP on his way out the door. And in the past he has said he is perfectly comfortable with chaos and likes to create it.

Joe McCarthy, in the 1950s, waged war not only on the Communist party, but on every American who had ever skated near the fringes of the party, including teachers, druggists, secretaries, state department workers, and dentists. He also terrorized thousands of others who had no power to overthrow the American republic and no intention of so doing.

Bannon’s and McCarthy’s intentions were (and are) to have the same impact as the asteroids that wiped out the dinosaurs—to leave a barren wasteland in their wake. McCarthy needed to get noticed, and Bannon wants to fulfill a complicated and rather weird ideology. McCarthy, as far as one can tell, believed only in anti-communism and in wrecking as many lives as he could manage. The two men could hardly be less alike. McCarthy had the dark, looming presence of a Shakespearean villain, but he was also a drunkard of major proportions. The beginning of the end for him came during the Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954, when Army chief counsel Joseph Welch famously asked him, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

Bannon is, in many ways, as strange a figure as McCarthy—so much so that Saturday Night Live has presented him as the Grim Reaper in its comedy skits. It is hard to know yet whether Bannon will loom as large in American history as McCarthy, but if you believe Joshua Green in his book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency, Bannon gave us President Donald Trump by shaping a campaign based on a populism that drew from nativism and white supremacy. So now we have Nazis marching in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us!” shoulder to shoulder with Jim Crow fans who wave rebel flags. (There was a campaign a while back to recast the Stars and Bars as heritage not hatred, but the “fine people” [Trump quote] marching in Virginia had their “H” word, and it sure wasn’t heritage).

Joe McCarthy had a genius for using the media. The little bits of paper he waved on television night after night, claiming, “I have here the names of communists…,” were bogus. They might as well have been the names of horses running in the fifth at Pimlico for all their accuracy, but they had the power to spread abject fear.

No little bits of paper for Bannon. He has Breitbart, a somewhat wacky website that features the oddities of the alt-right. Its headlines are eye-catching, to say the least:

Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew

Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy

Gay rights have made us dumber, it’s time to get back in the closet

Hoist it high and proud: The Confederate flag proclaims a glorious heritage

Bannon’s ideology is a peculiar mix of hypertraditional religion and anti-modernism. He hates the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and if you offered him a time travel trip back to the Dark Ages he would likely sign up in a minute. He has let it be known that we’d all be better off if the Popes and Celtic warlords ran everything. (Joe McCarthy might have signed up for the tour, just for the quality of the medieval mead—the Dark Ages favorite booze—and he would have loved the Inquisition.)

If you made Bannon a character in a novel, you would be laughed out of the library. It would be a tale of a working class Catholic kid who joins the Navy and comes to see the Muslim world (where he served) as the Evil Empire, then worms his way into Goldman Sachs and then into Hollywood. There, he tried to give 2008 Republican veep candidate Sarah Palin the Leni Riefenstahl (the famous Nazi filmmaker) treatment. Alas, Palin is pert and comely, but she does not have that Triumph of the Will sort of looks. Or the moustache. Joe McCarthy, on the other hand, could have played the part just fine if he didn’t shave for a few days.

In his Hollywood years, Bannon set up a company aimed at video game players who liked to win virtual gold coins in hugely popular games like World of Warcraft. Bannon hired hordes of Chinese computer workers to manufacture the digital gold, which players could buy even if they didn’t have the skills to win them. This angered the Warcraft legions, the ones who won real stuff, who formed a mighty online force that bested Bannon’s troops in an epic battle. (“We happy few—well, hardly few—we band of brothers.) Bannon’s company was driven out of business.

This is not a fanciful story. It is fact.

While Bannon became a multimillionaire, Joe McCarthy did not do a great job of monetizing his reign of terror. After being censured by the Senate, he began to drink more and more and died of acute hepatitis in 1957.

Bannon, in fact, admires Tail Gunner Joe (McCarthy’s nickname)—so named for his service in World War II. Bannon said in 2013 that McCarthy had been right in his crusade, that the United States had in fact been under siege from homegrown commies in the 1950s.

The end of this story is only half-known. McCarthy is one of the most hated figures in American political history. Bannon could match him—or he could just become a forgotten eccentric, a boon to trivia fans.

Let’s hope that is the case.

Caryl Rivers, a College of Communication professor of journalism, can be reached at caryl@bu.edu.

“POV” is an opinion page that provides timely commentaries from students, faculty, and staff on a variety of issues: on-campus, local, state, national, or international. Anyone interested in submitting a piece, which should be about 700 words long, should contact Rich Barlow at barlowr@bu.edu. BU Today reserves the right to reject or edit submissions. The views expressed are solely those of the author and are not intended to represent the views of Boston University.


5 Comments on POV: The Grim Reaper Meets Tail Gunner Joe

  • Andrew Wolfe on 11.07.2017 at 8:43 am

    It’s a truly remarkable lack of self awareness that makes this largely-innuendo, McCarthyite attack on Steve Bannon so ironic. Progressives have run McCarthyite smears for thirty years, calling out as “Nazis” and “Fascists” any Republican opposing their programs. McCarthy conducted his “red scare” for a few years, almost alone; the “black scare” attack on Republicans has continued with endorsement from a large portion of the Democrat party, plus news and entertainment media. Bannon’s a junkyard dog, but calling him “McCarthy” is, well, McCarthyist.

  • Logic on 11.07.2017 at 2:03 pm

    McCarthy I think has been misaligned by the largely liberal pop-history revisionists. Yes he was not a perfect person, but he was actively fighting against a very real communist threat to the American way of life. He was a hero willing to accept being smeared by revisionists to save America, from the communists who had infiltrated and subverted Hollywood, the media, environmentalists, and civil rights leaders.

    Bannon is very much of the same vein, he is brave enough to say what others are not even under threat from liberal agencies that have been infiltrated by terrorists, minority radicals, and their sympathizers.

  • Peter B. Hrycenko on 11.07.2017 at 9:04 pm

    But here’s what the establishment won’t tell you. Attorney for the Army Joseph Welch was no champion. (M Stanton Evans “Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies.”)

    And it wasn’t a case of a lone Senator Joseph R. McCarthy versus the Army. Rather, whistleblowers in the Army had come to McCarthy for help.

    In 1954, the subject of 35 Red moles at the sprawling Fort Monmouth complex in New Jersey had some in the Army leadership on the ropes. McCarthy’s committee was at its best. The Swamp had been losing the battle to cover up Russian subversion of our government left over from Roosevelt and Truman. Eisenhower was hopping mad – not about subversion but about McCarthy.

    Then the establishment exposed McCarthy staff attorney Roy Cohn for taking a shine to G. David Schine in seeking special privileges for Schine’s Army enlistment.

    At first glance, it wasn’t a good move by McCarthy when he lost his temper and brought up at Army-McCarthy hearings the subject of Welch’s associate Fred Fisher having been a past member of the communist-front National Lawyers Guild.

    Yet it was Welch himself earlier in the April 15, 1954 New York Times who first outed Fisher!

    The Left always leaves out McCarthy’s response, “Mr. Welch talks about this being cruel and reckless. He was just baiting; he has been baiting Mr. Cohn here for hours…”

    Welch had been gay-baiting Cohn on national television, talking about “fairies.”

    It turns out that Welch welched on a pre-hearing agreement where he wouldn’t bring up the brilliant young prosecutor Roy Cohn’s homosexuality in return for McCarthy’s silence on Fisher.

  • James Iffland on 11.09.2017 at 8:57 am

    Many thanks to Prof. Rivers for writing this telling exposé of the Bannon phenomenon. The fact that this proto-fascistic buffoon could have generated such an awful impact on American democracy is extremely depressing. The vigorous pushback against the Bannon bane must continue–at the ballot boxes and on the streets.

    • Jose Artigas on 11.13.2017 at 3:19 pm

      Prof Iffland is absolutely right. If McCarthy, Bannon & Pres. Strumpet were/are so correct, why the need to constantly lie & distort the truth? The truth would suffice if their concerns are genuine.

      The corrosive effect of lying & distortion is apparent in the comments above. They offer nothing on McCarthy beyond the fear-mongering that characterized the 1940s & 50s. Bannon & McCarthy are just misunderstood & maligned (not misaligned!) & have decent, honorable impulses? Give us a break. It’s no accident that “McCarthyism” is an American byword for conscienceless character assassination combined with calculated hatred. We can thank Donald Strumpet for making McCarthyism more legitimate than it’s been for 60 years. Fortunately the Republic is more durable than its enemies. Resist!

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