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McCarthyism Was Never Defeated. Trumpism Won’t Be Either.

Censure brought down a crusading anti-communist senator but fired up his followers.

A month after the presidential election, most Republican lawmakers have refused to acknowledge the obvious: Despite President Trump’s fondest hopes and florid temper tantrums, Joe Biden won. This display of political cowardice can tempt us to seek comfort in the past — in moments when even the most stalwart GOP loyalists put country over party.

One such episode occurred in August 1974, when three Republican congressional leaders trudged to the White House to let Richard Nixon know that he was fast losing his party’s support. Another took place in late 1954: A Republican-controlled Senate voted to censure Joseph McCarthy, one of their own, after four years of lies and vitriol. In that nobler age, the story goes, McCarthy’s colleagues recognized the threat he posed to democratic institutions and political fair play, and voted to bring an end not only to McCarthy’s personal reign of terror but to the broader phenomenon of McCarthyism — just as many Democrats (and more than a few Republicans) hope that Trumpism will disappear, or at least diminish, once Trump himself leaves office.

But the afterlife of McCarthyism is not nearly as clear-cut x— or as comforting for Trump opponents — as the legend might suggest.

Though we now think of McCarthy as one of the most hated men in American politics, even in 1954 he retained a passionate base of support, with about a third of the public backing his anti-communist campaign. Once the Senate voted against him, the tale of how he had been victimized by a corrupt and self-interested Washington establishment helped fuel the far right’s grievance politics — and spark what would become the modern conservative movement. Far from bringing an end to McCarthyism, the 1954 Senate vote mainly pushed it out of Washington, and a new generation of right-wing activists took up his cause.

Something similar is likely to happen as Trump departs the Oval Office warning of elite conspiracies and rigged ballots, encouraging his base to see themselves as noble warriors against an illegitimate political order. While the Trump presidency will soon be over, the history of Trumpism is just beginning.