HIS SUIT is rumpled. Thinning hair is slicked close over his skull. So prominent are his forehead and eyebrows that he appears to leer, poised for confrontation. An oversize bronze bust of Joseph McCarthy in a museum in his home town of Appleton, Wisconsin, is not a thing of beauty. It would be intimidating, but for the half-smile playing on his lips. In any case, no one is eager to show it off. Like an embarrassing relative the bust has been tucked away, put in a basement corridor next to an all-gender bathroom.
Matthew Carpenter, the museum’s director, says the senator left an unhappy legacy. A small exhibition explains that he was “reckless”, a “modern tragedy” and “demagogic” as he led anti-communist investigations in the early 1950s, which showed the “dark side of patriotism”. Though some Appleton folk recalled that their local boy was “charming” and “social”, his ideas and methods came to be reviled.
More than six decades after McCarthy died, “McCarthyism” is once again a potent term of abuse. President Donald Trump tells followers to “study” McCarthy, claiming spies monitored his election campaign in 2016. He has attacked Robert Mueller’s investigation by saying, late in November, that America is living through “our Joseph McCarthy Era”. Left-leaning commentators see McCarthyism differently. Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker called Mr Trump “the second coming of Joseph McCarthy” even before his election in 2016.
McCarthy proved to be a pathological liar, who exaggerated his war record and colourfully abused opponents. He dismissed one of his own party as “senile” and proposed getting a “man with a net” to lock him up. He jeered at leftists as “egg-sucking phoney liberals” or “communists and queers”.
The senator had a knack for drawing media attention by accusing prominent people of betraying the nation. James Patterson, a historian, wrote of reporters who felt obliged to cover McCarthy, though they had no effective means to challenge his lies. The senator in turn dominated the Republican Party. Establishment figures were shocked by “the ferocity of his attacks—and his apparent invulnerability to criticism”, wrote Mr Patterson. By an odd coincidence, Roy Cohn, who advised Mr Trump in the 1980s, once had McCarthy as a client.
Eventually McCarthy overstepped, launching a controversial investigation of the army. The press turned on him as, in time, did Republican senators, who censured him in 1954. The Appleton museum treats him with the enormous condescension he deserves. More appealing is a bigger exhibition on a brightly lit upper floor, which celebrates the feats of another local, a showman who amazed crowds by performing death-defying acts of escape, wriggling out of tight corners and slipping off handcuffs. For the modern politician, Harry Houdini, more than McCarthy, is the man to learn from.