According to Maddow, this isn’t an isolated problem. “There is a whole swath of the American right that has decided that McCarthyism should no longer be seen as a bad thing,” she claimed, because “in conservative circles, McCarthy doesn’t necessarily seem like such a bad guy.” It’s an odd claim, especially so when criticizing Cruz for lumping left-liberal professors and communists into one subversive group. Indeed, Maddow might note that the last book-length apologia for McCarthy, M. Stanton Evans’ Blacklisted By History, was savaged by the conservative magazine National Review. There are, of course, a handful of radical McCarthy revisionists. But the dominant conservative view was best expressed by liberal journalist Nicholas von Hoffman, who wrote in 1996, after a flood of archival evidence exposed the extent of Soviet infiltrations of the American government, that “point by point Joe McCarthy got it all wrong and yet was still closer to the truth than those who ridiculed him.”

Still, there are some similarities. Like McCarthy, Cruz seems incapable of distinguishing between flavors of liberalism. As Harvard law professor Charles Fried told The New Yorker, Cruz’s diagnosis of his department’s ideological leanings “misunderstands what [the left-wing professors] were about.” But this isn’t an uncommon affliction on either right or left—recall those who argued that the Bush administration borrowed heavily from fascism. If every politician who made unsubstantiated allegations or accused their opponents of extremism was a McCarthy manqué, or every politician who called for greater government intervention in the economy was a Marxist, then Washington is crawling with McCarthyites and Marxists.

Conflating Cruz’s rhetoric with McCarthyism might be politically potent, but it’s historically illiterate.