Less often noted is the counternarrative that began to build among McCarthy’s grass-roots supporters during those years, in which the sheer volume of criticism aimed at the senator became proof that he was right all along: that the country was, indeed, run by a menacing but elusive liberal-communist conspiracy aimed at taking down right-thinking, God-fearing Americans. Among those who signed on to this idea was William F. Buckley, the wunderkind intellectual of the emerging conservative movement, hot off the success of his anti-socialist polemic “God and Man at Yale.” In 1954, Buckley published a second book, co-written with his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, a future McCarthy staffer and speechwriter, in which they argued that the merits of McCarthy’s cause largely outweighed qualms about his style and methods. In a sign of the combative lost-cause ethos already taking hold among McCarthy’s supporters, they titled the book “McCarthy and His Enemies.”

After McCarthy’s censure, this tale — of a courageous warrior taken down by illegitimate foes — helped fuel a wave of institution-building on the right. In 1955, Buckley founded National Review magazine, a bid, as he described it, to break up the “identifiable team of Fabian operators” who were “bent on controlling both our major political parties.” Three years later, candy manufacturer Robert Welch established the John Birch Society, a conspiratorial far-right organization that attracted millions of members with claims that even Eisenhower secretly sympathized with communism. The two camps never saw eye to eye, with Buckley sneering at the Birchers’ paranoid style. When it came to McCarthy, though, they shared a common view: Though Buckley expressed certain reservations about the senator’s methods, he agreed that McCarthy’s censure in 1954 revealed the workings of a corrupt, soft and traitorous political establishment.

McCarthy died of complications from alcoholism in 1957, cast out of the Republican inner circle but still beloved by millions of far-right admirers.