McCarthyism is anti-Trump | The American Conservative
Peter Spiegel, US Editor-in-Chief of Financial Times, recently produced an interesting, but highly flawed, piece describing a recent revelation that he thought was key to understanding Donald Trump. Trump, he noted, is essentially the latest incarnation of Joseph McCarthy, the 1950s Senator from Wisconsin who used national fears of communism to brutalize his political enemies.
“Like Trump,” Spiegel writes, “the late Republican senator played with the fears of working class Americans and used falsehoods and demagoguery to catapult himself into the dominance of the Washington scene.” To gain further insight into this revelation, Spiegel shouted Larry Tye, the author of a 2016 book called Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy. Tye suggests that McCarthy and Trump can be thrown together as examples of “America’s love affair with tyrants.”
This “Bully” characterization, quoted appreciatively by Spiegel, is interesting in two respects. First, it offends the American people as a population that is exempt from any intrinsic political respect for fair play. This is easy to the point of distortion. In addition, it perpetuates an inaccurate portrayal of the unfortunate McCarthy episode in American history, which inevitably leads to a misunderstanding of the importance of Trump in our time.
To untangle this mess we need to start with a definition of McCarthyism. Spiegel defines it as “a slightly paranoid view of the threat posed by international communism”. Webster’s compliments this nicely by saying that it is “the use of indiscriminate, often unfounded accusations, sensationalism, inquisitorial investigative methods, etc., allegedly to suppress communism”.
Inevitably, however, neither definition conveys a sense of the political environment that generates these inquisitorial investigative methods. This hinders a full understanding of this particular political phenomenon. Hollywood films and intellectual historians have consistently held that the Wisconsin Senator came out of the blue and stirred up a serene nation with totally false and brutal allegations of communist activity, when there was absolutely no basis for such allegations. That seems to be the Spiegel interpretation.
It is wrong. Just two weeks before McCarthy’s first anti-communist swear word, Alger Hiss, who was accused of having passed secret US documents to a Soviet spy as a senior government official, was convicted of perjury. Then the government reported that Klaus Fuchs, a British physicist who had worked at the Los Alamos nuclear weapons facility during the war, had been arrested as a Soviet spy. These developments, along with other revelations of lax security measures in many government agencies, caused great concern at a time when most Americans rightly believed that the US nuclear monopoly was the safety margin to save Western Europe from the Soviet overpowerment.
In other words, McCarthyism, properly understood, is how people behave when there is real cause for concern or even concern, as was the case in McCarthy’s day. But if Der Spiegel wants to make the McCarthy analogy with regard to Trump, then we will do it – starting with the storm and stress surrounding the claims that Trump is an “agent” in the captivity of Russian henchmen, a “tool” of Russian President Vladimir Putin .
Now here is an episode of the Trump era that really fits McCarthyism’s definition: “use of indiscriminate, often baseless accusations.” check; “Sensualism,” check; “Inquisitorial investigation methods”, check. Only an avid partisan could look at this filthy story and insist that what was done to Trump was not a demonstration of McCarthyism as we understand the term. Look at Representative Adam Schiff of California, who told the American people that he had the evidence for Trump “and it is more than just circumstantial evidence.” The only thing missing from this hideous behavior by McCarthy supporters were the sentences: “I have in my hand …”. and “such an immense conspiracy …”
Or think of the behavior of the country’s top intelligence officers under Barack Obama: James Clapper and John Brennan. Brennan said that “Watergate really pales … compared to what we see now.” He dismissed Trump’s innocence protests as a “joke,” which was a cumbersome accusation of treason. He made the point more straightforward by saying the president’s behavior after meeting Putin in Helsinki was “nothing less than treasonous”. Clapper, meanwhile, invoked the constitutional definition of treason when he said that Trump was “essentially helping the Russians.” When asked if Trump was a Russian asset, as former FBI director Andrew McCabe suggested, Clapper said, “I totally agree with the way Andy characterized it.”
It turned out, of course, that all of this was fake. The full and focused investigation of Robert Mueller spent $ 25 million to assemble 19 attorneys and 40 FBI agents and other officials, issue 2,800 subpoenas, interview 500 witnesses, and review thousands of emails. In the end, it found “insufficient evidence” to support all allegations related to the allegation of “Russian collusion”.
In a way, it could be argued that this is a more serious form of McCarthyism than that committed by McCarthy himself, since McCarthy’s behavior was underpinned by more real worrying facts than the anti-Trump frenzy.
Take McCarthy’s last major political attack on the army, for example, which proved its undoing when the army and the Eisenhower administration finally decided to strike back with enough anger to mark the demagogic senator for his inadequate efforts to influence the decisions of military personnel. Fall will benefit a friend of McCarthy’s (and, perhaps more importantly, a friend of McCarthy’s sinister assistant, Roy Cohn). Spiegel calls this “McCarthy’s Rubicon”, although he glossed over some relevant facts.
Postwar columnists Joseph and Stewart Alsop, while passionate about McCarthy, understood better than most journalists how vulnerable Eisenhower was to the demagoguery of the Wisconsin senator. Years before, they had discovered “the worst communist infiltration into the American government,” as Stewart Alsop described in a private letter to his editor. It was under Eisenhower’s command during his time as Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces after World War II. Now, as the last McCarthy battle came to a head, the brothers’ reporting painted a picture of a communist fifth column that had controlled financial and personnel policy throughout the Eisenhower command, promoted and almost surrendered the communist takeover of some of the major West German newspapers control of the German unions to communist cadres.
This was a serious misconduct, but the Alsop brothers never made history. Instead, Joseph Alsop sought an audience with Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, the former governor of New Hampshire, so that he could outline the situation and reassure himself that the McCarthy administration was ready to fight before he could let his viper’s tongue loose on Eisenhower himself on this old and now irrelevant information.
“Besides, we’ll fight,” said Adams.
“Well,” said Alsop, “that was all I found out, Governor. I’ll leave my notes with you, I’ve already forgotten the conversation. ”
This shows that communism posed a serious threat and required attention in various counties in the early post-war period. This certainly does not excuse McCarthy’s efforts to seek political influence by elevating the threat to the immeasurable and fueling civic fears beyond the real situation. But it certainly provides a political context.
It also shows that McCarthyism is widespread in our politics today, and not limited to just those viewed as clumsy and heretical by journalistic and political figures like Adam Schiff and Peter Spiegel. Trump can be said to have made a great contribution to American politics by pushing into the national debate issues and civic concerns that had been ignored or repressed by the political establishment for years. Then, having brought that achievement to the White House, he turned out to be a utter political incompetent, whose unseemly antics undermined his achievements and who set his party and cause far more back than he was promoting them.
But seen in the context of the true nature of McCarthyism, then and now, he is less a perpetrator of these toxic tactics than a victim of them.
Robert W. Merry, an experienced Washington journalist and publishing director, is most recently the author of President McKinley: Architect of the American Century (Simon & Schuster).