[Marxism] Trumpism is the New McCarthism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed May 23 12:04:33 MDT 2018

On 5/23/18 1:38 PM, Steve Heeren via Marxism wrote:
> This article is behind a paywall. Any secrets, other than my subscribing 
> to The Nation, on how to access it. I respect Ellen Schrecker.

Trumpism Is the New McCarthyism
Just as as McCarthyism did decades ago, Trumpism conceals the Republican 
Party’s long-term program to dismantle the public sector.
By Ellen Schrecker MAY 21, 2018

Joseph McCarthy is helped in his questioning of Army Secretary Robert 
Stevens by Committee Counsel Roy Cohn, right, who later represented 
Donald Trump during Trump's early business career. (AP Photo)

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Nearly 70 years after Joseph McCarthy produced his first list of alleged 
government subversives at a West Virginia Republican banquet, the 
Wisconsin senator still haunts us. As historians and others ransack the 
American past searching for predecessors of our current president, 
McCarthy’s name often tops the list—but usually for the wrong reasons.

Even though the Donald doesn’t drink and “Tail-Gunner Joe” was a lush 
who died of liver failure, the two men are similar in many trivial and 
not-so-trivial ways. Like McCarthy, Trump is a sociopathic personality 
whose aberrant behavior facilitated a right-wing campaign against core 
democratic values.

Consistency is neither man’s hobgoblin. As blatant opportunists, neither 
was or is loyal to anything beyond themselves. After initially flirting 
with the social liberalism of their day, both switched parties and 
ideologies. During his early career as a judge in Appleton, Wisconsin, 
McCarthy was criticized for granting the quickest divorces around (at a 
moment when divorce was still considered scandalous, something reserved 
for abandoned women and film stars). While in his pre-Republican mode, 
Trump was a self-professed New York Democrat who was once, as he told 
Meet the Press in 1999, “very pro-choice.”

The two men have a remarkably similar relationship with the truth. 
McCarthy, like many politicians, exaggerated his wartime record while 
publicizing his ever-changing lists of—was it 81, 57, 205?—Communists in 
the State Department. No need here to detail Trump’s prevarications. The 
Washington Post says it’s an average of six or seven a day. Denial is 
his default mode.

In this, Trump may well have been following the advice of McCarthy’s 
former staffer, the notorious legal sleaze Roy Cohn, whose good 
connections and tainted ethics enabled him to service both McCarthy’s 
irresponsible allegations as well as the current president’s 
unprincipled business dealings.

Like Trump, McCarthy had, in the words of Boston lawyer Joseph Welch at 
the Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, “no sense of decency.” The Wisconsin 
senator cared little about the human damage his reckless accusations 
caused. When he chaired his congressional investigations of supposed 
Communists in the government, he would bully witnesses, destroy their 
lives and livelihoods, and then, when the cameras were off, turn on the 
charm and hug their lawyers. Trump, as we know, has mocked a disabled 
reporter, compared immigrants to animals, and boasted about sexually 
assaulting women.

McCarthy, like the current president, played the media with panache. The 
press loved him. He fed its members juicy stories. They asked few 
questions. How could they? McCarthy tended to release his most 
sensational charges so late in the day no one could fact-check them 
before they made the front page.

Yet, to focus so heavily on the aberrant behavior of the two men is to 
distort the stakes.

McCarthy and Trump, though certainly worthy of condemnation, were and 
are but the public face of more serious problems within the American 
polity. The fixation of the media on their antics, as Eric Alterman’s 
recent column shows, not only diverts us from those problems, but also 
makes it harder to deal with them.

Just as McCarthy did, Trump now operates within a polarized political 
world in which partisan advantage frequently overwhelms the common good. 
Though presenting themselves as populists, the two men actually front 
for the Republican Party’s business-friendly establishments of their 
eras. Their outrageous conduct allowed and still allows the GOP to 
conceal its program of dismantling the New Deal and, in Trump’s case, 
President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as well.

Ironically, given the damage they would cause, both men came late to the 
political agendas they pushed. The xenophobic and socially conservative 
campaign against the welfare state, the environment, and the most 
vulnerable members of society that Trump so blatantly abets had been 
decades in the making before his presidential run (as Nancy MacLean so 
brilliantly explains in her recent book, Democracy in Chains).

Similarly, McCarthy signed on to the anti-Communist crusade a few years 
after it had begun. His tactics were only a more flamboyant version of 
the scenario that Republican politicians had been disseminating ever 
since President Harry Truman’s surprise reelection in 1948 revealed that 
the electorate still supported the New Deal. At that point, since the 
GOP needed a new program, its leaders took advantage of the public 
insecurity that accompanied the Cold War and turned to red-baiting. They 
blamed the Soviet Union’s supposed victories on subversives within the 
Democratic administration. Communists in government, so they said, had 
given the bomb to Moscow and “lost” China to Mao.

McCarthy amplified that message. Instead of following President Richard 
Nixon’s successful tactic of leaking FBI files, he simply 
lied—encouraged, it should be noted, by some the GOP’s most highly 
respected politicians. “If one case doesn’t work out,” the Senate’s 
leading Republican, Robert Taft, advised his colleague, “bring up 
another.” And so, he did. And another. And another.

McCarthy’s wild allegations flummoxed the White House. After all, Truman 
and his Cold War liberal allies had already enlisted in the 
anti-Communist cause. Because they needed to convince the American 
public to provide the resources for the foreign aid and beefed-up 
military deemed essential for waging the Cold War, they demonized the 
Soviet enemy and its American appendage, the small, isolated, but legal, 
Communist Party.

Thus, some three or four years before Joe McCarthy appeared on the scene 
to give his name to the crusade against domestic Communists, Truman and 
his allies were already pushing to eliminate from American life the 
party and all the ideas, individuals, and institutions associated with 
Communism and the left.

They were not alone. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) 
and similar congressional investigating committees, state and local 
politicians, right-wing journalists, and, most importantly, J. Edgar 
Hoover and the FBI all helped out, pushing the loyalty programs, 
blacklists, and criminal prosecutions that soon spread throughout 
American society.

The liberal establishment did not resist the purges. Instead, in 
response to pressure from the right, it turned against the left. It 
seemed more important to its members to avoid being labeled “soft on 
Communism” than to defend the Bill of Rights and the welfare state. 
Their timidity in the face of the Republicans’ red-baiting merely 
increased the power of the witch hunters.

But the liberals did oppose McCarthy. They just did so in a way that 
diverted attention from the real danger. They attacked the Wisconsin 
senator as an individual, rather than as the face of a broader wave of 
political repression. Their own anti-Communism had undermined the 
integrity and effectiveness of their alleged opposition to what they 
branded as “McCarthyism.” They focused their campaign on the 
unscrupulous charges against “innocent” liberals. As long as McCarthy et 
al. picked their targets correctly, many (though by no means all) 
moderates and liberals simply looked away. In fact, it was not until the 
Wisconsin senator turned on the conservative establishment that his 
outrageous activities brought him down.

But the damage that McCarthy—the “ism,” not the man—wreaked on the 
American polity remains. Its main legacy is a narrowed political 
spectrum in which egalitarianism is suspect and blinkered politicians 
and journalists focus on political minutiae while blaming “both sides” 
for the inequities that deform our society.

A similar process is at play today. While the pundits stew about Trump’s 
every scam and Twitter, they overlook the way the current regime and its 
judicial and legislative allies are incrementally hollowing out the 
democratic state.

Admittedly, Robert Mueller’s document drops cannot be ignored. They may, 
in fact, provide a tool for resolving the immediate crisis. Like 
McCarthy, Trump may become so unpalatable to the American public that 
the Republican establishment may finally abandon him. When that happens, 
we will no doubt be treated to the standard celebration of how “the 
system worked.” But unless we keep our eye on the structural issues 
involved—as we did not after Watergate or McCarthy’s demise—the current 
assault on the public sector will simply go underground temporarily to 
resurface when the present furor abates.

Trump’s erratic behavior endangers all living creatures. But, except for 
the encouragement that his crudity and flagrant racism have given to 
contemporary fascism, it is clear that the president did not write the 
script for his administration’s all-too-successful onslaught against the 
common good. That accomplishment is the product of decades of 
well-funded right-wing organizing and institution-building. The 
inevitable backlash against Trump may provide an opportunity to change 
our political discourse. But without a long-term commitment to intensive 
grassroots organizing, that chance to reclaim the United States from 
bigots and oligarchs may fade away. It has done so before.

Ellen SchreckerEllen Schrecker is the author of Many Are the Crimes: 
McCarthyism in America.

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