Donald Trump’s likening of false claims his office was bugged by the White House to McCarthyism is not just ridiculous, it’s laced with deep irony, writes Claire Connelly.
In Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing, fictional President Bartlet is in an argument with his speech writer and communications director Toby Ziegler over his writing a speech. Zeigler is condemning Hollywood for its gratuitous use of sex & violence in entertainment. Bartlett says, “Do I look like Joe McCarthy to you?”, to which Ziegler replies “Nobody ever looks like Joe McCarthy, Mr President. That’s how they get in the door in the first place”.
— ✨leah (@HowPeculeah) March 5, 2017
[Thank you to awesome word nerd @HowPeculeah for making me this gif special for the story]. Well, on Saturday morning at around 3am, the world got a reminder of just how that may occur when the very real President Donald Trump sank to a new low, claiming that President Obama had tapped the phones at Trump Towers during last year’s election campaign. In the explosive tweet, he captioned the event – without the slightest hint of irony – ‘McCarthyism’ alluding to the Cold War anti-Communist sentiment.
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! — Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
And he should know. Trump was trained by McCarthy’s right hand man, Roy Cohn, who is perhaps the strongest link between these two eras. He may have died in 1986, but Cohn’s legacy lives on in the bloated orange buffoon that occupies the oval office (I’ll get to this momentarily).
Let’s put to one side momentarily that Trump confused McCarthyism with Watergate: only a Federal Judge can authorise a tap on the grounds the subject was an agent of a foreign power (there are a few exceptions to this, I won’t get into here. You can read about it here, here and here).
For those not born before the mid-70s and who were not alive to remember a time when people were actually against and afraid of government blacklists, surveillance, censorship and, you know, Communism – (shoutout to Pauline Hanson)…
… allow me to refresh your memory:
McCarthyism is what spurred the (second) ‘reds beneath the bed’ scare of the 1940s and ‘50s, during which time employees of the White House, the public service, private sector and even the military were subject to mass firings and investigations for communist sympathies under a host of government panels set up by Senator Joseph McCarthy. And all under the approving eye of President Harry Truman.
The press was subject to intense scrutiny, and in more than one case news outlets were forced to fire journalists, reporters, radio hosts – even comedians – on the demand of the government.
President Truman required all public servants be screened for ‘loyalty’ or ‘sympathy’ for communism, fascism or other ‘isms’ deemed a threat to the continued dominance of the American dream.
Hundreds – if not thousands of people – lost their jobs, economics textbooks were suppressed, economics teachers intimidated, and the direction of the whole discipline changed (one could argue the same thing is happening across university campuses right now, though I don’t think it’s fair to put that development at Trump’s feet. That’s a topic for another essay).
While we sit in the eye of the storm, on the brink of a rapidly changing economic system, it’s hard not to recognise the similarities.
Much like the ongoing war in the Middle East, the gaping power struggle that beset the globe following the devastation of WWII created the perfect power-struggle between the Soviet Union, America, China, North and South Korea, Greece, Turkey and of course all of their relevant allies, (G’day).
In 1949, the White House was drawn into a national security and PR disaster when Attorney General, Alger Hiss was convicted of espionage and perjury by the House of Un-American Activities Committee (shout out to Jeff Sessions).
In 1950, the Korean War pitted America, backed by the United Nations and South Korea, against North Korea and China. Russia upped its espionage activities.
Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs, a German theoretical physicist and Soviet spy involved in the creation of the world’s first nuclear weapon, was convicted of leaking information about the US, UK and Canadian Manhattan Project to Russia. And the infamous Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for stealing atomic bomb secrets and selling them to the Soviets, after a widely publicised trial which made the nuclear threat ever more real for the general public.
This backdrop, and the economic devastation caused by the war, created the perfect set of social and international and intercultural tensions for the Red Scare.
‘Reform’ became a term to be feared as civil rights, industrial relations, child labor laws, and women’s suffrage were quickly rhetorically associated with the secret Communist plot to overthrow America. Anyone considered to be remotely progressive or vaguely Eastern European or Jewish looking was quickly dubbed an un-American traitor, to be feared, scorned and to always be the subject of scrutiny and suspicion.
Enter Joseph McCarthy, the United States Senator from Wisconsin. On February 9th, 1950 he gave a speech to the Republican Women’s Club of Wheeling in West Virginia in which he claimed to be in possession of a list of known Communists working for the State Department. The speech pretty much made him the informal leader of the movement which would soon come to bear his name.
The result was the rapid establishment of government sanctioned committees, panels, departments, ‘loyalty review boards’ and portfolios across all levels of government, not to mention the proliferation of private agencies to do the dirty work government wasn’t legally allowed to do itself to protect America from those pesky Reds out to convert America to their way of life.
Companies were required to conduct investigations for Communists employed amongst their workforce.
Of course, in “progressive” Hollywood, many executives, writers, directors, actors and producers accused of having Communist sympathies were blacklisted from working in the industry. Careers were ruined. Many never worked again.
Interestingly, the provision of public health services was one of the tenets of McCarthyism, where things like vaccination, mental health care services and fluoride were considered to be part of some Communist plot to poison or brainwash Americans. Under the instruction of J Edgar Hoover, the FBI distributed propaganda flyers under the guise of various experts or research claiming as much. Much of the language had a distinctly anti-Semitic tone and was often cased in moralistic terms.
Back to Roy Cohn, described by the New York Times as McCarthy’s “red-baiting consigliere”, the attorney was instrumental in sending Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the electric chair, helped elect Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and also mentored Trump for 13 years. His client included FBI director J Edgar Hoover and mafia boss ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno.
Cohn helped deliver some of Trump’s signature construction deals, was involved in his suit against the NFL for conspiring against him, and countersued the federal government for more than $100 million for defaming the Trump name.
He was central in Trump’s long-running discriminatory rental feud where Trump and his father were accused of refusing to rent to black tenants.
Cohn would eventually, in 1964, after many failed attempts, be charged with bribery, conspiracy, and fraud by the US government, including coercing a dying millionaire client to amend his will from his hospital death bed making Cohn executor of his estate.
Cohn was subsequently disbarred for “unethical, unprofessional and particularly reprehensible conduct”. Trump claims “they only got him because he was so sick” (Rohn had been suffering from AIDS).
Unsurprisingly, and much like the current zeitgeist, Cohn and McCarthy’s policy agenda had majority public support. Both McCarthy and Trump are examples of lunatics of who overreach. One quickly became a public joke and died shortly after. We’ve yet to see the outcome of the Trump era, and though there may be public consensus that he may be one sugar granule short of a fruit-loop, there also seems to be consensus across the political divide that Trump is what the system needs, whatever the cost.
I’m not denying the economic system is broken. And I’m not saying it doesn’t need a massive overhaul. But I’m not prepared for millions of people to suffer for that to happen. We’ve seen what occurs when we allow that kind of thinking to permeate public policy.
The country I was raised in, the education system I was taught in, it told me, it told all of us, why it wasn’t worth it. Today, as rising white supremacy, and socially and domestically acceptable casual racism rears its ugly head, I’m not sure so many people would agree.
Just yesterday Pauline Hanson endorsed Vladimir Putin. For McCarthy it would take a comedian and a stand-off between the President and the US military to bring him down. What is it going to take to get rid of Trump? And what fresh hell follows forth?
The end of an era
McCarthyism was brought to an abrupt halt during the spring of 1954 after he unsuccessfully picked a fight with the US Army, subjecting it to a three-month long nationally televised spectacle in which members of the military were interrogated for alleged communist sympathies.
The buck stopped with Joseph Nye Welch, chief counsel for the US Army, who, during the hearings, infamously coined the six words which would end McCarthy’s career: “Have you no sense of decency”.
On national television Welch berated the Senator: “Until this moment, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness,” he said. When McCarthy tried to intervene Welch interrupted, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”
The trial was seen as a significant turning point in the public’s attitude towards McCarthyism.
The US government suddenly turned on McCarthy. And the same party which gave rise to Trump tossed him under the bus at its earliest convenience.
On December 2nd, 1964, McCarthy was censured by the Senate, ostracised by both parties and eviscerated in the press. He would die three years later at the age of 48.
Meanwhile, in 1957 NBC radio talkback host and comedian John Henry Faulk sued AWARE, the agency which investigated him for his alleged Communist sympathies and won. Ultimately it was a financial, not moral imperative that did it, though arguably the press coverage the trial brought at the time might support an argument to the contrary. Knowing they could now be held legally and financially liable for the professional and financial losses caused by their firings, companies began to knock it off.
McCarthyism would soon after faded into history, burned into the public consciousness as the time where, for a brief moment, America lost its damn mind. We’re at that point again. And it’s not clear what it will take for this terrifying new chapter to come to a close.
Historian and Senior Lecturer at Adelaide University, Dr Tom Buchanan says that though they may have been mentored and guided by the same man, it would be a “long bow” to draw between Trump and McCarthy, but certainly they both were instrumental in leading moral panics to serve a greater agenda.
“Trump has the country whipped into a panic about women’s modern roles, gay rights, minority criminals, immigrants, job stealers, and Islam,” he said. “The 1950s had discrimination against all these too but they were folded into the larger Communist Panic, (here mostly with homosexuals, though single people unmoored from family life were at risk too as being susceptible to spy seduction).
“There was of course concern about women and minorities who strayed from their proper roles, but nothing like today where women and minorities are being depicted by many in government and the peanut gallery as having taken control via ‘weird liberal programmes’ like affirmative action. There were panics in both times, but there were differences too.”
Dr Buchanan told New Matilda that McCarthyism was a way to target various groups under the accusation that they were not “fully American”.
“It’s a moral panic,” he said. “In the same way the Islamaphobia we are seeing today is very similar.”
Most distinctly, he said, it is the distinct consensus of opinion between Democrats and Republicans against Islam in today’s zeitgeist that resembles the very same moral panic of the 1940s, simply replacing the label Communist with Muslim.
Let it be clear, McCarthy was not the reason for Trump, anymore than Trump is the reason for the state of moral panic and the escalating social tensions occurring the world over – he’s the symptom of the ‘holy war’ being waged between left and right, black and white, men and women and the LGBTQI communities, workers against employers, voters against the government.
He is the symptom of a system which appoints deranged lunatics to whip the public into a moral panic to distract them from the financialisation, deregulation and privatisation of an economic model designed to deliberately and systematically manipulate the market in favour of the few, and to the detriment of the majority.
Dr Buchanan says the irony is that Trump’s whole movement is predicated on a return to the 1950s, which he now uses as an example of his persecution. Even though the 1950s was actually a time of great fear and persecution of many to the social and economic advantage of the few.
“He imagines a return to the racial/gender/middle class privileges of that time for his supporters,” Dr Buchanan says. “The idea of victimhood (however twisted the logic) resonates very strongly with them because of the changes of the last 40 years.
“Trump’s McCarthy style persecution only highlights the imagined promise land – a return to power in which the hierarchies of old can be resurrected.
“And they can be the hunters again.”