The New McCarthy Era and Donald Trump

An answer was needed, so one was created: the Russians. As WWII ended with the U.S. the planet’s predominant power, dark forces saw advantage in creating new fears. The Soviet Union morphed from a decimated ally in the fight against fascism into an equal locked in a titanic struggle with America. How did they get so powerful so quickly? Nothing could explain it except — traitors. 1950s Cold War America? Or 2018 Trump America? Yes.

To some, that fear was not a problem, but a tool — one could defeat political enemies simply by accusing them of being Russian sympathizers. There was no need for evidence, Americans were desperate to believe, and so assertions someone was in league with Russia were enough. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy fired his first shot on February 9, 1950, proclaiming there were 205 card-carrying members of the Communist Party working for the Department of State. The evidence? Nothing but McCarthy’s assertions.

Indeed, the very word “McCarthyism” came to mean the practice of making accusations of treason without evidence. Other definitions include aggressively questioning a person’s patriotism, using accusations of disloyalty to pressure a person to adhere to conformist politics or to discredit an opponent, and subverting civil and political rights in the name of national security.

Pretending to be saving America while he tore at its foundations, over the next four years McCarthy destroyed thousands of lives simply by pointing a finger and saying “Communist.” When in their defense someone invoked their Fifth Amendment right to silence, McCarthy would answer that was “the most positive proof obtainable that the witness is Communist.” The power of accusation was used by others as well; the Lavender Scare was an off-shoot of McCarthyism which concluded the State Department was overrun with closeted homosexuals who were at risk of being blackmailed by Moscow for their perversions. By 1951, 600 people were fired based solely on evidence-free “morals” charges. State legislatures and school boards mimicked McCarthy. Books and movies were banned based on the “hate speech” of the day, accusations they helped promote Communism. Blacklists abounded. The FBI embarked on campaigns of political repression (the FBI would later claim Martin Luther King had Communist ties), even as journalists and academics voluntarily narrowed their thought and inquiry in the 1950’s and beyond.

In 2018, watching sincere people succumb to paranoia is not something to relish. But having trained themselves to intellectualize away Hillary Clinton’s flaws, as they had with Obama, about half of America truly could not believe she lost to the antithesis of what she represented to them. Every poll (that they read) said she would win. Every article (that they read) said it too, as did every person (that they knew.) Lacking an explanation for the unexplainable, they tried out scenarios that would have failed high school civics, claiming only the popular vote mattered, or the archaic Emoluments Clause prevented Trump from taking office, or that he was insane and could be disposed of under the 25th Amendment.

After a few trial balloons during the primaries where Bernie Sanders’ visits to Russia and Jill Stein’s attendance at a banquet in Moscow were used to imply disloyalty, the fearful cry the Russians meddled in the election morphed into Trump had worked with the Russians and/or (fear is flexible) the Russians had something on Trump, that new Russian word everyone learned, kompromat.

Donald Trump became the Manchurian Candidate. That term was taken from a 1959 novel made into a classic Cold War movie positing an American soldier had been brainwashed by Communists as part of a plot to place someone under the thumb of the Kremlin in the Oval Office. A Google search shows dozens of news sources, including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Salon, the Washington Post, and why not, Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti, have all claimed Trump is some variant of 2018’s Manchurian Candidate, controlled by ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin.

The birth moment of Trump as a Russian asset is traceable to MI-6 intelligence officer turned Democratic opposition researcher turned FBI mole Christopher Steele, whose “dossier” claimed the existence of the pee tape. Somewhere deep in the Kremlin is supposedly a surveillance video made in 2013 of Trump in Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, watching prostitutes urinate on a bed the Obamas once slept in. As McCarthy did with homosexuality, it always helps to throw in some naughty sex to keep the rubes’ attention.

No one, not even Steele’s alleged informants, has actually seen the tape. It exists in a blurry land of certain belief alongside the elevator tape. Journalists are actively seeking a tape of Trump doing something in an elevator so salacious the video has been called “Every Trump Reporter’s White Whale.” No one knows when the elevator video was made, but a dossier-length article in New York magazine posits Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987.

Suddenly no real evidence is necessary, because it is always right in front of your face. McCarthy accused Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower of being Communists or Communist stooges over the “loss” of China in 1949. Trump holds a bizarre press conference in Helsinki and the only explanation must be that he is a traitor.

Nancy Pelosi (“President Trump’s weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the President, personally, financially or politically”) and Cory Booker (“Trump is acting like he’s guilty of something”) and Hillary Clinton (“now we know whose side he plays for”) and John Brennan (“rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin.”) and Rachel Maddow (“We haven’t ever had to reckon with the possibility that someone had ascended to the presidency of the United States to serve the interests of another country rather than our own,”) and others said Trump is controlled by Russia. As the news did in 1954, when they provided live TV coverage of McCarthy’s dirty assertions against the Army, modern media uses each new assertion as “proof” of an earlier one. Snowballs get bigger rolling downhill.

When assertion is accepted as evidence it forces the other side to prove a negative to break free. So until Trump “proves” he is not a Russian stooge, his denials are seen as attempts to wiggle out from under evidence which in fact doesn’t exist. Who, pundits ask, can come up with a better explanation for Trump’s actions then blackmail, as if that was a necessary step to clearing his name.

Joe McCarthy’s victims faced similar challenges; once labeled a Communist or a homosexual, the onus shifted to them to somehow prove they weren’t. Their failure to prove their innocence became more evidence of their guilt. The Cold War version of this mindset was well-illustrated in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” And anyone who questions this must themselves be at best a useful fool, if not an outright Russia collaborator (Wrote one pundit: “They are accessories, before and after the fact, to the hijacking of a democratic election. So, yes, goddamn them all.”) In the McCarthy era, the term was fellow traveler, anyone, witting or unwitting, who helped the Russians. Mere skepticism, never mind actual dissent is muddled with disloyalty.

Blackmail? Payoffs? Deals? It’s not just the months of Mueller that have passed without evidence. The IRS and Treasury have had Trump’s tax documents and financials for decades, even if Rachel Maddow has not. If Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987, or 2013, he has done it behind the backs of the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, and NSA. Yet at the same time in what history would see as the most out-in-the-open intelligence operation ever, some claim he asked on TV for his handlers to deliver hacked emails. In the Manchurian Candidate, the whole thing was at least done in secret as you’d expect.

With impeachment itself on the table, Mueller has done little more than issue the equivalent of parking tickets to foreigners he has no jurisdiction over. Intelligence summaries claim the Russians meddled, but don’t show Trump was involved. Indictments against Russians are cheered as evidence, when they are just Robert Mueller’s own uncontested assertions to sit alongside those of Anderson Cooper and Chris Matthews.

There is no evidence the president is acting on orders from Russia or is under their influence. None.

As with McCarthy, as in those famous witch trials in Salem, allegations shouldn’t be accepted as true, though in 2018 even pointing out that basic tenet is blasphemy. The burden of proof should be on the accusing party, yet the standing narrative in America is the Russia story must be assumed plausible, if not true, until proven false. Joe McCarthy tore America apart for four years under just such standards, until finally public opinion, lead by Edward R. Murrow, a journalist brave enough to demand answers McCarthy did not have, turned against him. There is no Edward R. Murrow in 2018.

Instead a different process — the Mueller investigation — enters Year Two. The nation faces midterms in November, and thus the need to know for the American people is clear. Is there hard evidence of treason? One can cry “Wait for Mueller!” for the same four years it took to shut down McCarthy, but at some point we all have to admit no evidence has been found pigs can fly, and thus conclude they can’t, and the collective purpose of Russiagate has shifted, as with McCarthy, from tamping down hysteria to stoking it. When asking for proof is seen as disloyal, when demanding evidence after years of accusations is considered a Big Ask, when a clear answer somehow always needs additional time, there is more on the line in a democracy than the fate of one man.

Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. @WeMeantWell

Author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan and WE MEANT WELL: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts + Minds of the Iraqi People