Sen. Joseph McCarthy liked to insist he had evidence of communists in the government, but he couldn’t show you the names right now. The number of communist infiltrators on his secret list changed from speech to speech.
Listening to Donald Trump’s legal team claim over and over again that it has voluminous evidence that the election was stolen, it occurred to me that we’re in a kind of repeat McCarthy era. Only this time, to borrow from that old-school communist Karl Marx, history is repeating itself not as tragedy but as farce.
Take Sidney Powell, a former federal prosecutor who became a right-wing darling as the lawyer for Michael Flynn, Trump’s 24-day national security adviser. Trump repeatedly touted her as a member of his elite legal team, a group nicknamed Strike Force.
Powell has hinted darkly that a state-of-the-art computer hacking program masterminded by the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez was used to hand the election to Biden, with the help of Cuba, George Soros, “likely” China and other “communistic” forces. Powell subscribes to the view, pushed by pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood, that the outgoing president actually got 70 percent of the popular vote and 400 electoral college votes.
To Powell’s credit, she actually provided some “evidence” for this: a meandering affidavit from an anonymous whistleblower who begins his or her fevered meanderings: “I am an adult of sound mine.” No wonder Powell hasn’t released any more evidence.
On Sunday, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and fellow Strike Forcer Jenna Ellis drummed Powell out of the unit, perhaps because her crazy was eclipsing Giuliani’s. But Team Trump is still making plenty of outrageous assertions. Giuliani, for example, claims that “many,” perhaps most, ballots were counted overseas. He claims massive fraud in Michigan based on a close analysis of election returns in … Minnesota.
Last week, Giuliani returned to a federal courtroom after a 28-year hiatus to ask that millions of Pennsylvania votes be thrown out — essentially because they’re icky. During his appearance, Giuliani forgot the names of the judge and the opposing counsel and didn’t know the relevant legal standards. Attacking the “media morons” who thought it went poorly, Ellis — the author of The Legal Basis for a Moral Constitution: A Guide for Christians to Understand America’s Constitutional Crisis—retorted that one critic suffered from “micro penis syndrome.”
On Saturday, the judge threw out the entire case, saying, “It is not in the power of this Court to violate the Constitution.” No word yet on Ellis’ estimation of the judge’s manhood.
Where the McCarthy déjà vu really kicks in is the way this farcical war on our intelligence and institutions resembles the most deranged and paranoid expressions of anti-communism. It’s not just calling Joe Biden the president-elect that’s denounced as treason; any criticism of the tactics used by Trump and his team is not tolerated. Total loyalty to Trump, his loyalists and their lies is mandatory regardless of the facts.
Anti-communism was a serious thing despite McCarthy’s excesses. Conservatives (and liberals) were justified in seeing it as a worthwhile struggle against a threat. But it now seems that a large number of conservatives have convinced themselves that we are in a similar struggle with evil forces today—and that Trump is the weapon holding those forces at bay. That’s the point of all the elaborate theological arguments that cast the less-than-pious Trump as a King David figure, anointed to protect us from the godless atheism of American libs.
When anti-communism took on a paranoid conspiratorial hue, responsible conservatives drew lines. After the John Birch Society accused President Eisenhower of being a communist plant, historian Russell Kirk famously scoffed, “Ike’s not a communist, he’s a golfer.”
The difference today is that the gatekeepers no longer have the authority they once had. Social media may have democratized commentary, but it has also handed a megaphone not just to the forces of populism generally, but to fringe conspiracy mongers who never could have been heard without it. Worse, many of the most prominent figures on the right have no interest in being gatekeepers anymore; they want to be transmission belts, hoovering up mass delusions and repeating them to their audiences. It’s telling that the bulk of Trump’s legal strategy amounts to crowdsourcing hearsay and rumor from the internet and handing the printouts to scandalized judges.
Of course, there’s another difference. McCarthy may have been a master at spreading misinformation, innuendo and slander for a cause greater than himself, but he was never a president whose only cause was himself.
Photograph of Rudy Giuliani by Gage Skidmore/Flickr.