Sunday, July 19, 2020

Shhh - Be Vewwy Quiet, I'm Hunting Weds

So an acquaintance of mine posted a link to this Fresh Air interview with the author of a new biography of Joseph McCarthy, the Red-hunting, queer-hunting Republican Senator from Wisconsin who gave his name to political witch-hunting.  I bogged down about 8 minutes into the 36-minute recording, because both interviewer and interviewee are pretty annoying.  While I agree, however quixotically, that it's important to know our history, Larry Tye seems an unreliable guide.

For example, at the point where I quit listening,  he cited Donald Trump's infamous claim that he could kill someone on the street in broad daylight and not lose any of his supporters; then quoted the pollster George Gallup, who in the 1950s said essentially the same thing about McCarthy.  Well, of course. Tye calls this a chilling prediction, but it's not a prediction, it's a standard political slam.  We leftists said the same of Barack Obama, and there's an ancient joke to the effect that the only sure career suicide for a politician is to be caught in bed with a live man or a dead woman.

Maybe I'll slog through the rest of the interview later, but for now I'll go with the accompanying text, which seems representative.  If we're going to learn from our history, we should be aware that Red scares and homosexual scandals long predated McCarthy.  From 1917 to 1920, Woodrow Wilson stirred a panic over Communists, anarchists and socialists threatening the body politic; Wilson's Attorney General Mitchell Palmer became a byword for repression, and J. Edgar Hoover's career as an anti-Communist cop took off. The Wikipedia article says that in 1920 Hoover told "the nation to prepare for a bloody uprising on May Day.  Police and militias prepared for the worst, but May Day passed without incident."  The recent attempts by police and politicians to stir up panic about Antifa attacks that turned out to be imaginary are just the latest example of this sort of thing.

Then there was the House Un-American Activities Committee, founded in 1938 to root out Communists and Fascists, which abused its powers for more than three decades, ruining lives and careers.  This was separate from McCarthy's escapades, since he was a Senator and had his own committee for a playground.  Meanwhile, in 1947, President Harry Truman instituted a Loyalty Program to harass government employees.  According to one author on this period, "During the loyalty-security program’s peak years from 1947 to 1956, over five million federal workers underwent screening, resulting in an estimated 2,700 dismissals and 12,000 resignations… the program exerted its chilling effect on a far larger number of employees than those who were dismissed."  The Truman Library still defends this action as necessary and appropriate to protect America from the Red Menace, as you can see on the page I just linked:
It is common today to look at events like McCarthyism, HUAC and the Loyalty Program as products of hysteria. Yet this hardly was the first time the federal government restricted civil liberties in the name of national security. In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts as concerns grew over a looming war with France. During both the Civil War and World War I, individuals suspected of disloyalty faced prison. The liberty vs. security debate is a continuity in American history, and even though we live in a post-Cold War world, some of these issues are still part of the discussion in an age of global terrorism. Truman’s Loyalty Program must be viewed and debated with this understanding, and the understanding that historical context drives presidential decision making.
While I disagree with the apologetic tenor of this paragraph, it does at least acknowledge that McCarthy didn't simply come out of nowhere to sow fear through demagoguery.  He used a strategy and narrative that had been developed by numerous people before him, and would be used again after him.  Tye talks about McCarthy's and Trump's manipulation of the mass media.  I think the media love to be manipulated: they gave Trump billions of dollars' worth of free publicity in the guise of news coverage during the 2016 campaign, continuing down to the present, broadcasting his campaign rallies disguised as press conferences on the COVID-19 pandemic.  Tye also dwells on Trump's genealogical connection to McCarthy through Roy Cohn, McCarthy's former assistant and ultimately Trump's lawyer.  But for all his feral cunning, could Cohn have survived McCarthy's fall if there weren't a corrupted environment of anticommunist grandstanding sustained by big money?

McCarthy embarrassed some of the anticommunist Right by his vulgarity and playing to the rubes, much like Trump today, and I imagine they were as glad to see him self-destruct as the bipartisan Republican-Democratic establishment will be glad when Trump is gone.  Then they can busily write history to make Trump the problem, rather than the system he exploits.  NPR is part of that great product, and Larry Tye is already doing his share.