Trump’s triumph: A revival of McCarthyism?
“Communists have the same right to vote as anybody else, don’t they?” —anti-communist crusader Joseph McCarthy
The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States appears to have put much of the world on edge, and understandably so. While a widely known personality due to his popular reality television shows, Trump is a political dark horse whose policies remain to be seen. Yet, if Trump’s campaign rhetoric, advisers and candidates for posts in his presidency are precursors, Americans may be in for a revival of the McCarthy era witch hunts.
The ascendency of Joseph McCarthy to power is a remarkable story. As the head of the senate investigating subcommittee, the junior Republican senator from the state of Wisconsin held the United States in an anti-communist reign of terror for some five years in the 1950s, investigating a wide range of individuals from government officials to university professors, and ruining careers and reputations in the process. Individuals were subpoenaed to appear before his inquisitors for nothing more than having a volume of Karl Marx on their book shelves.
But the sublime irony of anti-communist crusader Joseph McCarthy is that he won his senate seat in 1946 from incumbent Robert La Follette, a progressive who not only publicly fought against the tyranny of corporate titans and the rich, but also had been a pioneering voice warning of the threat of Soviet communism as early as 1944. As a result of La Follette’s strong anti-communist stand, he lost much-needed support from the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), a union that had been a staunch supporter of the former Soviet Union.
In a parallel to the erroneous expectation of a Hillary Clinton win over Trump in 2016, the New York Times had predicted a Robert La Follette victory over McCarthy in 1946. However, just as Trump galvanized a sufficient segment of the American polity with his incendiary Islamophobic rhetoric to win the election, so did McCarthy in the Republican primary of 1946 using fear-mongering anti-communist rhetoric. Likewise, just as the Trump triumph in 2016 shocked pundits and the media, the same held true in 1946 for McCarthy, whose upset “not only stunned the state but bewildered political observers all over the nation,” according to the Milwaukee Journal.
There are other disturbing parallels between McCarthy’s 1946 senate campaign and Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. McCarthy promised every effort to remove “the vast number of Communists from the public payroll” and charged “enough Democrats are voting the Communist way to make their presence in Congress a serious threat to the very foundations of our nation.” In a similar vein, Trump, when asked directly about warrantless searches of Muslims or increased surveillance of mosques, replied, “Certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy.” When asked if there should be a system to track Muslims, Trump responded, “There should be a lot of systems, beyond databases.”
Beyond the rhetoric, the policies of the mercurial president-elect can be surmised by the political positions of the nominees being put forward for various appointments in the future Trump administration. Consider, for example, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, currently a Republican senator from Alabama who was nominated by former president Ronald Reagan for a judgeship but failed to win senate approval due to his racial slurs. Senator Sessions has a record of taking a hardline stance on immigration and terrorism, and has stated publicly that he is open to a ban on immigration from Muslim-majority countries.
Another Islamophobe on Trump’s short list is retired lieutenant general Michael T. Flynn, nominee for the post of National Security Adviser. Flynn, who frequently uses the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” and has criticized president Obama for not doing the same, has called for leaders in the Muslim-majority World “to step up to the plate and declare their Islamic ideology sick,” and has insisted that “Fear of Muslims is rational.” In response to Flynn’s nomination, Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee declared he was “worried about an impulsive president with a volatile advisor.”
Secretary of state of the western U.S. state of Kansas, Kris Kobach, while apparently not on Trump’s nominee list, has been a close adviser on immigration policy. Kobach was tasked by the U.S. Department of Justice under president George W. Bush and attorney general John Ashcroft with finding gaps in the immigration system that might allow terrorists into the country. To that end, Kobach led efforts to design a security system to register so-called “high risk” visitors, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which, according to Kobach’s bio, “resulted in the apprehension of numerous suspected terrorists.”
The Kansas secretary of state also co-authored legislation known as Arizona’s SB 1070 illegal immigration law, requiring immigrants to have registration documents in their possession at all times, and allowing police to make immigrant status checks based on “reasonable suspicion” of being an illegal alien. Kobach has defended several cities, which had adopted similar legislation, against lawsuits brought by citizens and organizations concerned with social justice and human rights.
While Arizona’s SB 1070 demonizes Latinos, drafting similar legislation to target Muslims would be easy for Kobach, who also has the skills needed to resuscitate the Muslim database NSEERS, which was mothballed in 2011, due to sharp criticism by civil rights groups. The key Trump adviser has said that members of the president-elect’s transition team are already making plans for implementing Trump’s call for “extreme vetting” of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries. No doubt, Kobach is playing a strategic roll albeit behind the scenes.
To round out Trump’s xenophobic staff, Trump has named former media provocateur Stephen K. Bannon as his chief strategist, adding to the worries of Muslims, other minorities and human rights activists who fear the appointment is a troubling indication of the president-elect’s embrace of white nationalist ideology. Formerly associated with the extreme right-leaning web site Breitbart News and once a banker at Goldman Sachs, Bannon has accused president Obama of “importing more hating Muslims.”
Concerning Bannon’s nomination, a spokesman for Nevada Democrat Harry Reid confided, “It is easy to see why the K.K.K. views Trump as their champion when Trump appoints one of the foremost peddlers of white supremacist themes and rhetoric as his top aide.” Yet for Muslims, the nomination of Bannon is even more troubling, since he allowed Islamophobes to use Breitbart News as a platform for anti-Muslim hate speech, among them Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer, Debbie Schlussel, David Horowitz, Brigitte Gabriel and Frank Gaffney, who has called for McCarthy-style hearings to be initiated against Muslims.
As for a Muslim registry, Democratic National Committee spokesman Mark Paustenbac lambasted the idea, calling it “nothing less than institutionalized discrimination and a brazen assault on freedom of religion,” adding, “This is a shameful and dangerous start, and they will be held accountable.” But who will hold Trump accountable? The Republican-dominated congress? The American voters who put him in office? The supreme court Trump is poised to stack with far-right-leaning jurists? The fact is that, in the 1950s, even then U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower did not directly confront senator McCarthy, who was eventually brought down by Boston lawyer Joseph Welch, who was counsel for the U.S. Army in one of McCarthy’s investigations of communist infiltration.
So are Muslims’ fears of being targeted by a neo-McCarthyite Trump regime justified? Mohammad Khan, campaign manager at MPower Change, a Muslim grassroots advocacy organization, thinks so. “A crackdown is coming to civil society in general, and on Muslims in particular, whether they engage in activism or not,” he insisted. Faiza Ali, a community organizer in Brooklyn, agreed. “When he was running his campaign, there was no place for Muslims in Trump’s America. What does this mean for us now?” Muslim activist Haroon Moghul conceded, “Now all we’re doing is waiting for when, and how, they’ll show us out.”
The McCarthy era lasted roughly from 1950 to 1955, but its destructive consequences have reverberated to this day. So could such a thing happen again, only this time to Muslims? With the election of a U.S. president who has mainstreamed Islamophobia, there should be no doubt.