I haven’t been counting recently, but it seems as if almost every moderate, liberal, or left-wing pundit and politician who surveys the political future alludes to the prospect of a new McCarthyism. Will a fiercely reactionary Trump administration revive the political repression of the 1940s and ’50s? Will it take as its model a widespread movement that treated dissent as disloyalty, punished thousands of law-abiding Americans, and scared millions more into silence, destroying much of the left and seriously narrowing the political spectrum?
Since I’ve been studying and writing about the McCarthy era for more than 40 years, I’m being asked this question a lot these days. The answer, of course, is “yes and no.”
No, because even our twittering president-to-be doesn’t tweet about a communist threat to American security. And McCarthyism was, above all, a wide-ranging campaign to eliminate communism and all the individuals, institutions, and ideas associated with it from any position of influence within American society.
But, given the certainty that the Trump administration will face determined opposition, attempts to repress it will certainly occur. They will not look exactly like McCarthyism, but they may recycle many of its techniques and objectives. After all, the new regime relies on the same kind of right-wing forces that most actively pushed the anticommunist purges.
One big difference is that the enemy has changed. And political repression does require an enemy, otherwise the authorities will be unable to frighten the nation into accepting massive violations of people’s rights. During the McCarthy era, the supposed threat to the USA was the international communist conspiracy; now it’s Islamic extremists, racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and left-wing professors. And they may be dealt with using methods J. Edgar Hoover embraced.
Newt Gingrich, for instance, has called for Congress to revive a World War II–style Un-American Activities Committee. Our president-to-be—who, it’s worth noting, took advice from Joe McCarthy’s sleazy amanuensis, Roy Cohn—has suggested depriving flag-burners of their citizenship. And, just last month, Turning Point USA, a right-wing student organization, posted a “Professor Watchlist” of one or two hundred (the numbers, like McCarthy’s, keep changing) academics who “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls” and make life hard for the conservatives in their classes. Their abuses: criticizing the Republican party, the NRA, and the current Israeli regime.
While it’s unlikely that HUAC will ride again, the current threat to create a Muslim registry recaps one of that committee’s few legislative triumphs. The Internal Security Act of 1950, originally sponsored by Richard Nixon, required the registration of individual Communists and so-called Communist front groups. Because liberal Democrats like Hubert Humphrey were so afraid of being labeled “soft on communism,” they inserted provisions in the measure for rounding up Communists and their allies in the event of an emergency. Though never implemented, the government even planned to resuscitate the former Japanese internment camps to house those supposed threats to the nation’s security. And, of course, the rather amateurish Professor Watchlist harks back to the more toxic blacklists of the 1950s.