I was a small child in the early 1950s, but I remember the McCarthy years. I remember watching the Army-McCarthy hearings on our new TV with my mother in the living room, the drapes drawn so the neighbors couldn’t peer in, even though the window looked out on our garden. I remember her refusing to let FBI agents into our house (I was so proud of her). I remember looking out the dining-room window and watching them search our garbage. Some of the things that happened were funny—my parents used to roll their eyes over Cousin Victor, who would only call us from a pay phone. But some weren’t. My father, a lawyer, lost work, as did many others. McCarthyism harmed some 10,000 people—some of them Communists, like my parents, most not—and destroyed quite a few: There were divorces, nervous breakdowns, suicides. And, of course, it made the entire country more conformist, more fearful, and more stupid.
In a recent Nation piece, Victor Navasky argued that the charges that Russia meddled in the 2016 election resemble the wild accusations and poisonous atmosphere of the McCarthy era. Stephen F. Cohen and several other writers here also use the word “McCarthyism” a lot. Victor probably knows more about the subject than anyone on earth—his book Naming Names is a classic—so I hesitate to disagree with him. But here’s what he overlooks: McCarthyism involved the use of immense state power against a large, shape-shifting mass of fairly powerless ordinary people who, with rare exceptions, had done nothing more than exercise their right to freedom of speech and association. That’s quite different from the calls by Democrats to investigate whether Russian agents hacked the Democratic National Committee at the behest of Vladimir Putin, or whether Trump’s financial interests are tied up with Russia, or whether people like former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, former campaign foreign-policy adviser Carter Page, and former national-security adviser Michael Flynn were up to no good. McCarthyism was a miasma of innuendo, divorced from facts. In the matter of Russia and Trump, a small number of individuals are suspected of serious and specific crimes. Moreover, this time around, the state is firmly in the grip of the supposed victims of the witch hunt. Donald Trump isn’t a high-school teacher who once subscribed to The Daily Worker; he is president of the United States.
Why do The Nation’s discussions of Trump and Russia so often hark back to those old days? “Cold War” is another much-used phrase, suggesting, it seems, that the United States and Russia are close to nuclear war over Ukraine (are they really?), and therefore Trump, that noninterventionist (ha!), might do less damage in the White House than that liberal warmonger Hillary Clinton would have—and also that we should give Putin wide berth to do whatever he wants so that he’ll feel safe (not that he’s doing anything, mind you). Liberals, as so often happens, turn out to be the real enemy: As Patrick Lawrence wrote in February, “There is only one thing worse than this president. I refer to the liberal reaction to his election.” Really? Rachel Maddow, DailyKos, and the Women’s Marchers are all worse than Trump?