It was a cold, crisp day on February 9, 1950, when Senator Joe McCarthy waived a “damning” piece of paper before the Ohio County Women’s Club in Wheeling, West Virginia.
“I have here in my hand,” he said, “a list of two hundred [State Department employees] that were known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping the policy of the State Department.”
Senator McCarthy then proceeded to fly round the country telling anyone who would listen that he had a blacklist full of nefarious government employees. Several. Did he ever provide substantial evidence? Of course not.
Of McCarthy’s antics David Halberstam, journalist and historian, wrote:
“It was like a circus . . . [McCarthy’s] work was erratic and sloppy . . . It sometimes seemed he was too surprised by the whole thing, how easy it was, how little resistance he met, and so he hurtled forward to newer larger charges. But if they did not actually stick, and they did not, his charges had an equally damaging effect: they poisoned.” Halberstam, David, The Best and Brightest, 118.
The media reported Senator McCarthy’s conspiracy theories as newsworthy, but gave no scathing critique. Id. Democratic leadership stood aside, riding out the storm. Id at 119. Republicans were all too happy to watch their adversaries squirm. Id. Thus began one of the darkest periods in American history, see id., a period that birthed a philosophy called McCarthyism.
Look in a dictionary and you’ll find the following definition of McCarthyism:
The use of tactics involving personal attacks on individuals by means of widely publicized indiscriminate allegations especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.
Unfortunately, if history should serve as a lesson, we have entered a new age of McCarthyism spearheaded by Donald Trump.
February 9, 1950 repeated itself 70 years later when Donald Trump, standing behind the White House lectern, on November 5, alleged fraud on Democratic voters and state officials by blurting, “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, you can try to steal the election from us.”
Meanwhile, the Trump administration had begun filing motions to courts round America to legitimize its claims. Several of those cases were eventually thrown out of court on the basis that the assertions made were unsubstantiated (classic McCarthyism).
For example, in denying a claim of “lack of transparency,” Judge Timothy Kenny wrote, “This court finds that while there are assertions made by the plaintiffs that there is no evidence in support of those assertions.”
Judge Kenny was just one of many judges expressing their frustration due to the baseless accusations. Judge Matthew Brann notably excoriated Trump’s legal team, writing,
“. . . this Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence . . . Our people, laws, and institutions demand more.”
What this democracy demands is more explicit action from the Democratic party, because though the claims are not sticking, they are poisoning the minds of those most receptive to Trump’s message. According to a recent Reuter’s poll, half of Republicans believe that the election was rigged.
The Democrats can’t solely rely on the media, because though traditional media has not been as silent as they were during the McCarthy era, we’re not in Kansas anymore; social media has taken on a life of its own, upstaging traditional media economically and functionally.
A vast amount of people get their news from social media, and these algorithms, cooked up by well-meaning tech luminaries, have unwittingly created the perfect echo-chamber for McCarthyism. If you’re part of a group, Facebook is incentivized to continue feeding you similar content to encourage you to stay on the platform so that you make Facebook more money.
Though both Facebook and Twitter have attempted to lessen Trump’s impact by flagging outright lies, these platforms can only (or are only willing to) do so much. Millennials and Gen Z know all too well that once something is posted on the internet, it stays on the internet. It can be repurposed, reshaped, and reinvigorated with memes.
So, it falls on the adults in the room to call all out the McCarthyism, to say that the Trump administration is performing a political coup.
Some may argue that speaking against Trump would only legitimize the baseless claims. However, the truth cannot legitimize a lie that lacks strong pretext. At least McCarthy could hide behind the Soviet Union, the fall of China, and the Korean war; the Democrats of that era could then argue that any opposition would ruin their political careers since speaking out would give the appearance that they were loyal to the enemy.
Trump, on the other hand, has nothing to hide behind but his own failures, which makes Democratic silence that much more egregious, especially with the weight of history looming over these present events. The many grey hairs and balding pates in the Democratic leadership should at least be aware of this history.
McCarthy ran his course and so will Trump, some may argue. But McCarthy was a senator. He did not have the bully pulpit. The mind rattles at the thought of what further damage a sitting president could have done to the institution of free thought and ideas.
Right now, a perfect storm is brewing: We have civil unrest due to police brutality and an undying pandemic due to poor leadership. The streets are lined with death and joblessness and decay — and the lame duck president surveys the chaos, thinking he can make a heaven of his own hell.
If only the Democrats can continue to keep their mouths shut, he probably thinks (less eloquently), and continue to speak in judicial prose whenever they get a pulse. Then . . . who knows?
Is this Democracy? Should there even be a thought that the democratic process can be pre-empted with falsehood?
Democrats, speak up. Stop undermining the will of your own constituents, who elected you to speak on their behalf. See Keith T. Poole & Howard Rosenthal, Are legislators ideologues or constituents? European Economic Review, 707 (“A simple empirical test for the United States Senate, however, clearly rejects the notion that the representative is the agent of the median voter or a local party constituency.”).
Do the bare minimum: advocate for the democratic process. Don’t stand by and watch as it gets beaten near to death. McCarthyism created a dark pallor over free speech. It was 1984 come to life. I’m afraid it has woken from the dead.