By Maria Behan
It’s often said that Republicans want to take America back to the 1950s. Some long for a wholesome, homogenous society straight out of anodyne TV fantasies like The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. It’s bad enough to pine for an era that would wipe out considerable progress, not to mention large swathes of American society. But what’s happening under Donald Trump’s Republican Party evokes not the affable and fictional Ozzie, but a far more ominous—and real—figure from the ‘50s: Senator Joseph McCarthy.
If there were any doubt that the United States has entered an era of paranoia, wild allegations, and purges, the second month of the Trump administration has put it to rest. Unlike McCarthyism, which was laser focused on the “Reds” among us, McTrumpism’s targets are legion, including immigrants, Muslims, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. Even before Trump took office on January 20, there have been innumerable instances when he and his spokespeople have implied—or flat-out stated—that one or a combination of the above culprits is undermining the “real America.”
“That’s what demagogues have always done,” Senator Bernie Sanders observed of Trump in an interview with the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein. “You pick on the weak and the powerless and you turn a majority against them and you deflect attention from the real causes of the problems that we face.” Case in point: In his first address to Congress, America’s 45th president touted his presidential order creating the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) registry, designed to highlight crimes committed by immigrants. This transparent effort to gin up fear and distrust of the “others” among us was largely brushed over by the media, which seems to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome. Instead, pundits praised the speech as “sane” and “presidential,” seemingly because Trump read a teleprompter and did not bite the head off a bat.
Getting Back at Barack
Under McTrumpism, the most menacing bogeyman of all is the president’s predecessor in the Oval Office. In some ways, that’s unsurprising: Trump’s political career was founded on opposition to Barack Obama. He began his transformation from grotesque reality-TV character to grotesque political leader by championing the “birther” movement that alleged that Obama was foreign born—and hence, not a legitimate president under the U.S. Constitution. When that baseless and bigoted accusation was disproven, Trump shrugged and moved onto new ones. One of the richest was his charge that Obama “is the founder of ISIS.” Another was that the president bribed an attorney general to launch a lawsuit against Trump University (which is now defunct—and two days before Trump’s inauguration, that and two other cases were settled in a $25 million payout to Trump University students who’d complained about being ripped off).
Merriam-Webster’s definition of McCarthyism cites “indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.” Sound like anyone you know?
With this month’s allegation that Obama illegally wiretapped him during the campaign, Trump has outdone himself. He accused his predecessor of an impeachable act, casting aspersions on U.S. security agencies and other branches of government while he was at it. And he incorporated all the unmistakable Trump hallmarks as he did so in a series of dyspeptic early-morning tweets that featured a misspelling (“tapp [sic] my phone”) and the stunted vocabulary of a middle-school bully: “Bad (or sick) guy!”
Trump sometimes complains that members of the media aren’t clever enough to “get” his sarcasm. I’ll confess that I may miss it sometimes—though I’m also pretty sure he uses the sarcasm claim as a smokescreen when he’s busted on his most easily disprovable assertions. However, I sense that Trump was being truly sarcastic (there’s an oxymoron for you) when he referred to “the very sacred election process” in one of his Obama-accusing tweets. Trump’s supporters likely didn’t get the joke, but I’ll wager he and Putin just about bust their guts over that one.
Is it impossible, or even implausible, that Trump Tower was bugged during last year’s election? No, it isn’t. Pre-Watergate, some U.S. presidents seemed to dabble in that particular abuse of power almost as if it were a perk of office. But in the wake of Richard Nixon’s downfall, stronger scrutiny and new procedures for surveillance were put in place to check presidents when their scruples don’t.
If Trump Tower was bugged, it’s far more plausible that the eavesdropping was part of a legal, FBI- and FISA-authorized investigation into Russia’s election tampering, not an Obama vendetta. Obama was coming to the end of his eight-year (and fairly scandal-untainted) presidency. Why would he risk his reputation to try to dig up dirt on a candidate that pretty much everyone—including Obama and Trump—believed would lose? I believe that the real reason Trump accused Obama of wiretapping him is to deflect attention from the fact that both America’s security agencies and Congress are investigating the ties Trump and his cronies have to Russia.
Merriam-Webster’s definition of McCarthyism cites “indiscriminate allegations, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated charges.” Sound like anyone you know? If you’re still unconvinced that Trump is the new McCarthy, consider the fact that the wiretapping charge is just the latest among many. Remember the millions of illegal voters who supposedly handed Hillary Clinton the popular vote? Or the photo-doctoring done to make his inauguration crowd look small? If you’re hankering for a golden oldie from Trump’s hit parade of unsubstantiated allegations, there’s the one about “thousands and thousands” of Muslims who celebrated on New Jersey rooftops after the Twin Towers fell on 9/11.
Updating Authoritarianism for the 21st Century
Probably thanks to White House chief strategist (and history-buff white nationalist) Steve Bannon, the Trump administration is fluent in the 20thcentury lexicon of paranoid authoritarianism. To my ear, all the talk about “purges” of Obama allies evokes Stalin. And the determination to “root out” Obama sympathizers who have “burrowed in” to government reminds me of Hitler, who also equated human beings with vermin. Lately, Trump conspiracy theorists have been tossing around a new phrase: “the Deep State.” It sounds like dystopian science fiction, but apparently it’s a circa 1990 Turkish term for shadowy government and military actors who manipulate the levers of power on the sly.
Trump isn’t just using the language of authoritarians, he’s turning on new spigots to pump out his fear-mongering bile. There are his often-parodied, but nonetheless resonant, tweets, which let him spout his delusions without the bothersome filtering and fact-checking done by traditional media. On March 13th, some unsuspecting people discovered a bastard communiqué from an official whitehouse.gov email address squalling in their in-boxes: a newsletter dubbed the “1600 Daily.” The first issue was devoted largely to bashing Obamacare.
The Trump administration’s ominous language and the way it’s demonizing and bypassing the Fourth Estate is bad enough, but now it has begun carrying out its threats. Immigrant communities across the country are living in fear as Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officers swoop in for raids ostensibly designed to root out Trump’s “bad hombres”—and catching others in their nets. As author and former labor secretary Robert Reich put it: “We have far fewer undocumented workers in the U.S. today than we did five years ago. There’s no reason for this outburst of cruelty.” Unless you’re trying to consolidate power by stoking fear and prejudice.
Speaking of fear and prejudice: Despite the fact that the world is in the throes of the greatest refugee crisis since World War II, Trump has banned all refugees from entering the country for three months (we’ll see what happens after that). He’s also imposed an annual cap of 50,000 refugees, more than halving President Obama’s pledge to resettle 110,000 refugees in 2017. (To put those numbers in some context, Germany, a far smaller country, has taken in more than 1 million refugees—roughly 600,000 of them Syrians.)
And the Trump administration isn’t just talking about government purges, it’s carrying them out. For instance, Attorney General (and Civil War relic) Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III recently demanded the resignation of 46 federal prosecutors who’d been appointed during the Obama years. Incoming presidents do replace prosecutors named by their predecessors, but they generally do so once replacements are named, or at least in an orderly fashion. Like so much in his presidency, the Trump’s administration sudden, dramatic sweep of Obama appointees is the opposite of orderly. But if your goal is kleptocracy, who needs prosecutors, anyway?
One of those pesky prosecutors, U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, refused to resign in Session’s purge, so he was fired. And the plot thickens: Bharara’s New York jurisdiction covers both Trump Tower and Fox News headquarters, and his office was handling allegations of wrongdoing at both institutions. I suspect the hope is that getting rid of Bharara will throw water on those investigative fires. It will be a test of America’s judicial system to see if that happens.
The first of Trump’s March 4th Twitter salvos accusing Obama of wiretapping him closed with the words “This is McCarthyism!” Anyone watching has surely noticed that one of the staples of Trump’s playbook is to accuse others of precisely what he himself is doing, and this was a classic example of that adolescent subterfuge. But let’s be clear: Trump is the true heir to McCarthy. Indeed, he’s so adept in that role, in the 21st century, McCarthyism should be renamed McTrumpism.
As I’ve said, I’m not sure Trump has a firm grip on sarcasm, but he does seem familiar with irony. For me, the greatest is that for all of Trump’s demonization of “others,” one of the few groups McTrumpism doesn’t target is the one that McCarthy—and until recently, the entire Republican Party—reviled the most: Russians. But now that Russia’s government has moved away from communism, and the Republican administration has apparently abandoned all principle, there’s really little daylight between the two. I can envision Trump and Putin in a couple of years, caviar running down their chins as they chortle over tales of consolidating power, squelching the press, taking down enemies—and oh yes, getting more obscenely rich with each passing day.
Previously published as ‘The Rise of McTrumpism’ in The Wild Word magazine. thewildword.com
For more great Wild Word essays see:
Rules for Being a Woman by Erin O’Loughlin
Why I Spent a Lifetime Marching as a Feminist by Marsha Owens
A Beacon at Standing Rock by Sarah Drumm