Among the most sordid periods of American history was the systematic political repression directed against leftists, Communists, labor activists, and other “subversives” – the McCarthyism of peak Cold War years spanning the late 1940s to late 1950s. The merciless ideological crusade associated with Joe McCarthy, junior senator from Wisconsin otherwise identified as “Tailgunner Joe”, was no minor interlude: it destroyed the jobs, careers, even lives of many thousands of people, all targeted as un-American threats to be blacklisted, subjected to personal ruin.
When the unconscionable McCarthy was ultimately censured, driven from power, and the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee finally disbanded, it was generally believed that this particular fascistic current of American politics had been buried for good. Not so. Now, several decades later, we have the specter of a new McCarthyism instigated by those – mainly Democrats – still driven to hysteria over what remains of the Trump presidency. The tortured spirit of Tailgunner Joe seems to have returned with special venom. New holy warriors filled with moral righteousness are called to action, ready to destroy any Trump deplorable in sight – that is, anyone smeared as a white supremacist, Nazi, or supporter of the most recently-recycled Adolf Hitler. Such evil, the neo-McCarthyites believe, has already disfigured the political culture they ritually and mindlessly describe as “our democracy”. Overcome with rage, they want total vengeance.
These enraged liberals (and a few conservatives) pervade the airwaves of CNN and elsewhere across corporate media outlets along with groups like the Lincoln Project. Their aim is nothing less than to destroy notable figures – government officials, media pundits, family members, campaign workers, lawyers – within the Trump orbit, supposed bearers of fascist ideology. In the 1950s this was often referred to as “scoundrel time”. Such gatekeepers of the liberal orthodoxy as Keith Olbermann are out for blood, as is U.C., Berkeley professor Robert Reich, who has called for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission tasked with uncovering horrific crimes and other wrongdoings of the Great Orange Threat. These Commissions have been established in South Africa, the Congo, El Salvador, and elsewhere to lay bare human-rights and kindred transgressions, with mixed success.
It is truly heartbreaking to see Reich, the multimillionaire liberal academic and onetime high government official himself, forced to endure what he has called the “nightmare” of a Trump presidency – an office rightfully belonging to his confidant Hillary Clinton. Such horrors are not supposed to happen. The otherwise erudite Reich has become one of those tortured elites who believes “our democracy” has been torn asunder by the Orange Monster, if not a “new Hitler” then a close facsimile. One wonders, however, what specifically has brought the Liberal Berkeley Professor to the point of near psychological breakdown. Trump’s repeated and bothersome tweets? His failure to “listen to the science”? His refusal to passively submit to nonstop mainstream-media assaults? Perhaps something more substantial – maybe Trump’s failure to launch at least one new war against a foreign country? Even one serious attempt at regime change? Could the problem be something even more dramatic – the Orange Despot’s audacity to fight back against the “intelligence community”, Big Tech, military-industrial complex, and (gasp) Big Pharma?
Reich’s existential crisis has in fact accompanied a reinvigorated McCarthyism, , just as Tailgunner Joe too was driven by unchecked hatred of a different evil — godless Communists said to have violated every tenet of enlightened society. The authoritarian personality of each, separated by many decades, turns out to have a good many parallels, underpinned by a deep ideological self-righteousness.
In the real world we inhabit, for Reich to speak of Truth and Reconciliation is nothing but a pathetic joke. Whose truth? What reconciliation? Let us begin with some recent difficulties: the Joe Biden that Reich and the Democrats so celebrate has long been one of the most prodigiously corrupt and opportunist politicians of recent times. As president Obama’s “point man” in Ukraine, Biden – partnering with the CIA and many George Soros-funded NGOs – helped orchestrate the 2014 illegal coup by a conspiring bloc of oligarchs and neo-fascists against an elected government that made the mistake of veering too close to Russia.
After the bloody coup, Biden was rewarded with the appointment of his son Hunter to the board of Burisma Holdings – huge gas (yes, fossil-fuel!) interests that Democrats pretend to hate. The newly-installed Ukrainian ruler was the inept super-oligarch Petro Poroshenko. Biden loyally delivered Washington funding and other favors – illicit arrangements fully documented by Peter Schweitzer in his book Profiles in Corruption and by a four-part independent French documentary titled Les Crises. The filmmakers concluded that Biden is neither morally nor politically fit to serve in any leadership capacity, much less the American presidency. Biden’s disgraceful record hardly ends there: the Democratic savior has cheerfully supported every destructive U.S. war in recent memory, from Serbia to Iraq to Libya, now appearing set for new regime-change interventions in Syria and Belarus. Reich, like Biden, has never been much of a critic of the imperial state, nor has he been troubled by years of the Russiagate lies that has brought Washington recklessly closer to war with Moscow than at any time since the 1950s.
Matters worsen for Reich as we go back in history. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Bill Clinton administration – its disastrous legacy far worse than anything we can attribute to Trump. Consider the following: in the eight years of his presidency Clinton passed the most anti-labor trade legislation in modern U.S. history (NAFTA), engineered the draconian Omnibus Crime Bill of 1995 ramping up the drug wars and targeting offenders with harsh new sentences, ushered in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which effectively turned the media system over to a corporate oligarchy, and dismantled the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act curtailing Wall Street financial schemes – a move that set in motion forces leading to the 2008 economic collapse. That is not all: in 1999 Clinton unleashed the baseless “humanitarian” war on Serbia, when U.S./NATO forces bombed an already depleted nation into submission, in violation of the U.N. Charter and general international law. A leading cabinet member for most of these years, Reich bears culpability for the massive harm the Clinton presidency brought to the U.S. and the world.
There is more to this contemptible record: Clinton waged nonstop aggression against Iraq during the 1990s, weaponizing the U.N. to impose deadly economic sanctions that, combined with hundreds of bombing raids and continuous sabotage, killed many thousands of innocent civilians. The sanctions alone greatly damaged food production, water facilities, medical services, and other infrastructural supports, a violation of the 1977 Geneva Conventions prohibiting attacks on civilian populations, Article 51 stating: “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove, or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.” A Lancet article (December 1995) reported that 567,000 Iraqi children had died from barbaric sanctions that the U.S., in the lead, had stubbornly enforced.
The U.N. coordinator for Iraq, Denis Halliday, resigned because he could no longer be part of “genocidal sanctions” that were starving to death 6000 children every month. Clinton didn’t flinch, never budging from his fanatical crusade to “disarm” Iraq, eventually forcing through Congress (with Biden’s enthusiastic support) the neocon Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which laid the groundwork for the 2003 invasion. Asked about the unspeakable mass murder resulting from the sanctions, American representative to the U.N. Madeleine Albright cruelly responded that it was all splendidly worth it. Albright’s reward: quick promotion to Secretary of State. Truth and Reconciliation? The Liberal Berkeley Professor might consider his own wretched history before helping to unleash a new round of McCarthyism.
For the past four years Reich has been among those Democrats who have most likened Trump to horrible racists and dictators. A standard trope within the ruling political class is that the Orange Menace bears resemblance to Hitler, or at least Mussolini. There are several nagging problems here, the first being that, regarding Trump, no president in recent U.S. memory has seen his power so thoroughly eviscerated from the moment he entered the White House. Curbs from the outset were powerful and relentless: deep-state surveillance, the Russiagate hoax, impeachment, Congressional intransigence, Never-Trumpers of both parties, full-scale media hostility. No president has been so fiercely attacked, smeared, challenged, investigated, and presumed guilty of terrible crimes (even treason). No president has been targeted with such a flimsy and hypocritical impeachment process. Would either Hitler or Mussolini have tolerated, for one minute, such outright undermining of their power?
A more crucial problem surfaces: the accusers have lost all touch with actual historical experience. The Hitler mentioned in crude CNN propaganda was not only guilty of the worst genocidal crimes known to modern society, he launched a cycle of aggressive wars – one, against the Soviet Union, leading to the deaths of 27 million people. Here Reich and the liberal ideologues seem unaware that what mostly incriminated the Nazis at the Nuremberg Tribunal was “crimes against peace”, for which 20 German leaders were found guilty. As Trump has carried out neither genocide nor military aggression, one wonders how the Liberal Berkeley Professor might take seriously all the mind-numbing CNN propaganda (courtesy of AT&T). Adopting the Nuremberg Principles, it is easy to see how Trump – architect of no new foreign wars – in reality occupies the other extreme of the war/peace continuum from the militaristic Nazi dictator.
Back to McCarthyism. The late Michael Rogin, one of my radical professors at Berkeley, wrote a seminal book on Tailgunner Joe titled The Intellectuals and McCarthy, where he brilliantly lays out his concept of “political demonology” that, it turns out, remains more alive than he might have imagined. We know that McCarthy during his brief reign of terror shattered thousands of lives among those, in and out of government, who dared to embrace deviant political views. In those days, of course, Communists and their sympathizers were suspected of wanting to “overthrow the government”, the accusers never mindful that the rather conservative CPUSA harbored no such illusions.
Rogin further argued that the Republican McCarthy’s crusade was preceded by a xenophobic pattern already set in motion by Democratic president Harry Truman – a catalyst behind the Cold War, anti-Soviet hysteria, and Korean debacle starting in the late 1940s. Political demonology, in fact, had its origins in nineteenth-century U.S. history, in the warfare against Native populations that would resurface with a vengeance during the racist Pacific clash with the Japanese. World War II, as John Dower writes in his classic War without Mercy, was an intensely racialized conflict pitting the “pure self” of imperial America against the “demonized Other” in Asia. The Japanese enemy was seen as monolithically evil, beyond redemption, suitably targeted for “total annihilation”, laying the groundwork for the aerial terrorism directed against 66 Japanese cities culminating in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki horrors. It would extend past 1945 when the political demonology would be transferred seamlessly to easily-targeted Communists.
It was the Democrat Truman, moreover, and not McCarthy who presided over birth of the imperial state and, with it, a vast security apparatus that would be dominated by the CIA and NSA. That apparatus has morphed into a global surveillance order, expanding steadily and dangerously across the decades. The obsessive search for enemies furnished, then as now, the perfect rationale for widening political repression. The post-World War II Red Scare clearly fit this objective, leaving a durable mark on the political culture, notably in its obsession with alien threats such as those despicable Russians – even three decades after the fall of the USSR. In Rogin’s words: “The fear of alien conspiracies led to blaming problems in American life on forces operating outside it. Conspiracy pursuits turned normal political differences into absolute struggles between good and evil.” And so it goes – from the madman Stalin to the diabolical Putin, from the Cold War to Russiagate and beyond.
When Truman and then McCarthy moved to destroy “subversive threats” with cynical determination, they were prepared to use every tool at their disposal (intelligence agencies, media, courts, jails), hardly troubled by the Bill of Rights. Punishing enemies would easily surpass the taken-for-granted value of political freedoms. Since the early 1950s, meanwhile, the CIA has been able to shape U.S. foreign policy – the very CIA (and rest of the deep state) that liberals and progressives now defend or celebrate, pitting it against the despotic Trump. What the CIA has given the world seems to have been forgotten: covert operations in dozens of countries, regime changes, political surveillance, death squads, assassinations, torture centers, war propaganda, a general culture of militarism. The Clintons, Bidens, and Reichs have chosen to side with this criminal enterprise, nowadays ruthlessly mobilized to dispose of deplorable enemies.
With neocon Democrats likely soon in charge, the imperial state is sure to be restored to its violent normalcy. Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Belarus – all these countries offer rich possibilities for international mayhem, for Biden ventures. The major centers of American power will have smoother sailing. But Trump and those associated with him can expect some kind of return to Tailgunner Joe, if Reich and the other ideological zealots have their way. The great multibillionaires – Gates, Bezos, Bloomberg, Soros, et. al. – will surely be pleased. If nothing else, the new McCarthyism will at least temporarily serve to duly frighten the critics and keep the deviants in line, the virulent source of a peculiarly American “truth and reconciliation”.