Numerous articles have drawn connections between Donald Trump and Joe McCarthy, on grounds of political opportunism and talk of nefarious forces sweeping America, but this is, after all, the standard fare of demagogues on both sides of the aisle. Worry not, or worry indeed, the similarity exists in far greater specificity, and it manifests as an obsession with the loyalty of Americans and belief in a conspiracy among the upper echelons of society, particularly those working within the government itself.
The loyalty obsession first showed itself in the Cabinet- and sub-Cabinet candidate selection process. Qualified contenders were eliminated from consideration one after the other by result of disparaging, or even merely disapproving, comments they had made regarding Mr. Trump during the campaign. It is not so much that campaign loyalists were rewarded, as many suspected would be the case, but instead that dissenters were punished.
Next it appeared in the form of wildly-inappropriate assertions from Mr. Trump that he had the support of the military and the CIA. At the Armed Services Ball on inauguration night, Mr. Trump said “I like the fact that you all voted for me, right? You all voted for me,” while video-chatting deployed service members in Afghanistan. Standing in front of a CIA memorial for its fallen, Mr. Trump stated “probably almost everybody in this room voted for me.” Again two weeks later at MacDill Air Force Base, with the show of a full political rally, “I saw those numbers, and you liked me and I liked you. That’s the way it worked.”
Then came the comments from Press Secretary Sean Spicer regarding the State Department dissent memo. The channel used for private (though it nearly always becomes public) expressions of disagreement to the Secretary of State and Administration from career diplomats, served its purpose when nearly 1,000 State Department employees used it to protest the travel ban executive order. In an unprecedented response, the White House told them to “either get with the program or they can go.” Mr. Spicer then alleged that the officials were engaging in “bullying at the highest levels,” ironic when many perceived the dynamic as the exact opposite.
And then the firings began, though without the flair of Mr. Trump’s trademark phrase. When an old op-ed was unearthed, out went a senior appointee at HUD, who had already filled his post and begun work. After remarks at a private and off-the-record roundtable hosted by a think tank, out went a National Security Council aide. It seems that six top officials from State have also been dismissed out of questions of loyalty in the past few weeks.
The belief in conspiracy regarding the media has been well documented, and the narrative is so lengthy and redundant that there is little merit to reciting it here. Mr. Trump’s more troubling perception of conspiracy is thats that the intelligence community is out to get him. After the release of a report essentially confirming Russia hacking to favor him in the election, Mr. Trump tweeted a comparison of the intelligence community to Nazi Germany. Prior to this, Mr. Trump had already rebuffed the daily intelligence briefings received by every modern President, saying that his own smarts would prove a more-than-adequate substitute for the highly-vetted information. Superficial claims that he would be so supportive of the CIA that they would tell him they did not need so much support did little to quell concerns. Rightly so, it seems, when a few short weeks later it comes out that Mr. Trump plans to have a political ally with administration ties, Stephen Feinberg, conduct a review of the intelligence agencies. Many employees are understandably concerned that the review will be used as a way to bring what are supposed to be apolitical agencies more fully under the thumb of the White House.
And how could they not be? Republican lawmaker Steve King has suggested that the CIA is populated with “leaking moles” and that “people there need to be rooted out” and “purged.” The President himself then tweeted that “[t]he real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by “intelligence” like candy. Very un-American!” There, he said it! The magic words!
Un-American? Which part? Unprofessional maybe, but the one does not begin to approach the other. In fact, an assertion of the public’s right to know and use of freedom of the press is very American indeed.
Of course, no one has been imprisoned, and I am not suggesting that we are living through the equivalent of the McCarthy era. Merely that this is McCarthyism, and that Mr. Trump is McCarthyite. The rhetoric is reminiscent of reprehensible proceedings, and we had best realize it before there is prosecution, or rather persecution, to match.