In February of 1950, at a Lincoln Day dinner in Wheeling, West Virginia, a little known first-term Senator, Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, announced that he had evidence of 205 Communists who were working for the State Department, and who were known by the State Department to be Communists. McCarthy never managed to substantiate that claim, or indeed, even to identify one such person still working in the State Department or any other branch of the federal government, but his name became (and remains) a household word, and he exercised a tremendous influence upon American politics for more than four years, until he came to grief after taking on the U.S. Army. What struck many people, then and later, was the extraordinary manner in which McCarthy was able to dominate press coverage, even though he hardly ever managed to come up with any real facts. In fact, he was using a technique that has now become commonplace and which the Republican Party is using to great effect during the current election campaign. It behooves us to look for a moment at his career once again so as to understand exactly what that technique was.
Let us begin with the Lincoln Day speech that made McCarthy famous. The basis for it, it turned out, was a 1946 letter by then-Secretary of State James Byrnes to the House Appropriations Committee, detailing the results of an employee screening program within his Department, apparently relating to numerous temporary employees that had been hired during the war, including some aliens. 3000 of these employees, the letter said, had been given a "preliminary examination," and a "recommendation against permanent employment" had been made for 284 of them. Of these, 79 had actually been separated from the department. Subtracting 79 from 284, McCarthy had arrived at the figure of 205, and upgraded them all from people whose permanent employment had not been recommended to actual Communist Party members. He made no allowances, of course, for anything that might have happened in the intervening four years, either.
The point, in short, was that McCarthy's allegation had no real basis in fact--but that by making it, and repeating it in several significantly modified forms over the next few weeks, he created a sensation. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee actually created a subcommittee chaired by the respected Millward Tydings of Maryland to investigate his charges. It found them baseless months later, but by then McCarthy had moved on to other things, and Tydings lost his seat in November 1950 thanks partly to a faked photograph McCarthy's people circulated showing him with the leader of the Communist Party. The point, in short, was not that McCarthy had uncovered important information--he hadn't--but that he had started a huge, endless conversation about Communists in government, of which several had indeed been uncovered before he made his speech. (Many more people who were simply left-wingers had already been fired from the government, as well.) That conversation became part of mainstream Republican discourse, and McCarthy became such a valued member of the Republican team that in 1952, Dwight Eisenhower, campaigning for President, declined to attack him even after he had called Eisenhower's patron and boss, General George C. Marshall, a traitor.
One of the biggest problems in dealing with McCarthyism is that it is impossible to refute it specifically without contributing to its aims. The point of a McCarthyite attack is to get something in the news, and refuting the allegations keeps them in the news, without having any impact at all the constituency to which the attacks appeal. And the more the allegations are discussed, the more neutral people are likely to believe that there must be something to them. This is happening now with respect to Planned Parenthood, and it is quite likely to lead to the shutdown of the federal government.
The videos made by a young Republican activist and his team of discussions with Planned Parenthood officials--videos obtained under completely false pretenses, just like the ones that brought down ACORN--are not much better evidence of wrongdoing than McCarthy's letter from Secretary Byrnes. The conversations were artificially created by men with a huge axe to grind, who were specifically steering the officials into dangerous territory for their own purposes. And the officials, like the secretaries in Acorn offices, were obviously trying to be polite. Then, the raw footage was edited to make it as inflammatory as possible. And just as McCarthyism appealed to the many Americans who had believed that the White House had been in thrall to Communism ever since FDR took over in 1933, these videos confirm the deepest prejudices of Americans who oppose all abortions and, in many cases, any form of birth control at all.
Carly Fiorina has jumped in the polls after the second Republican debate, because she emerged as an intelligent, forceful woman who was prepared to stand up to Donald Trump. But she contributed to the McCarthyite campaign against Planned Parenthood in a purposely emotional speech that gave an extremely misleading impression of what was in the video and how it got there. I am not going to fall into the trap of propagating exactly what she said or exactly what is in the video still further by detailing it here, but trust me, I did look into it carefully myself, and the real information is available in numerous places. And at that moment, I decided that Fiorina was in no way superior to the average among this year's Republican candidates.
Abortion however is far from the only issue that is being used to revive McCarthyism. Hillary Clinton was very foolish to use a private server as Secretary of State, but there is no evidence, despite a good deal of investigation, that she compromised the security of classified information by doing so. She did enough, however, to start what promises to be an endless round of investigations (parallel to those generated by McCarthy's accusations) which will occupy a lot of news space well into next year's presidential campaign. Today's New York Times has a story about two specific emails, splitting hairs about whether they should have been classified, while giving no indication that either of them was appropriately leaked. The Clintons, of course, are not saints, but they have been the repeated victims of McCarthyite attacks ever since Bill became President, relating to Troopergate, Vince Foster, Whitewater, and the President's sexual behavior. Most of these allegations were without foundation, and those that had any never deserved 1/100 of the ink that they generated.
McCarthyism is also being used against immigration, by highlighting one or two murders committed by illegal immigrants. In the absence of any evidence (which is not forthcoming) that illegal immigrants are committing murders at a significantly above-average rate than other Americans, this is meaningless. Trump's comments about Mexican rapists echo Anne Coulter, who has spread such accusations in her latest book.
Such accusations inevitably resonate among the enormous echo chamber that is the right wing media, including talk radio and Fox News, and thus keep the Republican base active. But as my example from today's New York Times shows, the mainstream media frequently get into the act as well when a Democratic politician is involved. Next year's election may well be decided based upon the breadth of the appeal of McCarthyite attacks, since it will be in part a referendum on abortion and, if Clinton is the nominee, on her personal honesty. The only defense against it is to ignore the details of baseless or nearly baseless accusations, and that is what I am going to try to do here in this space from here on.
p.s. Within a hour of making this post, I learned that John Boehner is leaving the House of Representatives. This is a direct result of the Planned Parenthood videos, which once again put him in the position of trying to stop his rank and file from shutting down the government. This will be either a great triumph for McCarthyism, or the beginnings of its self-destruction. Stay tuned.