By George Friedman
Sen. Joseph McCarthy created a reign of terror in his pursuit of communists in the 1950s. Given that at the time of McCarthyism the Soviet Union was ruled by a genocidal maniac, identifying someone who was a communist and excluding him from government does not strike me as unreasonable. No one could deny what communism in the Soviet era was about – it was clear for anyone who cared to see. Any communist at that time was endorsing pure evil. Moreover, during a period when the United States was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union, and both sides were conducting espionage against each other, the fear of communist agents in the U.S. government was legitimate.
The problem with McCarthy was not his stated intent but his real intent. McCarthy found few, if any, communist spies. But he used the charge of communism as a tool to discredit and destroy those he disagreed with. Whether for ideological or opportunistic reasons, McCarthy used legitimate contempt for communism to attack liberals by labeling them as communists.
U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy holds a picture showing Clement Richard Attlee, British statesman and prime minister (1945-1951), making a communist salute during the Spanish Civil War. John Parnell Thomas and McCarthy instigated an anti-communist witch hunt campaign in the early 1950s, a period known as McCarthyism. AFP/AFP/Getty Images
He did this by first identifying someone he wanted to destroy. He then examined the person’s past for communist links. These links did not necessarily have to include membership in the Communist Party. Rather, he would assert that a certain group was either a communist front or contained communists. So, for example, a civil liberties group could have been declared a communist front because some of its members might have been communists in the past. The targeted individual might have been a member of the group or, in many cases, simply associated with its members.
This link would have been used to label the person a communist or a communist sympathizer, strip him of his security clearance and get him fired from his job. His career would have been destroyed. It was a three-step process: declare a group communist on minimal or no evidence; find members of the group with some link to the Communist Party; and claim that this proved that the targeted individual was a communist. The motive might have been to destroy someone on the left for political reasons, or sometimes simply to use the case to demonstrate that Harry S. Truman and the Democrats were soft on communism for letting an individual with possible communist ties work for the government or go free.
McCarthyism destroyed itself because of the outrageous and unfounded charges that McCarthy made and the lives he ruined. It is now rare for someone to be under widespread attack for being a communist. What has arisen in its place is the charge of fascism. Accusations of fascism are thrown around as casually as the charge of communism once was. And they have a similar purpose: to destroy those who some people disagree with and show that President Donald Trump is soft on fascism.
This is not about supporting or opposing Trump. Nor is it a defense of fascism. Rather, it is about using the charge of fascism recklessly against people with whom you disagree. For some, anyone on the right is fascist. For others, the claim is made on flimsy evidence carefully framed to justify the accusation.
Fascism is a political ideology that contends that the embodiment of a nation’s will is contained within a single man. That man is not subject to re-election. His word is law and requires no ratification by an elected legislature. Fascism silences all dissenting views through arrests or even execution. Some fascist systems claim that the nation must be of pure blood (Hitler believed this, Mussolini did not) and that the nation must be purged of impurity through mass murder, if necessary. Fascism also includes the belief that the state does not need to own but can control the behavior of the economy as it sees fit. It has other qualities, but the point is that fascism is a very specific historical phenomenon with certain clear characteristics.
Communists and fascists do not exist in the U.S. government today when you apply the actual definition of each of these ideologies. Speaking about the dictatorship of the proletariat or the Führerprinzip will get you noticed. Nevertheless, just as McCarthy didn’t care about what communism was, those who make charges of fascism don’t care about what a fascist actually is. The intent is to destroy political enemies by portraying them as monsters.
McCarthy had some sense of this, so he used the term “communist sympathizer” to describe anyone he wanted to target. When he had no evidence of direct communist links, he would find something that the person once said to hang him on. For example, during World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies. If someone made a speech praising the Soviets for their heroism in the war, which many people did, McCarthy could use that statement to make it appear that the person was a communist sympathizer.
Those who label their enemies fascists use a similar maneuver. If you can find that someone has made a racial or anti-Semitic slur, it proves not that the person is a racist or anti-Semite, but that he is a fascist – which is a different thing. And sometimes, when no slurs can be found, people use another McCarthyite tactic. They charge that a group with a long history is anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi, show that a person has some relationship to the group and then label him a Nazi or anti-Semite.
Sebastian Gorka is a case in point. He is a member of Trump’s staff whom I have met on two occasions very casually. He is now under a media assault for being an alleged anti-Semite and possibly a Nazi. The charge is based on his wearing the pin of the Vitézi Rend, a Hungarian group created in 1920 to honor soldiers. According to accusers, it was a pro-Nazi group during World War II. However, according to The Jerusalem Post and Tablet (both of which are Jewish publications), it was not a pro-Nazi organization, although some of its members likely held that view. Gorka says he was not a member but wore the pin to honor his family. However, his enemies demand his resignation.
So this may or may not have been a pro-Nazi group in the 1940s. If it was, that was over 70 years ago during a time when European madness gripped everyone. What that has to do with this man 70 years later is the question. The essence of the McCarthyite strategy was to find a group with a long history that went through many phases, discover some connection between the individual and the group many years later (this could include membership or something more casual), and charge him with believing the ideas that the group may or may not have supported 70 years ago.
Of course, this has nothing to do with whether Gorka or anyone else is actually an anti-Semite or a fascist. It has to do with disagreement with the Trump administration and an attempt to destroy people associated with it. Just as McCarthy destroyed liberals through the same means using accusations of communism, so now the charge of fascism or its relative – anti-Semitism – is being used.
As a Jew, I have to say that the reckless charge of anti-Semitism is dangerous to Jews. Its widespread use for political ends with tenuous evidence simply deadens the listener’s sensitivity too often. It is crying wolf. But as important, as an American, I believe charging people you don’t like with fascism is as reckless as McCarthy ever was.
Leaving the Gorka case aside, since he is for me an example not a cause, the danger of another witch hunt is real along all lines. When we talk of the loss of civility, charges of racism, anti-Semitism or fascism are part of the problem. Gorka and the others must stand on what they have said and done. They should not be guilty by association.