Index > Briefing
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
The Birth of McCarthyism in America and How it Fully Came to Be

Sometime back in early 2016 when Donald Trump first ascended to presidency, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote about how Trumpism was the new McCarthyism and likened both concepts to one another. Since then, whenever Trump’s presidency was called into question, Americans as well as the international community would often associate it with McCarthyism. Due to the recent implications the Covid-19 pandemic has on American, the country has once again, lashed out and pointed its finger at China, leading many to wonder if the McCarthyism-influenced America would eventually respond to China through a series of drastic policies.

The term “McCarthyism”, coined in 1950 after the American Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, prioritized the lower-class individuals in America, as opposed to the capitalists. McCarthy sparked a nationwide “manhunt” following his Wheeling speech about how the U.S. State Department held “communist members” within its ranks, resulting in numerous anti-communist activities intent on ousting members from the related party and quelling any movements associated with it. In fact, he criticized the Democratic government for doing a horrible job at curbing any communist activities within the country and blamed them for allowing communists to gain entry into core departments such as the State Council, as it resulted in the following – jeopardizing America’s diplomatic relations, leaking the country’s A-bomb secrets to Russia and losing China to communism. In many ways, McCarthyism is similar to America’s growing populist movement, particularly in the regard in that it drew upon the working class’ hatred for the communist and encouraged them to rat the communist supporters out so much so that the movement became a political storm that took the nation by storm and sparked a hysteria about subversives in the American government. According to certain statistics, 20 million Americans were subjected to varying levels of interrogations, a few hundreds were unreasonably detained, and 12,000 others had lost their jobs as a result of their political alignment. It was not until early 1954 when McCarthyism took his “manhunt” to the American military that he was met with strong oppression. Under the combined efforts from parties both in and outside the Congress, the Senate had made the unanimous decision to censure the senator, thereby causing his political credibility to suffer heavily and losing his supporters in the process too. And with that, just as quickly as McCarthy came into the political arena, he went away.

While certain classified files that surfaced some ten years later did eventually confirm that the individuals McCarthy had accused of being communist members were indeed affiliated with espionage and reconnaissance work, McCarthy himself never did manage to uncover these “infiltrators” within the American government ranks during his time. Instead, it resulted in the rise of the term - McCarthyism, though what we know of it now differs greatly from its original meaning. Initially, the term referred solely to the act of weeding out communist members within the American government. President Harry S. Truman, who was targeted by McCarthy, however, saw it as a way to appease certain individuals or parties of power at the expense of “sabotaging the American Dream”. Today, The Webster International English Dictionary defines McCarthyism as a 20th century political mindset based on demagogic, reckless, and unfounded accusations that publicly attacks on certain political individuals/opponents through the questioning of their character or patriotism. In layman terms, McCarthyism is the act of defaming one through their character or reputation.

McCarthyism is a product of its time; it is a movement that ties very closely into the history and people belonging to an era. Following the end of World War II and into the start of the Cold War, America and Soviet Union were caught up in a fierce confrontation, which in turn, culminated in the peak of anti-communist sentiments. Capitalizing on the razzmatazz in the country, McCarthy delivered a speech on anti-democracy and anti-communism in the country to amass himself a large number of followers. Some historians believed that McCarthyism was a given due to the American system’s partisan politics. To sum it simply, McCarthy’s timely appearance and his radical views fit that of the Republican leadership, and in doing so, forces people like the democrats and Truman who fall under partisan politics, to do more to prove their loyalty to avoid being slapped with a “pro-communist” charge, subsequently making McCarthy a fearsome force. Given the chronology of events that preceded, McCarthyism was truly inevitable given the long-standing ideas of anti-radicalism and anti-communism in America.

People disliked McCarthy for numerous reasons (the same ones that resulted in his censure). One, he created problems out of nothing and proceeded to sensationalize them by spreading lies and rumors, smear tactics essentially. Two, he was known to make mountains of molehills or exaggerate things beyond what they were, politically. Three, he often relied on defamation to call out his opponents, and worst of all, he wouldn’t hesitate to resort to underhanded tactics to get the job done if the situation ever called for it. When people attempted to refute or reason with his claims, McCarthy would instead deflect the questions and go in circles by coming up new allegations to further lead the public astray, which would deter people from pursuing the initial matter and caused them to give up altogether. Clearly, it’s no wonder one can draw many similarities with McCarthy and Trump in the areas of policies concerning immigration, trade, healthcare; then international trade relations, domestic political parties, the media, companies and even right down to his character, especially right after Trump became president. While McCarthy denied facts and political correctness, his supporters continued to maintain the fact that McCarthy said what he had to say. Never mind his tall tales and lies they would say, because he speaks a certain degree of truth in a larger sense. Like McCarthy, Trump too has lots of followers, and has a penchant for using the media to fan the political flames and spread his propaganda. Trump’s supporter remains ardently defensive of him, claiming that the president sees the main problem that is plaguing America. To the Americans, Trump’s act of going against the flow, against political correctness accurately reflects their fear. The act of opposing globalization speaks of the internal rift that is happening in the country. As it stands, Trumpism is the culprit behind America’s social populism and its anti-globalization sentiments.

That being said, Richard Cohen believes the current political and social environment will determine if Trump would ever fully tread down the path of McCarthyism. The reason for that is as simple as both McCarthyism and the society’s values do not go well together, thus making it hard for all parties to come to a consensus. What more when the very essence of McCarthyism lies in suppressing the freedom of expression in America. Back when McCarthyism was a prevalent movement, Associate Justice the Supreme Court William Douglas once published an article saying – “No one person or group single handedly holds the answer to the world’s most complex problems.” A way of saying that an exchange of views and opinions between many great minds is required to solving an intricate problem(s). Cohen went on to express that America’s strength lies not in its material power but its spiritual strength, and that is precisely what McCarthyism seeks to undermine. For every policy and statement that Trump makes, a heated discussion is slated to take place between the democrats and the people. While Trump can speculate the effect of his words may hold, he certainly holds no control over the public’s opinion, nor is he allowed to treat the oppositions in any extreme manner whatsoever.

The only thing that hasn’t change since the era of McCarthyism is America’s anti-China sentiments, only now the current international environment is much different compared to the days of Cold War. Plus, unlike the Cold War, America’s national security isn’t at danger currently and so, while there might be certain commotions ensuing in the right-wing party, it is unlikely that resorting to drastic policies to resolve the disputes between America and China would lead to an uproar amongst Americans. Based on Trump’s performance however, adopting a return policy for the country as the rest of world takes to protectionism can potentially provoke trade disputes. Apart from that, Trump’s xenophobic and populist movement is also largely the reason behind the subtle changes in America and Europe’s relations. Now, Trump is listening to the voices of the working class and driving away the immigrants, enforcing the Muslim ban as well as openly targeting any Chinese exchange students and overseas Chinese; Though this will undeniably cause the Wall Street and other emerging industries to suffer losses and upset certain people. Presently, Trump’s methods of coping with the pandemic has also come under question by the people due to the controversial accusations he had made towards China’s intellectual and academic community, which has resulted in a bitter response.

As China continues to rise, there has been growing consensus within America to regard China as its strategic competitor though it should never involve the act of fanning the political flames or treading down the McCarthyism path of radical populism, seeing as it would do America no good either. Douglas H. Paal, the current vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who also happens to be a Republican who served in the American Institute in Taiwan, cautioned the use of "McCarthyism" to deal with U.S.-China trade relations, believing that it would only further jeopardize the country’s interests more than anything else. Despite having criticized China in the past, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence too called for more interactions between America and China in his annual policy speech at Washington’s Wilson last year. He stressed the need for frequent contacts and that the American government should not actively seek out any conflict, confrontation or excessive competition.

Final analysis conclusion:

Behind the birth of McCarthyism lies a time in history where populism was on the rise. As it stands however, the current situation between America and China differs greatly from then and as such, America has yet to resort to radical ideas to resolve its conflict with China. Hence, it is safe to say that America and China will remain at a “strategic co-opetition” for a longer period of time.

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