The New McCarthyism

Here is a sample of the lies, insults, and conspiracy theories that Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is platforming: why not give this political strategy a name?

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Image credit: DonkeyHotey/Wikimedia Commons

This is what the right-wing alternative media and political world that Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is in charge of would look like if it existed in physical space.

A public park near your home is packed with people shouting death threats against Nancy Pelosi, Liz Cheney, Anthony Fauci, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Mike Pence. They also assert, pointing to various websites and live streams that they access on their mobile phones, that the Democrats in this group are pedophiles and cannibals. Scattered among the crowd are people mounted on soapboxes who insist that Donald Trump was not only elected president and that somewhere around mid-August, he will be President again. Some of them believe Joe Biden is an actor who the Deep State is manipulating to look like a president.

Then there is the money. Taking advantage of the large crowds, the park is ringed with people collecting money to forward their causes; others are hawking strange wares and cures. Some promise to cure Covid-19 and any other disease with a mysterious solution flecked with real silver, while others urge passers-by to purchase gold bars to protect themselves when the government money system collapses. Periodically, one of the more prominent soapbox figures asserts loudly that the NSA is secretly plotting to destroy him. These people, too, are claiming their right to spread fear and misinformation under the first amendment, and some of them are raising money for a variety of bogus or semi-bogus legal defense funds.

All of them claim that the First Amendment protects their right to say these things and have them taken seriously.

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No matter what they are doing there, everyone in the park carries a loaded, semi-automatic weapon. They say the Second Amendment protects their right to terrorize others in this way.

None of these people actually know what the rest of the United States Constitution says, what the other 25 amendments are, or what rights other than religion, speech, and carrying a dangerous weapon are constitutionally protected.

Occasionally, the police and local politicians are called to the scene. When asked to assess whether what is going on is a clear and present danger to the public, they squint at the sky and shrug. They say that they can’t be sure because it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t nowadays, and anyway, these activities are constitutionally protected. Then, suddenly, a policeman who is not yet down with the program looks at the scene and protests that what is going on does not represent any semblance of public order.

The chief of police terminates him on the spot.

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This fictional scenario is what Kevin McCarthy’s Republican caucus, and the alternative media world it inhabits, looks like now—and here’s a selection of the lies and conspiracy theories the Minority Leader gave houseroom to last week.

Since Donald Trump fumbled the pandemic by pretending that it wasn’t happening, the GOP has committed to that lie, one that is still being promoted on the party’s lunatic fringe. Thus, after 607,000 deaths in the United States and as cases are spiking among the unvaccinated, Rep. Lauren Boebert (CO3) strongly implied in a tweet that the Delta variant of Covid-19 is a fiction promoted by liberal media elites. The deadliest and most transmissible mutation of the virus to date will she wrote, “go away” if you “turn off CNN. And vote Republican.” Last Friday, Boebert (who has participated in government business in front of her home gun rack) proclaimed that the Biden administration’s continued insistence that vaccines prevent and mitigate the disease was “bullying.”

Claiming that racial equality means condoning white supremacist violence as a legitimate civil rights agenda. Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA14) declared on Newsmax that "If this country can demand justice for someone like George Floyd,” then the “passionate patriot” Ashli Babbitt should receive the same justice. You might recall that at the time of his death, by almost ten minutes of slow strangulation, Floyd was under arrest on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 bill. Babbitt, a QAnon-sympathizing January 6 insurrectionist, was part of an armed mob waving Confederate flags and demanding that a legal election be overturned. She was shot and killed by a Capitol policeman as she led a charge into the House Chamber to stop that election from being completed so that the candidate who lost could remain in office.

Comparing leftists and liberals to Nazis. Last week, both Greene and Boebert characterized those carrying out the government’s vaccination campaign as Nazis.

That the only reason Republicans have no obligation to respect the rights of those who do not reflect their political, cultural, or social “values.” Just yesterday, the typically unhinged Jim Jordan (OH-4) explained in a Tweet why his party is almost singularly focused on waging culture wars about fictional problems as the nation cries out for action on infrastructure, healthcare, and the economy. “The Left started the culture war,” he wrote. “They kneeled for the anthem. They let boys play girls (sic) sports. They pushed Critical Race Theory. They politicized July 4th. They tried to cancel Christmas. They tore down statues. They made up genders.”

They tell lies about themselves and seek to cloak their own irresponsible actions as the outcome of circumstances beyond their control. Mo Brooks (AL-5), who has serially blamed everyone from Antifa to the Proud Boys for the January 6 insurrection—but never admitted that his own speech at the Trump rally might have played a role—claimed in a court filing that it wasn’t his fault he gave the speech. He wouldn't have done it had the White House not invited him and cleared the speech.

They blame “the government” for everything, thus disassociating themselves from the government they are actually employed by. For example, at Dallas CPAC, Louie Gohmert (TX-01) claimed that that the January 6 insurrection was a “set up” by Nancy Pelosi and planned by FBI infiltrators to damage the Republican party.

What does Kevin McCarthy do? Nothing.

This is the New McCarthyism. If the old McCarthyism was characterized by random lies and exaggerations actually spoken by the establishment, in the form of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy and others, and the fringe supported them. The New McCarthyism reverses that. Now, the lies that structure the Republican party’s electoral strategy are articulated at the lunatic fringe of the party, while the establishment supports them by inaction and silence.

If Kevin McCarthy wanted to clear this virtual park of its lunatic and anti-democratic elements, he would do exactly that.

But he won’t because he thinks they are working to consolidate his power.

This is why the 2022 election will be another test of our democracy. Unless independent and moderate Republican voters thoroughly repudiate these tactics, they will come to define our future as a nation.

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Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020).


Short takes:

  • Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times wants to know why, six months out, Donald Trump has not yet been held accountable for inciting an attempted overthrow of the government. In fact, he is still at large, spinning propaganda and planning a presidential run. But it is not unprecedented for a traitorous white man to remain free and available to his admirers as a spiritual leader: look at all those Confederate generals. (July 13, 2021)

  • Who is the Patient Zero of the conservative mass hysteria surrounding critical race theory? Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria of Popular Information found him: it’s James Piereson, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who also works at the Thomas W. Smith Foundation, founded by a low profile Boca Raton, Florida hedge fund manager of the same name. Piereson has long opposed “all efforts to increase diversity at powerful institutions and laments the introduction of curriculum about the historical treatment of Black people.” The anti-CRT is only his latest—and most effective campaign. (July 13, 2021)

  • If you want a case study of how formerly respectable intellectuals ended up hitching their wagons to Donald Trump and the tin foil hat and tennis shoes crowd, look no further than the Claremont Institute, a formerly prestigious conservative think tank. “The Claremont Institute used to be one of the principal places for conservative intellectuals to come together. It was founded by scholars who were taken seriously even by people who disagreed with them,” writes Laura K. Field at The Bulwark. The Claremont fellowship used to be prestigious: lately, they have supported Trump conspiracy theorists like Jack Posobiec, Charlie Kirk, and Michael Anton. (July 13, 2021)

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