The Neo-McCarthyism of Donald Trump

“You are the people who built this nation. You’re not the people who tore down our nation.”

As a crowd of shrieking voices yelled, “We can’t hear you!”, the President did not seem to realize that his microphone was turned off. Trump addressed a bewildered crowd from behind an oddly-colored screen with seemingly no regard for the fact that his audience could not hear him. He knows well enough that the content of his public address is subsidiary to the performance when it comes to reaching the immediate objective on January 6th.

However, if we want to understand what Trump is doing in these performances, we have to understand that content and performance cannot be so easily separated. Trump’s affectations, cadence, and comically-large tie could not be copied and pasted onto any given politician with success. His brand of nationalism is the binding agent that makes all of it work well enough to inspire a riot in the Capitol building.

In light of the sheer significance of this event, I want to think a bit more deeply about this speech and its obvious impact from the perspective of someone who studies the rhetoric of the far-right. Trump’s address to his rally before the Capitol on January 6th was chock full of dog-whistles, or coded language that signals toward an unspoken audience, toward the militant far-right. Just like how he told the infamous Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” Trump overtly and covertly infused this speech with messages toward his most violent supporters in order to incite them toward rebellion in his name. Hopefully, this article will help the reader understand what these dog-whistles sound like, why they work, and how to spot them in the future, whether they’re being spoken by Presidents or by some chud at the bar.

I say “the future” because, even though Donald Trump has at least formally conceded the election (although “Stop the Steal” will remain a slogan for years to come), I strongly believe that the ideas that mobilize “Trumpism” are far from defeated in the United States. The people who stormed the Capitol did not pop out of thin air in the mid-2010s nor are they some freakish symptom of the pandemic; their ideas have fomented in American politics since the inception of the United States. The anti-black, settler-colonial ideas that Trump capitalizes upon are not symptoms of a particularly-unstable moment in American democracy but constitutive of it, as I argue in a previous post on this blog. Put simply, Trump is a product of our time, not a maker of it. As the conditions in the United States develop into more complicated and unstable contradictions, I am certain that more figureheads will come to take up the mantle of Trumpism to carry his far-right, populist appeal into our future.

In light of this, I am deeply critical of the idea that the storming of the Capitol on January 6th does not represent “who we are” as Americans. Whether it’s being spoken by a Republican in hopes of recuperating the image of their party or by a Democrat attempting to remind their constituents of the bright four years to come, this message is deeply troubling as it attempts to distance Trumpism from the hundreds of years of history that precede him and created such a broad base of support for his ideas. Trump’s claim, that his supporters are “the people who built this nation” belies one of America’s most prevalent founding myths, that the infrastructure of the United States was constructed by hard-working Christian colonists on empty ground rather than by African slaves and other undercompensated laborers on stolen Indigenous land. So long as this myth persists to legitimize American sovereignty, there will always be militants ready to defend this virtuous image of themselves against any and all whose very presence threatens it.

And what myth is complete without an antagonist to smite? Trump’s insinuation that his supporters are distinct from those “who tore down our nation” conjures an ideal justification for insurrection by placing the antagonist at the very seat of government and within cultural and informational apparatuses: Big Tech, fake news, The Swamp, et cetera. It’s fitting! There’s nothing more American than a coup d’état, as evidenced by our nation’s extensive history of backing right-wing coups across the globe in order to protect the interests of the ruling class. During the Cold War years of 1945-1991, not a single year passed in which the United States, either through covert action or overt military intervention, did not involve itself in a regime change effort, usually against elected socialists, revolutionary communists, or anti-colonial nationalists. From the CIA-backed assassination of Chilean social democrat Salvador Allende to “Operation Brother Sam” that ended in a military-backed coup of Brazil’s left-sympathetic vice president, and from the funding of UNITA in Angola in a bid to maintain colonial relations to no fewer than 14 years of regime changes in Laos, the events of January 6th, 2021 might better be understood as the United States coming to taste its own medicine.

In what follows, I identify and trace one of the many ideological motifs that permeate Trump’s speech and signal toward a far-right audience, which I will provisionally term “Neo-McCarthyism”. I am not the first person to take up this term, as it has been used in the past by Cato Institute hacks to defend President Trump and his supporters against the Muller investigation, an editorial on The Nation to rationalize Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia, and by a handful of Nazis railing against their censorship on social media. Put simply, there seems to be very little work by the Left in tracing McCarthyism to its contemporary continuance, as if it were only a relic of the Cold War without any semblance of historical continuity. The legacy of McCarthyism has been reduced to yet another poker chip in the game of accusing the other side of repressing free speech, stripped of its specific purpose in maintaining the dictatorship of the white bourgeoisie.

In hopes of contradicting the delusion that Trump’s and his supporters’ ideas and beliefs run contrary to “who we are” as Americans, I will offer a brief glimpse into the historical development Neo-McCarthyism, where it comes from, its deep connection to the myth of American foundation, and why it makes such a compelling rhetorical wink toward the far-right. Keep in mind that this motif does not make a complete analysis of this speech or of Trump’s appeal writ-large. More work remains to be done to delve more deeply into Trump’s rhetorical tactics, both the unique ones and the not-so-unique ones.

Hating commies is as American as apple pie. It is so American that, from 1938 to 1975, a House committee formed in order to investigate allegations of communist sympathies among citizens. Called the “House Committee on Un-American Activities” and often shortened as HUAC, the committee was responsible for the “Hollywood Blacklist” that delivered punishment based on frivolous claims of communist propaganda within film, preventing many directors, actors, and screenwriters from finding work. The flames of this hysteria were fanned by Senator Joseph McCarthy who alleged, again with little to no evidence, that most American legal and cultural institutions had been infiltrated by communists. This brazen disregard for the First Amendment of the Constitution has largely been remembered as a shameful moment in American history.

Despite our collective decision to dismiss McCarthyism as one of our many Cold War-era moral errors, the reality is that the ideas underpinning McCarthyism have gone nowhere. While the Soviet Union no longer exists to serve as America’s most compromising foreign adversary, the claims that spurred on McCarthyites have found new life. From the “Cultural Marxism” thesis, a far-right conspiracy theory that argues that Jewish philosophers associated with the Frankfurt school created an ideological paradigm for the destruction of Western moral values through cultural institutions, to the DHS issue banning alleged members of communist parties from pursuing American citizenship that would effectively serve as a 21st-Century Chinese Exclusion Act, the specter of communism still haunts American political life, with or without the communists themselves.

In our times, the specter has found a number of new bogeymen to animate. This is at least partially due to the lack of meaningful left-wing infrastructure in the United States. In the absence of militant Communist Parties that stand to meaningfully threaten the ruling class, domestically or abroad, the threat to capitalism that they once represented must find purchase in new forms. In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests and the increasing paranoia surrounding Antifa, the “radical Left” is often semantically analogized to socialism or communism but substantively takes on myriad political forms, from House Democrats to insurrectionary anarchism.

Thus, the main purpose of Trump’s Neo-McCarthyism is to designate who represents American values (his supporters) and who is trying to destroy them, and thus, who must be destroyed in order to preserve America:

All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left Democrats, which is what they’re doing and stolen by the fake news media. That’s what they’ve done and what they’re doing. We will never give up. We will never concede, it doesn’t happen. You don’t concede when there’s theft involved.

Donald J. Trump, Capitol Speech

That “our” election victory is compromised by “radical left Democrats” in conjunction with the complicit media apparatus smacks of the same logic as the thesis of Cultural Marxism in two ways: Firstly, and most obviously, it relies upon an unsubstantiated claim that mainstream media is in cahoots with the Democratic Party and complicit Republicans to overthrow Trump. While it is undeniable that there exists a liberal-bias among many cable news programs, this reality does not rise to the occasion of proving collusion. And while we know that news media organizations are certainly not innocent of favoring certain politicians over others, there is no evidence that they are involved in a steal because a steal did not take place – but, given that you’re reading my blog, I’m sure you already knew that.

Secondly, and much more interestingly, are the connections Trump is trying to form when he utters the phrase “radical left Democrats.” Anyone with a cursory familiarity with political theory could tell you that the Democratic Party is far from the “radical left,” and in fact, the Democratic establishment has consistently attempted to prevent progressives from rising up the ranks in their Party, let alone actual radicals. Can this be chalked up to a simple hyperbole in the hopes of riling the fears of the politically-ignorant? This may be one of its side-effects, but I don’t think that what Trump is doing here can be described so simply. What this phrase more fundamentally does is it applies the Cultural Marxism thesis to the American contemporary conditions. In the absence of Bolshevism, the “radical left” manifests as riots in Portland, Kenosha, Minneapolis, et al., Antifa hooligans coming to ransack a cul-de-sac near you. They are supported, so goes the myth, through a cultural conglomerate of complicit media apparatuses, secretly-socialist billionaires, and, of course, plenty of George Soros checks made out to professional protestors. But, of course, Antifa does not hold seats in Congress nor any federal power that Trump wants to ensure for himself, so he places the heart of this hydra within the Democratic Party that holds sway over the certification of the election results (and even some “weak” and “pathetic” Republicans who must also be in the apparently-bottomless anti-fascist pocketbook).

What does this have to do with the far-right, and why does it work? Each of the steps down this spiral of nonsense have direct ties to the far-right intelligentsia. To prevent their platforms from reaching unnecessary audiences, I won’t be directing you to any online links to substantiate these claims, so I will ask my reader to take my word for it. (Alternatively, if you are looking for a very accessible read on the topic, I highly recommend Talia Lavin’s Culture Warlords.)

The idea that the radical left has infiltrated mainstream politics through big money is a popular trope in antisemitic conspiracy meant to connect the tropes of the Jewish banker and Jewish media-mogul to the dissolution of Western values. There’s a reason why the checks are always from George Soros and not Warren Buffet! Someone must always exist to pull the strings on the “puppets,” as Trump calls his own Supreme Court nominees in the speech, and antisemitism ensures that many assume the shadowy socialist cabal to be propelled by Jewish racial interest.

Likewise, that aforementioned radical left hijacks Black Lives Matter protests as their gateway to rioting conjures the far-right idea that conniving Jews mobilize the destruction of Western values by tricking Black people to doing their political dirty work. Put simply, this myth works because it gives the white audience the idea that their political agency, rightfully earned by building this nation, has been stolen from underneath their nose by a cabal of homegrown racialized Others who have taken the gift of the American Dream and twisted it for their nefarious, white-genocidal purposes. Trump appeals to the destruction of Western values with broad, politically-correct strokes, claiming, “We want to go back, and we want to get this right because we’re going to have somebody in there that should not be in there and our country will be destroyed, and we’re not going to stand for that.” While this sentence may come off as meaningless hand-waving, the far-right knows how to read between the lines. They understand destruction of “our country” and the values upon which it was built as coterminous with the destruction of the white race. To the clued-in audience member, the leap is not a difficult one to make.

The links between antisemitism, antiblackness, and anti-communism are vast and deep, especially in the United States as, at the height of the First Red Scare, the Communist Party of the United States of America was building momentum by organizing Black sharecroppers toward revolution in a period where public proclamations of racial prejudice were socially-accepted.1 The idea that communism is a Jewish plot meant to mobilize Black people against the white race was explicitly endorsed by pre-World War II anti-communists until antisemitism too became analogous to anti-Americanism.2 However, the ideological implications were not banished, but merely turned to subscript by some of the more mainstream anti-communists, while the far-right continued mobilizing and organizing around the fear of a racialized, socialist cabal, which they do to this day.

BEWARE! Communist Jews could trick your daughter into ...
Image caption: A propaganda flier depicting an interracial kiss between a Black man and a white woman overlaid with a Star of David and crowned by a Hammer and Sickle, entitled “THIS COULD BE YOUR DAUGHTER”. Circa-1960’s, United States.

Trump also appeals to the longevity of this theory, once again connecting to Cultural Marxism by ensuring his audience that this infiltration has been going on for far too long: “Our country has been under siege for a long time, far longer than this four-year period.” This poses a very clear connection to the rhetoric of McCarthyism which managed to assert itself, even in the face of Americans’ supposed fidelity to free speech absolutism, by claiming that communist infiltration in the United States had been occurring at multiple levels for an infinite period of time. Trump’s remix not only gestures toward “Barack Hussein Obama,” whose full name has long been uttered, as Trump does in this speech, in order to feed the fear of Islamic takeover by a Black “socialist” (all non-Trumpists are socialists) but it also suggests that the work of undermining Western values has trickled into federal politics from a shadowy, unknown, and unnamed source. Naturally, this gives the far-righters plenty of room to insert their own theories, attributing this decline to any number of bogeymen against whom Trump courageously stands.

Now, why should non-communists give a damn about Neo-McCarthyism? In the words of Martin Niemöller, “First they came for the Communists…” Just like its original instantiation, wherein hundreds of Hollywood personalities lost their jobs due to HUAC finding frivolous connections between them and alleged communists, neo-McCarthyism does not stop at the communists. To justify both its own paranoias and the American myth that it energizes, it must find a socialist enemy to turn the mob toward, whether that enemy is a bona-fide communist or a “weak Republican.” In the logic of Neo-McCarthyism, if you allow communism to rise under your nose, you are a communist yourself. Absent an actual communist institution upon whom to lay culpability, quite literally anyone can become a communist, regardless of their actual political affiliation. This happens in far-right circles all the time; accusations of communist sympathy, which is to say racial treachery, have quite literally torn organizations apart. (Let them fight!)

Neo-McCarthyism aids and abets fascist politics by fanning the flames of white paranoia against a racial threat, justifying extreme measures in order to contain its dastardly spread. Just like how the American military expanded across the globe to contain communism, the American policing apparatus will attempt to permeate all facets of life on their crusade against communism as they did against the Black Panthers, against Hollywood actors, and continue to do against protestors against police brutality. Trump’s populist appeal is inseparable from his authoritarian politics. If that sounds contradictory, you’re right, and that’s exactly why it works. The populus to whom he pledges his fidelity defines itself through its vulnerability in the face of this anti-white plot. While I’m not one to celebrate American elections as the paragons of democracy that they claim to be, Trump’s caricature of the election process is a crucial moment in this speech to construct this victimhood and to secure his supporters’ trust in his absolute authority. Just a few seconds before he urges his followers to march on the Capitol, he promises,

I think one of our great achievements will be election security because nobody, until I came along, had any idea how corrupt our elections were. And again, most people would stand there at 9:00 in the evening and say, ‘I want to thank you very much,’ and they go off to some other life, but I said, ‘Something’s wrong here. Something’s really wrong. Can’t have happened.’ And we fight. We fight like Hell and if you don’t fight like Hell, you’re not going to have a country any more.

Donald J. Trump, Capitol Speech

Given that Trump’s goal was clearly to secure his absolute power despite clearly losing the election, his bid for “election security” should sound not dissimilar to Hitler’s promises when he took up emergency powers and dissolved the Weimar Republic. Trump wanted to have oversight over the election process to secure a line of Trumpist succession; he basically admitted it himself:

Donald Trump twitter: President tweets terrifying video ...
Image caption: A screenshot from a Trump tweet-video wherein he promised to be President “4EVA”. Courtesy of

To the Neo-McCarthyite, the death of the liberal-democratic farce is a small price to pay to ensure the continuity of Western capitalism over all of its threats, foreign and domestic. To abstract this claim a bit further, right-populism (And maybe all types of populism! I’m honestly unsure as of now.) requires authoritarianism in order to protect, maintain, and expand the population endowed with political preference over those populations who, by virtue of their exclusion, constitute the populus itself. Neo-McCarthyism, and anti-communism more broadly, has never been simply about banishing communism but about destroying every institution, every idea, and every body whose presence could signal a threat to the white body politic, a body that would not maintain itself if it weren’t threatened. This discourse is a downward spiral of contradiction that doesn’t end until we’ve all hit rock bottom.

1 – Hammer and Hoe by Robin Kelley

2 – “Foreword: McCarthyism, the Internment and the Contradictions of
Power” by Mari J. Matsuda

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