A photo of a Republican and Joseph McCarthy

Explain This

We’ve Entered a New Age of McCarthyism

While Trump walks back and forth on his treasonous alliance with Russia, government employees like Peter Strzok are being tarred and feathered for daring to have an opinion.

This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members.  We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?

Although the story now has been overshadowed by Trump basically committing treason, Peter Strzok’s testimony last week before the House Judiciary and Oversight Committee was surreal: An FBI agent who led the investigation into both Hillary Clinton’s email server and Russian interference in our elections, he had the temerity to dislike Donald Trump and express that feeling in private. Because of this, he was subjected to ten hours of disingenuous questioning and grandstanding from House Republicans.

Strzok, of course, was removed from Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russians during the 2016 election when some private text messages came to light. In those private text messages, he said what so many of us were thinking during that time: He worried that Trump would become president and hoped the electorate would stop it. He called Trump a loathsome human, a disaster, and an idiot. Oh, and he said those things to a person who is not his wife: He told Lisa Page, a fellow FBI agent with whom Strzok was having an affair.

Ultimately, Strzok was functionally cleared by the Justice Department’s inspector general’s report, which found that his personal animus toward Trump didn’t affect his actions in working the Russia interference case. That conclusion didn’t please Trump or the House GOP, of course, because they’re desperately looking to draw attention away from the fact that Mueller’s investigation is clearly getting ever closer to Trump and his inner circle.

But there’s more to it than that: People on the right are fundamentally unable to believe that a government employee such as Strzok could have feelings about a person or issue that run contrary to their official duties, yet still faithfully execute those duties. Why not? Likely because they themselves are completely unable to do so. The notion that there are people who choose to work for the government as a lifetime choice that spans administrations versus only participating in civic life when “your side” controls the levers seems unfathomable to Trump and much of the GOP.

Just look at the nonsensical idea of the Deep State. Led by Trump, a significant chunk of GOP politicians and the electorate now believe intelligence agencies are united in their desire to bring down Trump, simply because those agencies are populated with people who worked there before Trump came along. This conspiracy theory ignores a couple of key things. First, intelligence agencies are typically no friend to the left-leaning and the notion that they’re suddenly staffed by wild-eyed liberals defies logic. Next, if there was indeed a conspiracy to take down Trump, and if Strzok was a key player in that conspiracy, wouldn’t he have simply leaked information about Trump’s Russian connections back in 2016 to try to tip the election to Clinton?

Behind this hatred of the bureaucratic class of workers is also a belief that the government simply doesn’t need an apolitical layer to function. Republicans don’t value government workers, period, and they definitely don’t value the notion that government workers should be insulated from political whims.

That type of attitude is driving what is happening right now at the Department of Veterans Affairs. In advance of the confirmation of the likely next Secretary, Robert Wilkie, the Trump administration is making sure to get rid of staff that seem “disloyal” to Trump. The administration is able to use the ongoing agency chaos it causes—Trump fired his first VA secretary pick, David Shulkin, and then, improbably nominated his scandal-plagued personal White House physician to the post—to create a sort of permanent churn. When that’s happening, it’s easy to disguise the fact that they’re just purging people.

And this isn’t limited to the VA. Earlier this year, Trump signed executive orders that undermined civil service protections and made it easier for political appointees to fire non-political government workers. And earlier this month, Trump issued yet another executive order. This one shifts the hiring of administrative law judges—people who are typically experts in their field and conduct hearings and trials for specific government agencies—from a merit-based system to one of political appointments. In other words, the executive order seeks to replace the smart, experienced, and neutral people that a merit-based system creates and replace them with the kind of people that Betsy DeVos, for example, thinks should make decisions.

Speaking of Betsy DeVos—she’s a great example of the modern conservative mindset. There’s no daylight between what she personally believes—charter schools are great, public schools are bad, for-profit colleges are good, vouchers are even better—and the policies the Department of Education is now pursuing. Similarly, she has no desire to see the Department of Education protect people who Republicans don’t value, which is why you now see that department refusing to help trans students, special needs children, or students who were duped by for-profit colleges and are now saddled with loan debt.

This didn’t start with Trump, of course. The GOP has a long and ignominious history of hating the bureaucratic layer of government and of viewing anyone with different political views—or no political views at all—with suspicion. Ronald Reagan famously said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were, “I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help.” This wasn’t a one-off quip. Reagan busted federal unions, tried to shift thousands of federal jobs to the states, and, perhaps most sinister of all, wanted to expand polygraph testing of federal workers. In Reagan’s mind, government was too big, too expensive, and too evil, and individual federal workers were devious people who needed to be rooted out.

George W. Bush, who only became president thanks to an entirely partisan Supreme Court decision that shut down a recount in Florida, was largely successful at gutting the Department of Justice’s voting rights division. He tossed out respected United States Attorneys that didn’t want to pursue cases of (entirely nonexistent) voter fraud and let political appointees overrule the decisions of career attorneys.

The Strzok hearing, though, wasn’t quite parallel to those incidents. That’s because it was worse. It was startlingly McCarthyite in tone. It seemed, at any moment, it could veer right back to the 1950s. Witness the near-hysteria of Representative Jimmy Duncan (R-TN), breathlessly quoting conservative journalist Sheryl Atkisson: “The earth-shattering finding on Strzok confirms a citizen’s worst fears. A high-ranking government intel official conspired to affect the outcome of a U.S. presidential election.” All of this, because Peter Strzok expressed, in private text messages, that he didn’t like Donald Trump. And Duncan wasn’t the only one. Representative Ron DeSantis (R-FL), who has been trying to kill the Mueller probe since August 2017, went off on Strzok, incoherently rattling on about how Hillary Clinton funded the Steele dossier and saying that Strzok, in looking into possible collusion, was investigating “the opposing party.” He also pressed Strzok to reveal intelligence secrets, implying it was the only way to clear his name.

And there it is again: Anyone who disagrees with Trump, or just doesn’t like Trump, must be doing so because they are driven by partisan impulses as strong as that of DeSantis himself. Indeed, DeSantis took it even one step further and got even more McCarthy-like when he went on Fox News to baselessly accuse former CIA Director John Brennan of being a communist. Why would he do that? Because Brennan, who served in intelligence positions under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, rightly pointed out that Trump’s post-Helsinki press conference was “nothing short of treasonous.”

All of this edges us closer and closer to the hysteria of Joseph McCarthy:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.

When you see what was done to Strzok, when you see the Trump administration working hard to discredit or fire any government employee that doesn’t fall in line, it’s tough not to hear the echoes of another McCarthy quote, from the speech that kicked off his high-profile and baseless fear-mongering:

This is glaringly true in the State Department. There the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths are the ones who have been most traitorous.

I have here in my hand a list of 205 … a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.

McCarthy went on to say that America would only be safe when “the whole sorry mess of twisted, warped thinkers are swept from the national scene so that we may have a new birth of honesty and decency in government.”

Let’s not kid ourselves. Trump and his cronies are making lists. Trump and his cronies are intent on gutting a functional and honest corps of government workers and replacing them with partisans. And Trump and his cronies aren’t going to stop, so it’s going to be up to us to stop it at the ballot box and in the streets.

Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.

Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.

But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.

Support Dame Today

Become a member!