An answer was needed, so one was created: the Russians. As World War II ended with the U.S. the planet’s predominant power, dark forces saw advantage in arousing new fears. The Soviet Union morphed from a decimated ally in the fight against fascism into a competitor locked in a titanic struggle with America. How did they get so powerful so quickly? Nothing could explain it except traitors. Cold War-era America? Or 2018 Trump America? Yes, on both counts.
To some, that fear was not a problem but a tool—one could defeat political enemies simply by accusing them of being Russian sympathizers. There was no need for evidence, so desperate were Americans to believe; just an accusation that someone was in league with Russia was enough. Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy fired his first shot on February 9, 1950, proclaiming there were 205 card-carrying members of the Communist Party working for the Department of State. The evidence? Nothing but assertions.
Indeed, the very word “McCarthyism” came to mean making accusations of treason without sufficient evidence. Other definitions include aggressively questioning a person’s patriotism, using accusations of disloyalty to pressure a person to adhere to conformist politics or discredit an opponent, and subverting civil and political rights in the name of national security.
Pretending to be saving America while he tore at its foundations, McCarthy destroyed thousands of lives over the next four years simply by pointing a finger and saying “communist.” Whenever anyone invoked his Fifth Amendment right to silence, McCarthy answered that this was “the most positive proof obtainable that the witness is communist.” The power of accusation was used by others as well: the Lavender Scare, which concluded that the State Department was overrun with closeted homosexuals who were at risk of being blackmailed by Moscow for their perversions, was an offshoot of McCarthyism, and by 1951, 600 people had been fired based solely on evidence-free “morals” charges. State legislatures and school boards mimicked McCarthy. Books and movies were banned. Blacklists abounded. The FBI embarked on campaigns of political repression (they would later claim Martin Luther King Jr. had communist ties), even as journalists and academics voluntarily narrowed their political thinking to exclude communism.
Watching sincere people succumb to paranoia again, today, is not something to relish. But having trained themselves to intellectualize away Hillary Clinton’s flaws, as they had with Obama, about half of America seemed truly gobsmacked when she lost to the antithesis of everything that she had represented to them. Every poll (that they read) said she would win. Every article (that they read) said it too, as did every person (that they knew). Lacking an explanation for the unexplainable, many advanced scenarios that would have failed high school civics, claiming that only the popular vote mattered, or that the archaic Emoluments Clause prevented Trump from taking office, or that Trump was insane and could be disposed of under the 25th Amendment.
After a few trial balloons during the primaries under which Bernie Sanders’ visits to Russia and Jill Stein’s attendance at a banquet in Moscow were used to imply disloyalty, the fearful cry that the Russians meddled in the election morphed into the claim that Trump had worked with the Russians and/or (fear is flexible) that the Russians had something on Trump. Everyone learned a new Russian word: kompromat.
Donald Trump became the Manchurian Candidate. That term was taken from a 1959 novel made into a classic Cold War movie that follows an American soldier brainwashed by communists as part of a Kremlin plot to gain influence in the Oval Office. A Google search shows that dozens of news sources—including The New York Times, Vanity Fair, Salon, The Washington Post, and, why not, Stormy Daniels’ lawyer Michael Avenatti—have all claimed that Trump is a 2018 variant of the Manchurian Candidate, controlled by ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin.
The birth moment of Trump as a Russian asset is traceable to MI-6 intelligence officer-turned-Democratic opposition researcher-turned FBI mole Christopher Steele, whose “dossier” claimed the existence of the pee tape. Supposedly, somewhere deep in the Kremlin is a surveillance video made in 2013 of Trump in Moscow’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel, watching prostitutes urinate on a bed that the Obamas had once slept in. As McCarthy did with homosexuality, naughty sex was thrown in to keep the rubes’ attention.
No one, not even Steele’s alleged informants, has actually seen the pee tape. It exists in a blurry land of certainty alongside the elevator tape, alleged video of Trump doing something in an elevator that’s so salacious it’s been called “Every Trump Reporter’s White Whale.” No one knows when the elevator video was made, but a dossier-length article in New York magazine posits that Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987.
Suddenly no real evidence is necessary, because it is always right in front of your face. McCarthy accused Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower of being communists or communist stooges over the “loss” of China in 1949. Trump holds a bizarre press conference in Helsinki and the only explanation must be that he is a traitor.
Nancy Pelosi (“President Trump’s weakness in front of Putin was embarrassing, and proves that the Russians have something on the president, personally, financially, or politically”) and Cory Booker (“Trump is acting like he’s guilty of something”) and Hillary Clinton (“now we know whose side he plays for”) and John Brennan (“rises to and exceeds the threshold of ‘high crimes and misdemeanors.’ It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin”) and Rachel Maddow (“We haven’t ever had to reckon with the possibility that someone had ascended to the presidency of the United States to serve the interests of another country rather than our own”) and others have said that Trump is controlled by Russia. As in 1954 when the press provided live TV coverage of McCarthy’s dirty assertions against the Army, the modern media uses each new assertion as “proof” of an earlier one. Snowballs get bigger rolling downhill.
When assertion is accepted as evidence, it forces the other side to prove a negative to break free. So until Trump “proves” he is not a Russian stooge, his denials will be seen as attempts to wiggle out from under evidence that in fact doesn’t exist. Who, pundits ask, can come up with a better explanation for Trump’s actions than blackmail, as if that was a necessary step to clearing his name?
Joe McCarthy’s victims faced similar challenges: once labeled a communist or a homosexual, the onus shifted to them to somehow prove they weren’t. Their failure to prove their innocence became more evidence of their guilt. The Cold War version of this mindset was well illustrated in movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” Anyone who questions this must themselves be at best a useful fool, if not an outright Russia collaborator. (Wrote one pundit: “They are accessories, before and after the fact, to the hijacking of a democratic election. So, yes, goddamn them all.”) In the McCarthy era, the term was “fellow traveler”: anyone, witting or unwitting, who helped the Russians. Mere skepticism, never mind actual dissent, is muddled with disloyalty.
Blackmail? Payoffs? Deals? It isn’t just the months of Mueller’s investigation that have passed without evidence. The IRS and Treasury have had Trump’s tax documents and financials for decades, even if Rachel Maddow has not. If Trump has been a Russian asset since 1987, or even 2013, he has done it behind the backs of the FBI, CIA, Secret Service, and NSA. Yet at the same time, in what history would see as the most out-in-the-open intelligence operation ever, some claim he asked on TV for his handlers to deliver hacked emails. In The Manchurian Candidate, the whole thing was at least done in secret as you’d expect.
With impeachment itself on the table, Mueller has done little more than issue the equivalent of parking tickets to foreigners he has no jurisdiction over. Intelligence summaries claim the Russians meddled, but don’t show that Trump was involved. Indictments against Russians are cheered as evidence, when they are just Mueller’s uncontested assertions.
There is no evidence the president is acting on orders from Russia or is under their influence. None.
As with McCarthy, as in those famous witch trials at Salem, allegations shouldn’t be accepted as truth, though in 2018 even pointing out that basic tenet is blasphemy. The burden of proof should be on the accusing party, yet the standing narrative in America is that the Russia story must be assumed plausible, if not true, until proven false. Joe McCarthy tore America apart for four years under just such standards, until finally public opinion, led by Edward R. Murrow, a journalist brave enough to demand answers McCarthy did not have, turned against him. There is no Edward R. Murrow in 2018.
When asking for proof is seen as disloyal, when demanding evidence after years of accusations is considered a Big Ask, when a clear answer somehow always needs additional time, there is more on the line in a democracy than the fate of one man.