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The New McCarthyism

January 6 is providing a pretext for a politically motivated crackdown on dissent.

Since the storming of the U.S. Capitol by outraged supporters of President Donald Trump on January 6, 2021, the growth of political intolerance in the United States has reached toxic levels.  Trump’s adversaries immediately branded the incident as an insurrection and accused the lame duck president of trying to stage a coup to invalidate the results of the 2020 election. Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus warned, in a column headlined “Warning: Jan. 6 was not a one-time event,” that Trump and his right-wing backers might use similar tactics to overturn future elections. With rare exceptions, both the mainstream legacy media and the newer social media powerhouses fully embraced the “insurrection” narrative.  

Proponents of that narrative also engaged in a concerted effort to silence Trump and key supporters and denigrate anyone who continued to support his allegations of vote fraud. Twitter and Facebook moved to terminate Trump’s access to their platforms, as well as the accounts of several of his advisers and prominent supporters. It was an extraordinary display of raw politicized power. Two private companies had successfully silenced the president of the United States. 

Even ordinary Americans who participated in the much larger peaceful rally on the National Mall that preceded the riot soon found themselves targeted for retaliation. Paul Davis, an attorney from Texas, was fired from his position when he was identified as having attended the rally, even though there was no evidence that he engaged in the violence at the Capitol. Other people reported experiencing similar retaliation for activity that is explicitly protected under the First Amendment. Frequently, statements justifying punitive responses merely asserted that the individual was “at” or “near” the Capitol on that day—not that they had illegally entered the building.

Some demonstrators even reported menacing visits from FBI investigators in the following weeks and months. It is indisputable that the FBI was scrutinizing several extreme right-wing organizations and their members, and the definition of “extreme” seemed to be expanding.  Media efforts to blur the distinction between peaceful protesters and rioters continued. A New York Times story typified that tactic. “In the year since the attack, many [protestors] have plunged into new fights and new conspiracy theories sown in the bloody chaos of that day,” it stated. Typically, the Times profile focused on one man who expressed regrets that more people had not brought weapons to the Mall rally. 

The growing authoritarian behavior characterizing the self-proclaimed defenders of democracy is more than a little worrying. The social media platforms not only barred speech that advocated or seemed to advocate violence, they targeted websites and posts that dared to argue that vote fraud had occurred in the 2020 presidential election, a major theme of Trump’s post-election message and the rationale for the rally at the Mall. Leading Democrats enthusiastically endorsed the decisions to bar such messages and suspend or close the media accounts of Trump and his followers.  

Under Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s direction, the House of Representatives created a select committee to investigate the January 6 events, a committee that Democrats utterly dominated along with token neoconservative Republicans Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger. Predictably, the investigation soon became a fishing expedition to “prove” that the January 6 episode constituted an insurrection. The committee even targeted fellow House members who had worked with organizers of the National Mall rally or asserted that vote fraud had taken place.  

Such an intimidating, politicized investigation was troubling, since even considering the January 6 events an insurrection required a sizable stretch of the concept. Trump’s extended effort to challenge Joe Biden’s election exacerbated already alarming societal divisions, and it reflected a sore loser mentality. Nevertheless, his challenge took the form of lawsuits and efforts to persuade Congress to invalidate the electoral vote count that several states submitted. His case was unconvincing and would have set a terrible precedent if his strategy had succeeded. It would have been far better if he had never embarked on such an ill-advised course.  

But there is no credible evidence that Trump or his associates advocated violence or other illegal measures. Moreover, despite the riot at the Capitol, there were no tanks in the streets, armed assaults on multiple governmental institutions, or efforts to either seize or shut down the news media—the cardinal features of a true insurrection. The breach of the Capitol involved approximately 800 people, the vast majority of whom were unarmed. It was a nasty riot that disgraced the participants and the cause they purported to represent, but it did not constitute an insurrection. A recent public opinion survey confirms that a majority of Americans rightly reject the use of the insurrection label to describe the confrontation.  

For a stridently vocal faction in America’s increasingly polarized political system, though, it has not been enough to castigate the rioters for their disgraceful, indefensible conduct.  It has not even been enough to see the Justice Department prosecute the individuals involved for trespass, assault, and other crimes. Over the past year, Joe Biden’s administration and its congressional allies have adopted multiple policies that assume that the inflammatory allegation of an insurrection is indisputable and that America faces a serious domestic terrorist threat to its democratic system. Ironically, their policies pose the real threat to democracy and fundamental constitutional liberties.

The attempt to intimidate dissenters and delegitimize dissent on issues important to the progressive woke brigade accelerated dramatically in January 2022 when the country marked the anniversary of the January 6 riot. Insistence on portraying the episode as an outright insurrection acquired new fervor as did demands that the Biden administration take more vigorous action against “domestic terrorism,” a concept that proponents of a crackdown rarely defined with any precision. The Atlantic published a special issue on “American democracy in crisis” and warned that “January 6 was practice” for a better organized coup attempt by right-wing elements following the next presidential election. Such threat inflation has become far too common, and it is leading to some dangerously destructive attitudes and policies.

Even before January 6, a growing intolerance toward unorthodox views already had produced alarming hostility toward dissenting ideas on a growing array of issues. Those abuses were evident regarding two prominent issues in 2020. One was the concerted attempt by powerful figures in the scientific community (many with compromising financial ties to China’s government) together with gatekeepers in both the legacy news media and the newer social media platforms to smear and silence individuals who asserted that the Covid-19 pandemic may have started with a leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The other abuse was the even more ideologically driven and starkly partisan campaign to suppress news stories and prevent discussion of incriminating documents found on a laptop allegedly lost by Hunter Biden, documents that appeared to implicate his father in potentially corrupt dealings with foreign governments.  

The politicized nature of the effort to suppress the lab leak thesis became glaringly evident when media outlets abruptly ended their bans. That reversal coincided precisely with the Biden administration’s decision in late May 2021 to revive the intelligence agencies’ inquiry (which the White House had terminated shortly after Biden’s inauguration) into the origins of Covid. Facebook lifted its ban on posts touting the theory as soon as the administration announced the new investigation. Conservatives expressed grim satisfaction that its perspective on the issue was now acknowledged as legitimate, but they also voiced anger at ideological opponents who had smothered meaningful debate on such an important topic. Wall Street Journal columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. asked pointedly, “On what basis was the lab leak theory ruled out for months by the media despite the lack of any evidence or logic for ruling it out?” His answer was provocative and unsettling. “We in the press dismissed the lab theory because of an appeal to authority: When anti-Donald Trump spokespeople ridiculed it, that was good enough for us.” 

The attempts to stifle discussion of the Hunter Biden laptop episode were even more brazen. Legacy media outlets formed a solid bloc asserting that the scandal was a Russian disinformation campaign, although even the Trump-phobic FBI concluded there was no evidence to support that allegation. National Review’s David Harsanyi charged (with good reason), “‘Russian disinformation’ has become the single laziest, dumbest, and most cynical rationalization for journalistic malpractice and political activism over the last four years.” Nevertheless, the verbal assault on those who dared foster discussion of the laptop issue was pervasive. Facebook and Twitter took the extraordinary step of blocking access to the New York Post articles that initially broke the story. Twitter went so far as to temporarily suspend the newspaper’s account and that of the White House press secretary, who had favorably cited those reports of the laptop scandal.  The few journalists or other analysts who had the temerity to take the New York Post stories seriously and suggest that they deserved investigation and discussion faced shrill hostility. An implicit media–Democratic alliance acted as protectors of Joe Biden and his presidential campaign, in the process subverting debate on an important issue and suppressing a minority view.

In January 2022, the Biden administration and its congressional allies took several especially menacing actions. One was the announcement that the Justice Department would create a new unit focused on the alleged threat of domestic terrorism. Given the ravages already done to First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights under the Patriot Act and other measures adopted in response to the 9/11 attacks and the frequently inflated foreign terrorist threat, this latest development is cause for concern. The Justice Department under Attorney General Merrick Garland already has shown that it embraces an extremely vague definition of what constitutes domestic terrorism. In response to a letter from the National School Boards Association (actually, just two rogue bureaucrats in that organization) in October 2021, Garland authorized the FBI to investigate parents who engaged in confrontational behavior at local school board meetings. It is a safe bet that not even the biggest advocates of the Patriot Act in 2001 envisioned that application of the law.

The potential for a Justice Department domestic terrorism unit to have a chilling effect on freedom of expression is extensive. Indeed, the move evokes memories of the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO initiative during the Cold War. Under J. Edgar Hoover’s direction, that program infiltrated and harassed antiwar and civil rights organizations. Informants and undercover agents repeatedly sought to manipulate those movements into engaging in violence and other conduct that would discredit their causes with the general public. We must guard against a repetition of such sleazy behavior by a government agency.

Yet another troubling Biden administration initiative in January 2022 was the government’s decision to charge members of the Oath Keepers organization with “seditious conspiracy” regarding the January 6 incident. One can regard that group as repellent for numerous valid reasons and still be uneasy about the Justice Department’s action. Dusting off dangerously vague conspiracy statutes is an extremely ominous move. From the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts to the 1918 amendments to the Espionage Act of 1917 (typically referred to as the Sedition Act), to sedition prosecutions directed against accused communist figures during the Cold War, such laws have led to notorious abuses. It is not comforting that several of the Oath Keepers defendants apparently were not even in the Capitol on January 6, and the specific acts they are accused of committing are exceedingly vague. Given the nation’s history, we should never want to venture again down the path of using conspiracy and sedition laws (much less the combination) to prosecute unpopular dissidents. Yet that is clearly what the government has in mind.

A final troubling development is the announcement that social media executives will again be hauled before a congressional committee to explain why they haven’t done more to squelch “disinformation” on their platforms. Congress has engaged in such grandstanding attempts at intimidation on several occasions previously, but this time the explicit rationale for the subpoenas that the House Select Committee issued is that the alleged failure to prevent the spread of “falsehoods, misinformation and violent extremism” directly contributed to the January 6 “insurrection.” The earlier hearings confirmed that when some members of Congress refer to misinformation, it means any viewpoint on any issue that differs with their perspective on that issue.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the other social media giants already have amassed a troubling record of acceding to the wishes of powerful political figures who want dissenting views suppressed. The prospect of intensified congressional pressure for those organizations to fall into line and suppress views challenging the narrative that the January 6 events constituted a full-fledged insurrection is even more alarming.

The latest maneuver is reminiscent of conduct that took place during the 1950s. Three separate congressional committees held hearings on possible communist penetration of the news media, and the consequences were decidedly unhealthy. One of the committees, chaired by Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, compiled a list of more than 500 suspect journalists. In a series of hearings, more than 100 journalists were subpoenaed and interrogated about suspected ties between the Communist Party and the newspaper industry. The official rationale was to ask reporters and editors about any involvement they had had with the Communist Party. But as historian Edward Alwood documents, during the sessions, “the actual questioning went much further. The committee asked about their political interests and personal thoughts and beliefs. Members questioned newspaper editorial policies and hiring practices, areas that were thought to be sacrosanct under the First Amendment.” 

The chilling impact on the press and the willing compliance throughout the public arena was palpable. It is no coincidence that the 1950s were characterized by a lack of meaningful debate on a wide array of issues—especially aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Even mild iconoclasts feared that they could become the target of the next wave of investigations. The prospect of unsupported allegations and outright smears that could cost reputations and livelihoods was ever present, and it was much safer to avoid expressing controversial views.  As Alwood points out, numerous journalists and others lost their jobs in response to unsupported accusations of “subversive” associations or opinions. On some occasions, the trigger took the form of a quiet telephone call from a congressional or executive branch operative to the publication’s editor “suggesting” termination. The current wave of ideological intolerance fueling congressional investigations and hearings into “disinformation” and January 6 bears more than a small resemblance to that era of smears, intimidation, and constrained debate.

There is a growing danger that the January 6 riot is becoming a pretext for an array of new governmental measures to suppress dissent. It is imperative for the American people to reject the current campaign of threat inflation and the latest bid for measures that would further erode important constitutional freedoms.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 950 articles on defense, foreign policy, and civil liberties issues. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (forthcoming, June 2022).     



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