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Trumpism v. McCarthyism

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=123757

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=123757

He didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it, and with some success.
— Edward R. Murrow

President Trump's executive order barring entry to citizens of seven primarily Muslim countries has been much reported and commented upon in the last several days, and rightly so. It is somewhat disingenuous of commenters on the left to pretend that the ban amounts solely to religious persecution. If that were true, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan wouldn't be left off the list. It is, and will likely continue to be if the rumors that the ban will be expanded are true, persecution against the downtrodden. Of the seven countries banned, only Iran is in stable, non-bloody condition. The premise of course is that extremism flourishes in such situations, and therefore a ban against such countries will serve to keep extremists out of America.

This ban has drawn numerous comparisons to the Red Scare and the McCarthyism of the 1950's since Trump suggested it on the campaign trail last year, and there are a couple of legitimate parallels. For some reason Trump seems to think, as McCarthy inexplicably did, that America's enemies could be foiled by an ideological test. This is the same logic behind the fallacious "You have to tell me if you're a cop," meme in police procedurals, and just as ill-conceived. It would after all be a sad infiltrator indeed who could not lie about their feelings for America for the good of the mission. In the same vein, Trump, like McCarthy, is seeking to do battle with an ideology, a battle that has only become more hopeless using methods like ideological tests than they were in the 1950s.

There is, however, a fundamental difference between the immigration ban and McCarthyism: McCarthyism at least understood the modus operandi of its subject and consequently focused internally. Don't get me wrong; McCarthyism was a blight on the country and an affront to American values, and it was incompetent to boot. But Senator McCarthy was at least right about the basic threat facing the country. We know in retrospect that there were in fact communist spy-rings in the country and that the NKVD/KGB was very practiced at turning ideological agreement into actual espionage. In Britain this methodology was used to recruit Philby and the rest of the Cambridge Five, and in the United States the Communist Party headed by Kansas-born Earl Browder actively and successfully recruited spies for the USSR on ideological grounds. While the witch-hunts that McCarthy started were abhorrent and ineffective, they at least understood the general methodology of the witches, if not its particulars.

Trump's ban on the other hand ignores the clear methodology of ISIS and other terror groups. Trump's witch-hunt is focused externally on refugees and immigrants from foreign nations, a group that has attempted relatively few terrorist attacks in comparison with people who were born in America. The Orlando shooter was born in New York, one of the two San Bernadino shooters was born in Chicago and was apparently radicalized before he met his wife who was from Pakistan (another country not on the list), and the recent Fort Lauderdale shooter was born in New Jersey and served in the United States military. The list goes on and on, especially when one includes terrorist attacks on abortion clinics. And even in the cases where a terrorist was born outside the United States, as is the case for the Boston Marathon bombers for example, they did not come from the banned countries, and tended to be radicalized once they were in America, not before.

It is well-documented that ISIS likes to radicalize people who are already in the country, mainly through the internet. And logistically, this makes sense. It is far less complicated to turn someone already inside the target country into a terrorist than to sneak someone who is already a terrorist in. The danger coming from outside the country in the form of refugees is therefore minimal in comparison with the danger coming from the internet and all the ways it gives extremists ways to spread their despicable views. So the ban, in addition to being ineffective, tells our enemies that the people hunting them don't even grasp the most basic methodology that they're using to attack us. ISIS must be reading news of the ban with the same glee that a serial killer might read a news article titled "Rash of Murders Continues; Police Baffled!"

The differences don't stop there though. While the Red Scare did hurt American morale and standing and gave propaganda material to communists at home and abroad, the damage that the ban will do is potentially much greater. Thousands of people from those seven countries who were here to work or study and who have no history of radicalization are now barred from entering the country without warning. Refugees, Christian, Muslim, and others, who have already been waiting, in some cases, years to be able to escape to America, some of whom have already been vetted, are also barred. People who otherwise had no reason to hate America, who indeed looked to America for salvation and respite, are now being given a reason. And within the United States, ISIS now has prime propaganda material with which to radicalize people who, like the Orlando shooter and the San Bernadino shooter, are natural-born American citizens.

One final difference between McCarthyism and Trumpism becomes clear when we examine the motives behind each. While misguided and ill-informed as to the details of communist methods, Senator McCarthy at least appeared to truly believe that he was working to defend America from a real threat of Soviet espionage. We cannot say the same for President Trump. The fact that he has left countries who historically have produced and/or harbored extremists like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and others out of his ban betrays his true motivations. The countries he listed are politically easy to dismiss, either because they are ravaged by internal conflict or because they are actively and openly opposed to us, and because they are, without exception, poor. He is simply taking the most expedient route to fulfill a campaign promise and placate his voters. And if he does really believe that this will make America safer, then he is being a coward for leaving out a number of countries whom it is not politically or financially easy to dismiss despite their historic connection with militant extremists. Either way, President Trump is clearly fanning and exploiting the fears of the public for political gain.

In one of his speeches against Senator McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow used the language of the statute of treason to describe the effect that McCarthy's crusade was having, specifically suggesting that the Senator had given considerable comfort to the enemy. President Trump has gone beyond that, delivering into the hands of our enemies the very weapons that they will use against us. Beyond that, while Senator McCarthy at least followed the procedures of Congress, and was eventually opposed and defeated by fellow Congressmen, President Trump is perpetrating his witch-hunt through the overreach of executive power, thereby eroding the American values of checks and balances as well as making the problem of terrorism worse.

This last point should serve as something of a rude awakening for the American people and media. Though it may seem that Donald Trump has flown out of the presidential gate with a torrent of executive orders, the immigration ban simply being the latest one, the truth is that he is following precedent rather closely (President Obama signed 9 Executive Orders his first 10 days in office, Trump has signed 6). Unfortunately we have largely allowed the use of executive orders to blossom, especially under the last two presidents, with nothing more than partisan comment. When Bush used executive orders to expand surveillance and counter-terrorism activity, there was some concern. When Obama used executive orders to legalize 4 million illegal immigrants, there was some concern. It is occasionally commented that the Japanese Internment camps were done by Executive Order. Few know that Lincoln used an Executive Order to suspend habeas corpus during the Civil War. So in the midst of all the bipartisan outrage over this particular order, we should also remember that we the American people are somewhat to blame for this, not only for voting a demagogue from the private sector to the highest office, but for allowing that office to grasp more and more tyrannical power without anything but passing displeasure. It should not surprise us at all that the president is so blatantly overstepping his Constitutional power, since we have allowed presidents to do so in an unbroken line going at least all the way back to Lincoln.

No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that vetting incoming refugees and prospective immigrants is useful and prudent. It is necessary to investigate before flinging open the gates. But the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the President has stepped over it in this case. Not on religious grounds, at least not entirely, but more on the grounds that we cannot trust those who have nothing. In effect, he is doing the propaganda work of ISIS for them, while doing nothing to make America safer, and further eroding our Constitution down in the bargain. We can only hope that when the Supreme Court hears the cases already being filed against this action, and they assuredly will, that they will impose the check on executive power which we now desperately require.

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