The following e-newsletter by Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post was sent February 28, 2017:
THE TAKEAWAYA couple of days before a host of celebrities spoke out against President Trump at the Oscars, Hollywood icon George Clooney was feted at an awards ceremony in Paris. There he warned of the shadow of McCarthyism looming over his homeland.
“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must not walk in fear of one another. We must not be driven by fear into an age of unreason,” said Clooney. He signed off with the famous tagline of late American journalist Edward R. Murrow: “Good night, and good luck.”
Murrow, of course, made his name in opposition to the anti-communist witch hunts launched by Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) in the 1950s. Liberal cognoscenti see the specter of McCarthy again haunting the country as Trump deems the mainstream media the “enemy” and scapegoats whole communities as potential terror threats.
But some Republicans are invoking McCarthy, too. They see the menace of Beltway conspiracies and government overreach in Democratic calls for an investigation into Trump’s reported links to Russia. In early January, Trump himself said that speculation into his Russian connections was part of “a political witch hunt.”
Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems, and played up by the media, in order to mask the big election defeat and the illegal leaks!
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a Republican lawmaker from California, echoed what seems like the administration’s line over the weekend. “This is almost like McCarthyism revisited,” said Nunes to reporters in California when asked about the prospect of appointing a special prosecutor to oversee an investigation. “We’re going to go on a witch hunt against innocent Americans?”
On Monday, Nunes once more attempted to shift the focus away from the White House. “There’s been major crimes committed,” said Nunes, referring to leaks from the intelligence community that spurred the Russia allegations. “What I’m concerned about is no one is focusing on major leaks that have occurred here … We can’t run a government like this. A government can’t function with massive leaks at the highest level.”
This rhetorical move is drenched in irony.
First, the cries of McCarthyism from Nunes and other Republicans were first uttered by figures on the American far-left last year. They lambasted liberal supporters of Hillary Clinton for succumbing to Russophobia instead of properly reckoning with the failures of the Democratic candidate. Now two camps from the opposite sides of the Cold War find themselves in the same corner.
Second, the move to quash leaks carries echoes of an earlier era, when former president Richard M. Nixon and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover — both comrades in arms with McCarthy — circled the wagons in the face of Nixon’s own political scandal. Things ultimately didn’t end well for that Republican president.
Third, as the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart wrote in 2015, Trump and McCarthy actually have a fair amount in common. Both their political careers were launched by opportunistically channeling the fears of the moment. “Both men would have happily taken up some other cause had it offered them a path to fame and power,” wrote Beinart. “It was their own party, and political elites more generally, who bred the hostility and fear that they exploited.”
According to reports, the Trump administration tried to compel CIA officials and Republican politicians to push back on the Russia story in conversations with reporters. But the White House’s attempts to subdue the Russia question appear to be backfiring.
“Efforts by the White House to spin this story their way before the investigation has run its course — and efforts by congressional Republicans to prop up that spin — are already looking like ham-handed political interference,” wrote Post columnist Greg Sargent.
While Nunes argued there was nothing much to investigate, his Democratic colleague on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, made clear to reporters that no meaningful investigation has yet taken place. He and other lawmakers are demanding hearings that would compel agencies like the FBI to clarify what they know and don’t know about Russian meddling in the elections and contacts with the Trump camp.
As a masterful expose by the New Yorker explains, it’s probably certain that Moscow wanted to influence the U.S. elections — 17 different federal intelligence agencies, after all, agreed that Russia was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails. The question of direct collusion with the Trump camp, though, is much more complex and uncertain.
“Russia or Putin did not get Trump elected. Americans elected Trump,” said Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen in an interview with Slate. “Russians basically played their sort of classic disruptive role of trying to do something that will both delegitimize democratic mechanisms and throw wrenches into the process. They never expected to succeed.”
In the near future, you can expect more wrangling and bluster as the tussle over Russia’s role continues. If things appear to be going against Trump, you should also expect more denunciations of the press and cries of witch hunts.
If so, at least one Republican politician may call out Trump for his demagoguery: former president George W. Bush.
“I consider the media to be indispensable to democracy,” Bush said in a televised interview over the weekend. “We need an independent media to hold people like me to account.” He added: “Power can be very addictive and it can be corrosive and it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”
That was true in the days of McCarthy and Nixon — and, yes, Bush. It remains so now.
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