In John Frankenheimer’s 1962 film The Manchurian Candidate, U.S. Senator John Yerkes Iselin mounts a campaign to eliminate clandestine communists from the Department of Defense (influenced by his manipulative wife Eleanor). The problem is that he can’t remember the number of communists he has claimed there are, relying his wife to cue him. “I'd be a lot happier if we could just settle on the number of communists I know there are in the Defense Department,” he says to her at lunch, pounding on a Heinz ketchup bottle. “Just one real simple number that'd be easy for me to remember.” In the next scene, Iselin gives a speech on the Senate floor. “There are exactly 57 card-carrying members of the Communist party in the Department of Defense at this time,” he shouts.
The scene is not far from reality. Iselin is based on Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, whose name is now synonymous with a unanimously condemned episode in American history. In various speeches he gave in 1950, McCarthy claimed that there were 57, 81, or 205 “known communists” in the State Department, kicking off a series of investigations and hearings that would persist throughout the decade. The term “McCarthyism” is now used as a shorthand for the entirety of the “Red Scare,” a climate of paranoia and persecution during the early Cold War that included the House Un-American Activities Committee, the Hollywood Blacklist, and COINTELPRO. Only the most extreme reactionaries defend McCarthy today — even far-right Republicans use the term to indicate unfounded accusations or violations of due process.
In The Manchurian Candidate, Iselin is, in fact, the chosen candidate of global communist powers, who plan to use anticommunist hysteria to claim the US presidency for themselves. The movie’s atmosphere of paranoid fantasy and false memory blurs its correlation to real political dynamics, but it captures its era. It bears strangely on ours, too.
Last week, on a podcast hosted by former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe, former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton implied that there was a Manchurian candidate in this year’s Democratic primary. She called an unnamed female candidate, along with former Green Party presidential nominee Jill Stein, a “Russian asset.” She said that someone — either the Kremlin or the Republican Party — is “grooming her to be the third-party candidate,” adding that “they have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.”
You don’t have to endorse Gabbard’s political platform, or even consider her personally trustworthy, to note how objectionable Clinton’s statement was.
It was clear that she was describing Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, which Clinton spokesperson Nick Merrill confirmed to CNN with a pithy quip: “If the nesting doll fits.” His choice of words belies subsequent claims that Clinton meant only to suggest that Republicans, not Russians, were grooming Gabbard. This kind of speculation has already been in the air — the New York Times recently said that a surge of interest in Gabbard after the second Democratic debate, in which she memorably confronted Kamala Harris over her record as California attorney general, “appeared to be amplified by a coordinated network of bot-like accounts.”
There is no evidence for this theory. Twitter told Recode that “investigations into the matter did not find any significant evidence of bot activity amplifying hashtags around the debates.” But according to Merrill, that’s immaterial. “If the Russian propaganda machine, both their state media and their bot and troll operations, is backing a candidate aligned with their interests, that is just a reality. It is not speculation,” he said.
It’s odd for Clinton to make this kind of claim in the first place, given the attempted machinations undertaken by her own campaign in 2016. Leaked emails showed that the Democratic National Committee tried to elevate Republicans like Donald Trump as “Pied Piper” candidates, whose bizarre comportment and extreme politics would deliver Clinton the election. (We all remember how this turned out.) But Gabbard is low-hanging fruit for Clinton’s accusation, given her background in a cult-like organization called (no joke) the Science of Identity Foundation, not to mention her notorious meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Her politics sometimes appear to be on the left, landing her outside of the DNC mainstream, but are too eccentric to be associated with any kind of social movement.
Still, you don’t have to endorse Gabbard’s political platform, or even consider her personally trustworthy, to note how objectionable Clinton’s statement was. She alleged that Gabbard was being groomed by an external influence (whether the GOP or the Kremlin) in order to serve the interests of a foreign country, which she would carry out by means of a third party candidacy. These are serious charges, and it bears repeating that there is literally no evidence for any of them. Even their least scandalous aspect is without merit; Gabbard has explicitly said she will not run on a third party ticket.
Clinton’s motives don’t appear entirely innocent either. The leaked DNC emails show a good deal of animosity towards Gabbard from party elites for her support of Bernie Sanders, rather than Clinton, during the 2016 election cycle. Clinton advisor Philippe Reines told Politico this probably has a lot to do with the prevailing suspicion of Gabbard today. “Politically, in 2015 she was the first woman in Congress to endorse Sanders. So she didn’t make many friends there. I’d say that’s 25 percent of the answer,” he said. This year, Gabbard has frequently sided with Sanders during Democratic debates.
Gabbard hasn’t taken Clinton’s insinuations lying down, responding with a series of frankly pretty metal tweets. She called Clinton “the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long.” She spoke of “a concerted campaign” against her, now revealed to be orchestrated by Clinton and her cronies. She concluded by challenging Clinton to join the race, which would be just the kind of farce we’re due for next year. After going on Fox News to air her grievances against Clinton, Gabbard described the incident online as “the new McCarthyism.”
Gabbard is not the first person on Fox News to invoke the ghost of Joe McCarthy. In a tweet from March, Donald Trump quoted Sean Hannity calling the Mueller investigation “the biggest display of modern day McCarthyism,” carried out “in order to get power back so they can institute Socialism.”
“We the people will now be subjected to the biggest display of modern day McCarthyism....which is the widest fishing net expedition....every aspect of the presidents life....all in order to get power back so they can institute Socialism.” @seanhannity— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 5, 2019
This perverse statement bears more resemblance to a Manchurian Candidate dream sequence than anything to do with reality, past or present. The real McCarthyism was the opposite of a socialist plot — it was part of a pattern of persecution of American socialists themselves, many of whom were ruined, imprisoned, or in the case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed. One of the Department of Justice attorneys who prosecuted the Rosenbergs, Roy Cohn, was also McCarthy’s chief counsel. He remained a prominent defender of McCarthyism’s decades later, telling the Washington Post that the senator was “definitely on the right track.” By then, he was Donald Trump’s personal lawyer.
The question becomes, what can fairly be described as McCarthyism?
Trump’s claim does fit his fondness for conspiratorial speculation and overall lack of reference to any standard of proof. But as Democrats like Clinton counter Trump’s theories with evidence-free assertions of their own, the entire field of political discourse begins to look like a spy novel. At the Washington Post, historian Rachel Hope Cleve suggests that “paranoid thinking about Russian conspiracies” crossed a political divide after the last presidential election. “Democrats’ anxieties about Russian conspiracies to interfere in the 2016 campaign cannot be extricated from this historical context of paranoia just because they have a significant basis in fact,” she argues.
The question becomes, what can fairly be described as McCarthyism? The sense of any accusation of loyalties to Russia is a superficial and ultimately useless definition. The Red Scare was a particular phenomenon, targeting political dissidents and carrying out legal persecution without due process. Criticism of the president, even if spurious or unfounded, doesn’t qualify. But the insinuation of espionage against Gabbard, especially with its appearance of retribution for her political platform and affiliations, may fit the bill.
Given the resurgence of socialist politics in the United States following the 2016 Sanders campaign, this is not an insignificant matter. Gabbard is a fringe political figure with little support even among the far left, but the allegations made against her have become common currency in the contemporary political conversation. Anyone online expressing skepticism of the Democratic party from the left has probably been accused of being either a Russian or a bot, or both.
This is a minor nuisance most of the time, but the political climate is not without risk. It’s worth remembering that the Obama administration prosecuted more whistleblowers under the Espionage Act — the same one under which Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death — than all previous presidents combined. Obama’s policies entailed an expansion of the surveillance state and a curtailment of civil liberties that set legal precedents now inherited by Trump. Given a second term, the Trump administration might beat Obama’s record.
Many of those who lost their freedom or their livelihoods to the Red Scare were not even politically active — they were just caught in the crossfire. Today, it’s not a matter of siding with Tulsi Gabbard, but of identifying the abuse of power. If Democratic and Republican leaders become united in slinging baseless accusations towards their left, a little paranoia could be justified.