The poisonous and divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump is certainly not a new phenomenon in American politics. Both the rhetoric of fear, and that of the “other” have been permanent fixtures of American politics.
Trump understood better than the current political elites that a large proportion of American society is fearful. He taps into these fears, both rational and imagined. His entire platform can be summarised as a capitalisation on the American fears of illegal immigrants, of Islamic Terrorists and even free trade agreements. He endorsed waterboarding, appeared to embrace a registry for Muslims and vividly remembered thousands of Jersey City Muslims cheering the carnage of September 11—an incident for which there is no evidence. The result is that Trump’s poll numbers have gone up, and voters rate him as best able to deal with terrorism. Anyone else who does not speak the same language, or who calls him out, is branded as a coward or traitor.
This polarising rhetoric, dividing Americans between good patriots and traitors, without any nuances in between, is an old tradition in American politics. Just as old as the tactics of playing on the fear and paranoia of a people.
The United States has undergone phases of collective paranoia many times throughout the 20th century. The first notable manifestation of collective fear unfolded during the so-called first Red Scare in 1919-1920. This was a short-lived but intense period of political intolerance inspired by the post-war strike wave and the social tensions and fears generated by the ascendancy of the Communists in the Russian Revolution and Civil War. 5,000 persons alleged to be involved with trade unions and the Socialist Party were arrested, most of them without warrants, and held for months without charge.
The second wave of the American red-scare occurred immediately after the end of the Second World War. The Communist Party of the USA had been growing since the beginning of the Great Depression of 1929-1932. It’s members found themselves all of a suddent isolated and marginalised at the start of the Cold War, when that old ally, the USSR, became the new enemy. Slogans like “Better dead than Red” were common in the post-war years in America. This climate of confrontation, fear of the ‘other’ and suspicion at home gave rise to the infamous House Committee on Un-American Activities. This committee became extremely powerful at the end of the Second World War and is alleged to have breached many civili liberties, including the first amendment of the US constitution, in the name of rooting out the communist element in the US.
It was under this climate of fear, paranoia and polarisation, that a little known senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, suddenly emerged as the chief national pursuer of subversives and gave a new name to the anticommunist crusade. McCarthy had won election to the Senate in 1946, partly on the basis of a fictional war record (he falsely claimed to have flown combat missions in the Pacific.) In a speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, in February 1950, McCarthy announced that he had a list of 205 communists working for the state Department. With a genius for self-promotion, McCarthy used the Senate subcommittee he chaired to hold meetings and accused many individuals and organisations, including the Defense Department and the Voice of America.
So out of hand did the red-scare of the 1950s get, that Robert Welch, the founder of the influential ultra-conservative John Birch Society, claimed that the then president Dwight Eisenhower was a “tool of the communists.”
McCarthy’s downfall came in 1954, when a Senate committee investigated his charges that the army had harboured communists. The nationally televised Army – McCarthy hearings revealed McCarthy was a bully who browbeat witnesses and made sweeping accusations with no basis in fact. All of these features of McCarthy are worryingly similar with the traits of Donald Trump. He is always seen to bully his opponents and even to kick out of his rallies people who don’t agree with him. As for the sweeping accusations with no basis in facts, unfortunately this is becoming the norm rather than exception in the nomination race.
Ten years after the downfall of McCarthy, another divisive figure who capitalised on fear and paranoia, Barry Goldwater, received the Republican nomination to run for US president. During the Republican Party nomination process, Goldwater gave an interview in which he discussed the use of low-yield atomic bombs in North Vietnam to defoliate forests and destroy bridges, roads, and railroad lines bringing supplies from communist China. These declarations resonate with Donald Trump’s promises that he will not hesitate to bombe ISIS territories when he becomes Commander-In-Chief. Both these declarations, Goldwater’s and Trump’s were made without any knowledge, understanding or expert counsel on strategic and military aims and tactics. What they have in common is only the tactic of turning concern into panic and panic into political exploitation.
Luckily, though Goldwater won the Republican party nomination, he was never able to shake his image as an extremist in Vietnam policies. This image was a key factor in his crushing defeat by opponent Lyndon B. Johnson, who took about 61 percent of the vote to Goldwater’s 39 percent.
The year of Goldwater’s downfall, 1964, coincides with the coining of the phrase “paranoid style in American politics.” The phrase was coined by the famous historian Richard Hofstadter and was defined as “an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.”
What McCarthy, Goldwater and Trump have in common is that they all flourished in times of global upheaval and polarisation. McCarthy took advantage of the Cold War which pitted two ideologies with global ambitions against each other and relocated that struggle at home for political gains. Similarly Barry Goldwater exploited the fears of a never-ending engagement in Vietnam and used emotional blackmail in the first televised political campaign spots. Donald Trump is, therefore, not an aberration in American politics, but merely a carrier of an old tradition of the politics of fear.