Welcome to the New McCarthyism

As Beijing has reminded us repeatedly lately, Joe McCarthy gave McCarthyism a bad name. Problem solved.

China Foreign Minister Wang Yi with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo/Adam Scotti

Lisa Van Dusen/For The Hill Times

August 6, 2020

If Godwin’s law has been among the many casualties of reality-show fascism, it is quickly being replaced by the rule that, in any debate about China, the spectre of McCarthyism will be deployed—invariably by China—to chill criticism.

“Current U.S. policy toward China is based on strategic misjudgments that lack factual evidence, and is full of emotional catharsis and McCarthy-style paranoia,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi—whom Canadians may recall from his outburst in 2016, when a reporter asked him about human rights during an Ottawa news conference—last month.

Setting aside the misdirectional, pre-election logrolling for an American president whose indefatigable service to China’s world domination designs now includes an apparent willingness to whack American democracy, Beijing’s McCarthyism hobgoblin is worth a ponder.

Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s crusade to expose anyone who was now or had ever been a member of the communist party started out as an ostensibly patriotic Cold War mission. It devolved, as such things can, into a terribly unpatriotic, destructive, power-drunk jihad. But it was, at least foundationally, about ideology.

Today’s tension between the world’s democracies and Beijing over China’s totalitarian bullying isn’t about communism. In some ways, it’s not even about China. It’s about a two-decade campaign of corruption and misinformation to transform the post-Cold War balance of power in a way so incremental and systematic that by the time a weaponized wanker like U.S. President Donald Trump threatens to front a coup in the liberal world order-leading democracy, it will be too late to stop him.

While China would be the major geopolitical beneficiary of such an outcome, it wouldn’t be the only beneficiary.

This sequence of events would not have been possible without the assistance of a considerable number of actors large and small, whose key inputs in this narrative warfare extravaganza have been indispensable to what has been, among other things, a relentless Blitzkrieg of bullsh*t.

Does naming and shaming them amount to McCarthyism? It certainly serves Beijing’s interests to say that it does at this tetchy, all-or-nothing juncture. So, in the spirit of the post-truth factual fungibility that has re-invented so many concepts from “presidential” to “facts,” let’s redefine the term.

Let’s re-brand McCarthyism based on the approach, not of Joe McCarthy, but of Gladys McCarthy, my maternal grandmother. She was possessed of a spooky hypervigilance that could spot the lit end of a forbidden cigarette at 100 paces and an evil eye whose potency only the descendants of Irish matriarchs can know. After her husband, Colonel Joe Hogan, who commanded the Governor General’s Foot Guards, died, she would sit in the alcove of her apartment above Quinn’s Taxi in Aylmer, Quebec and surveil Main Street. She knew who had stumbled out of the tavern across the street in broad daylight, who had an argument with his wife, what the mayor brought home from the pizza place. But let’s get one thing straight: Gladys McCarthy never named names.

So, in the spirit of the new McCarthyism, let’s just say that without a vast network of co-opted opinion framers and apologists, without the massive expansion and then admitted and self-interested somnambulism of the Western intelligence community, without the early and sustained support of certain equally self-interested major political figures, and without the collaboration of covert and other players in Western democracies prevailed upon to use their power to rationalize, accelerate, and now disingenuously bemoan the apparent suicide but actual assisted death of democracy, we’d be witnessing a very different spectacle on global Main Street.

Fortunately, the new McCarthyism means never having to say who’s a communist. Because that’s the last thing this is about.

Lisa Van Dusen is associate editor of Policy Magazine and a columnist for The Hill Times. She was Washington bureau chief for Sun Media, international writer for Peter Jennings at ABC News, and an editor at AP in New York and UPI in Washington.