Home > Uncategorized > The irony of Republican red-baiting – posted 3/1/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/8/2020

The irony of Republican red-baiting – posted 3/1/2020 and published in the Concord Monitor on 3/8/2020

A central part of the Trump re-election strategy is the use of red-baiting. Red-baiting is the use of false or groundless accusations that someone is a communist. It is a vicious, fear-creation tactic which has been used for over 100 years to discredit people, destroy their reputations and careers, and cause their public harassment and shunning.

Republicans and conservatives have long used red-baiting to argue against anyone who has advocated for a more equitable distribution of wealth in America. They have tried to demonize any deviation from free-market economic policy as socialistic and anti-American. During the 20th century, red-baiting Republican politicians shamelessly ruined the lives of numerous outspoken progressives.

President Trump is already falsely calling Bernie Sanders a communist. He is also talking about how Sanders honeymooned in the Soviet Union in the 1980’s.

Left out is the fact that Sanders’ trip to the Soviet Union was part of his official duties as mayor of Burlington, Vermont. Burlington was a sister city with Yaroslavl, a city 160 miles north of Moscow. Sanders and his wife Jane were part of a ten person delegation under the auspices of Sister City International, an organization created by President Eisenhower, to promote peace and understanding through connections between cities.

This year we can expect an avalanche of negative ads dwelling on the red-baiting theme. Republicans are licking their chops thinking red-baiting is such a killer tactic but they could not be more wrong. Not only is it a dishonest tactic, it is outdated and has a declining audience.

Republicans have been saying and will be saying Democrats are part of a radical, socialist agenda that will take away your private health insurance. Whichever Democrat wins the party’s nomination, they will be tagged as socialist, communist or ultra-radical by Trump and his supporters. Such talking points are entirely predictable but they are nothing more than a smear.

Name-calling “communist” as a way to trash people has a long history in America. I would go back to the first Red Scare in 1920. In the aftermath of the Russian revolution, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer used fear of a socialist revolution happening here as justification for rounding up 4000 people all over the country, holding them in seclusion for long periods, conducting secret hearings and ordering their deportation.

During the Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt was branded an ultra-radical and a socialist by his Republican opponents who hated the New Deal. All FDR’s New Deal programs were attacked as “socialist”. Roosevelt was considered a traitor by the billionaire class of his day.

The Cold War was the high point of red-baiting. Senator Joseph McCarthy demagogically accused many people in public life of being communist. Loyalty investigations conducted by congressional committees, particularly the House Un-American Activities Committee or HUAC, traumatized people on the left and put many on the defensive. HUAC equated dissent with being un-American.

The right wing media of the day worked together with Senator McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and congressional committees to blacklist former New Deal progressives, federal employees, academics and artists. McCarthy and his collaborators destroyed many careers. Back then, just the accusation of being a communist caused economic ruin as those accused often lost their jobs. Public shunning moved many into the shadows and a precarious economic existence.

While it is commonly forgotten now, Republicans and Southern segregationist Democrats called Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement “communist”. FBI Director Hoover was obsessed with showing King had communist ties.

Since the 1960’s, activists who supported racial integration, opposed foreign wars, questioned the nuclear arms race or who have called for higher taxes on the rich have been called “communist” by those who favor the status quo.

At its core, red-baiting is a means to deflect attention from real issues like corruption, income inequality, health care and climate change. If you are focused on a distraction like Trump wants, you are not focusing on real problems.

In the case of Bernie Sanders, red-baiting attacks have been a staple in the Republican playbook for 30 years but they have never worked in Vermont and there is no reason to think they will work now.

Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist but, in practice, he is a New Deal-type Democrat who highlights the needs of working class people much like FDR did. For anyone with knowledge of the left political tradition, Sanders is a moderate. His ideas are hardly radical. They are common fare in Europe and Scandinavia, part of the social democratic tradition. Sanders is more of a left wing populist than a socialist.

Instead of the New Deal, now you have the Green New Deal. Other ideas have become almost mainstream. Whether it is $15 minimum wage, Medicare For All, or cancelling student loan debt, other Democratic candidates have broadly similar ideas.

The irony of the Republican use of red-baiting is that at the same time Trump red-baits, he maintains a bizarrely deferential attitude towards the authoritarian Russian President Putin that is still unexplained. Who can forget Trump’s embarrassing performance at Helsinki when he stood on the stage with Putin and trusted Putin’s denials about Russian election interference in the 2016 election over the findings of American intelligence agencies.

With Republicans, not that long ago, it used to be all about the bad Russians. Republicans used to criticize authoritarian dictators but not any more. Trump exchanges love letters with Kim Jong-un. He has praised the Saudi royals, proto-fascists like Jair Bolsanaro, and generals like Egypt’s el-Sisi.

Considering the authoritarian leaders Trump pals around with and openly embraces, red-baiting accusations against any Democrat are hypocritical. At the same time as Trump red-baits, he is guilty of the same charge he makes against his opponents. In his association with foreign dictators and authoritarian leaders, Trump is far more compromised than any Democratic candidate.

Notably, and unlike Sanders, Trump refuses to tell the Russians to stay out of our elections. Likely, he does not want to give up any advantage.

Red-baiting is intended to narrow the spectrum of what it is possible to achieve politically. It has historically been used against all kinds of change agents. In light of our history of Red Scares, it would be foolish to ignore the tactic and simply assume it will be ineffective. Resuscitating a boogeyman is an old political trick. Red-baiting should be confronted and exposed as the ethically challenged practice it is.

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