Donald Trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The astonishing closeness of Donald Trump and his campaign to the current (and increasingly murderous) Russian regime has attracted comment from Democrats (and other patriots). That in turn has attracted counter-comment from some of Trump’s defenders (and their dupes, and random Clinton-haters, some stray lefties still feeling the loyalty to the anti-anti-Communist cause even though Russia is now functionally fascist rather than communist) complaining about “McCarthyism.”

The comparison seemed to me so clearly absurd as to be scarcely worth the effort of refutation. But, as it seems to have some legs, here goes:

McCarthyism – as practiced not only by Joe McCarthy himself but also by (e.g.,) Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover  – was the political strategy of falsely imputing a lack of patriotism to people supporting progressive domestic causes such as civil rights and anti-poverty programs, or a foreign policy that tried to minimize the risks of nuclear war. It involved two distinct fallacies:

  1.  Confounding reforms completely compatible with a basically capitalist economy with “socialism,” and in turn socialism with totalitarian political rule as practiced in the Soviet Union.
  2. Imputing differences of opinion on policy to disloyalty.

McCarthyism did not end with McCarthy’s censure and death. Roy Cohn, McCarthy’s deputy, subsequently made a successful career as an influence-peddler with largely Republican connections; the young Donald Trump was one of Cohen’s clients, and his protege. Even today, some Republicans (and glibertarians) seem incapable of discussing Obamacare or progressive taxation without reference to the gulags. And false accusations about divided loyalty – now updated to claims that someone-or-other is “an agent of the Muslim Brotherhood” rather than “a card-carrying member of the Communist Party” – are as current as the attacks on the Khan family for daring to challenge Donald Trump.

There are even some who still defend McCarthy’s own reckless career of character assassination. William F. Buckley, whose first book was a defense of McCarthy, remains a revered figure among the supposedly respectable Right, and immigrant-and-Muslim basher Michelle Malkin published a pro-McCarthy screed a few years ago.

McCarthy and his cronies did not operate entirely without some basis in fact. Historically, there was a tendency among some parts of the American left to sympathize with the Soviet Union, and in a few cases that extended to actually disloyal actions.

People actively working against the national interest (as opposed to, e.g., people who had been Communists or fellow-travelers before WWII) were a tiny minority of the victims of the “anti-Communist” crusade. In addition to a bunch of innocent bystanders, McCarthyism proper attacked a panoply of patriotic heroes, including Dean Acheson and J. Robert Oppenheimer. Still, actual subversives (the Rosenbergs, Alger Hiss) did in fact exist; by contrast, “agents of the Muslim Brotherhood” actually influential in American politics are completely imaginary.

The situation with respect to Russia today is utterly different. First and foremost, Russia is now, in operational terms, fascist (ethno-nationalist, homophobic, and crony-capitalist) rather than communist, and while Russian policy does support nominally left-wing governments and movements such as Chavismo in Venezuela, the politicians who get Russian support in the developed world – Orbán in Hungary, Le Pen in France, Berlusconi in Italy, and now Trump in the U.S. – tend to be on the political right, either because Putin judges right-wing politicians to be more venal and less patriotic or because he regards right-wing policies as the most urgent threat to the liberal order he so hates. Thus there is no earthly reason why supporters of progressive politics should feel drawn toward contemporary Russia.

There is some tendency for anti-militarists (of the left and the libertarian and isolationist right) to want to apologize for Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Baltics for fear that acknowledging the fact of aggression might imply some need to do something about it militarily. Still, no substantial faction on the left or on the right is systematically pro-Russian in the way that the CP-USA and its fellow-travelers were systematically pro-Soviet.

However, precisely because Russia is not the sort of adversary the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, Russian money has been able to penetrate U.S. politics in a way that Soviet money could not. The RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik networks masquerade as news organizations though they are in fact Russian state enterprises devoted to peddling the Kremlin line. And some U.S.-based political consulting/lobbying/influence-peddling enterprises, including the one headed by Paul Manafort as well as the Podesta Group and Mercury, have taken money – directly or via sketchy cut-outs – from aid Viktor Yanukovych’s attempt to convert Ukraine into a Russian client state.

Again, there’s no evidence that any of this was ideological. It has less resemblance to Communist subversion than it does to the (very successful) influence-purchasing operations of the Saudi monarchy.

But the simple fact remains that the Trump campaign is riddled with people in the Russian orbit. In addition to whatever the candidate’s own business dealings or loan obligations might be, there were Manafort himself as campaign manager, Boris Epshteyn as a surrogate, Carter Page on Trump’s foreign policy advisory team, and retired general (and paid RT commentator) Michael Flynn as a another surrogate and even a rumored potential running-mate. Coincidentally or not, Trump’s positions – especially his denial that Russia did anything out of line in annexing Crimea and his announced unwillingness to have the U.S. live up to its treaty obligations in case of a Russian attack on one of the Baltic nations – track the Russian line pretty closely. And of course Trump has said repeatedly that he prefer’s Putin’s brand of “leadership” to Obama’s.

It’s also the case that Putin has more or less openly intervened on Trump’s behalf, both by having RT and Sputnik run anti-Clinton propaganda and by authorizing some of the hacker groups allowed by the Russian state to carry out lucrative criminal hacking, especially abroad, in return for collaboration as needed with Russian intelligence services to hack into the computers of the Democratic National Committee (releasing those emails, via WikiLeaks, in a way timed to cause maximum disruption at the Democratic Convetion) and the Democratic National Congressional Campaign Committee. (It now emerges that U.S. counterintelligence agencies had spotted the hack as a Russian operation, and informed Congressional leadership about it, months ago.)

That’s the point that Trump’s critics have been making: that we have a Republican Presidential candidate who, personally and through his staff, has unknown but possibly quite deep financial entanglements with an unfriendly foreign power, whose positions seem more favorable to the interests of that foreign power than to the interests of the United States and its allies, and who is getting assistance from that foreign power in his campaign.

The fact that Republicans used mostly false accusations of affiliation to the Soviet Union to discredit Democrats does not make it wrong for Democrats to make true statements about the relationship of Donald Trump and his associates to the Russian fascist state.

Footnote Yes, there is a broader policy implication here. The existing U.S. political system is far to vulnerable to foreign penetration. The Foreign Agents Registration Act needs to be tightened to make it harder for foreign powers to use NGOs as cut-outs to purchase the services of U.S. lobbyists, and to require more disclosure from law firms about foreign clients. Most of all, the “corporate free speech” doctrine enunciated in Citizens United and similar cases needs to be drastically modified to prevent foreign nationals from using U.S.-based but foreign-owned entities as an end-around to evade the ban on foreign contributions to U.S. political campaigns. In addition, not-for-profits – both 501 (c) (3) charities and 501 (c) (4) advocacy groups – need to be required to disclose the sources of their funding.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.