McCarthyism: America's obsession with collective emotion
Illustration Credit: Rachael Banks

In 1952, Joseph McCarthy signed the McCarran-Walter Act allowing the deportation of immigrants and citizens engaged in ‘subversive activities’ and banned so-called ‘subversives’ from entering the country.

On January 27, 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order banning foreign nationals from predominantly Muslim countries from travelling to America for 90 days, suspending entry indefinitely to Syrian refugees and preventing any refugee from entering the country for 120 days. 

McCarthy’s era is renowned for his intense series of attacks on communism; even those with the weakest links to a communist was targeted as an enemy of the state, ostracising them from the ‘true’ American society. His famous lists of presumed communists would span between 57 and 205 as he took unlawful control of the American judiciary system, creating confusion and turmoil and yet each time emerging as the victor, as the man who saved America from the worst possible threat to their domestic lives. His reign of terror seems quite characteristic of what is now referred to as ‘Trump’s presidency’, albeit with a change of focus.. 

The 1950s may have been pre-social media but the effects of newspapers and televised news stories played just as effectively in McCarthy’s favour, economically threatening largely popular companies such as The Washington Post, not unlike Trump’s threats to sue The New York Times. Despite this seemingly toxic relationship the two have with news outlets, it is this real-time discussion that allows millions to absorb their doctrine through a household object. This continuous cycle of all talk and no play allowed McCarthy to tap into the deepest fears of the average American person, a fear that although it may change across time periods is always present. This common target enables the resentment of living a working class life to be channelled into a targeted attack and McCarthy’s efficiency acts as a motivation for the continued use of collective will. 

McCarthy’s focus on communists mirrors Trump’s focus on Muslims who, according to Trump, are “SO DANGEROUS!”. Once just prejudice-filled tweets, the similarities between himself and McCarthy are growing ever clearer as there are claims that Trump backed Xi over Uyghur Muslim concentration camps and that he delayed sanctioning China to avoid jeopardizing trade relations. This constant exaggeration of threats from a targeted group, the bullying of witnesses and the destruction of livelihoods seems to be a haven for both politicians – their goal being to extract the most extreme responses whether in their favour or not. Trump himself has compared immigrants to animals, mocked a disabled reporter, and talked excessively about sexually assaulting women. 

But if that’s the only link to McCarthy, then isn’t it just a poor coincidence?

No, it’s so much more. It’s a pathway for the rise of populism hidden by the attractive nature of extreme policies for the normal person, the workers who feel ignored and desperately want to be heard by anyone who is willing to listen. 

McCarthy has corrupted the very foundations of being a modern president: the news, the media, the laws, and most controversial of all – Twitter. What Trump and McCarthy share isn’t simply just a lengthy set of prejudices. It’s a method by which both are able to whip up a frenzy resulting in attention large enough to satisfy their needs with the bonus of distracting the general public from more pressing matters. And it works. We listen so assiduously to his tweets because they will always resonate with our political views whether confirming our fears or our hopes. Constantly turning the media spotlight onto himself, Twitter has become Trump’s new public square despite him proclaiming: “I’ll give it up after I’m president”. As his options for rallying and TV debates became more formal, his tweets became more continuous and, consequently, the controversies tumbled onto our feeds relentlessly. 

Exactly as addictive betting and gambling is for some, Twitter provides a daily guessing game as to how controversial and problematic people will find his tweets. How much of the news will talk about him today? However much they do, it’s proportionate to the amount of news that will fail to mention the fundamental problems of today’s political climate. Even now as John Bolton publicly came forward with accusations and a book dedicated to debunking Trump, it does not make the front pages of media outlets such as CNN who have instead prioritised important news stories such as  “Ramen pizza: Has Pizza Hut gone too far?”. Of course, that’s definitely too far.

The lack of coverage on the Uyghur Muslims in China means that any policies Trump does (or does not) spew out go underground under a layer of desensitisation as when the policy eventually resurface, it’s too late to instil prevention of any sort. It may come as a surprise then, to hear that recently Trump has announced bans on Kyrgyzstan, Myanmar, Eritrea, Nigeria, Sudan, and Tanzania. Or that between 2017 and 2018 alone, the number of permanent visas given to nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen fell by 72%. But should this surprise us? The tell-tale signs were there from the start; after the December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, California, Trump promoted false stories of Muslims celebrating 9/11, mocked Clinton for refusing to say ‘radical Islamic’ and initially proposed the Muslim ban. It is clear then that McCarthy’s tactics of playing on the widespread feelings of the public Joe have been handed down from politician to politician and have transformed itself into a President who deliberately publicises hostility. 


Today this has gained new clarity. On Wednesday 17 June, 2020, Trump signed into law the “Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020”. This allows the government to freeze assets of anyone or any entity found responsible for the Xinjiang human rights abuses and ban these individuals from entry to the US. Yet human rights concerns do not seem to make a fundamental pillar of the Sino-American policies under Trump’s administration, Trump claiming he delayed any action for trade deals to continue. It is questionable, according to Bolton, if this law will be properly enforced claiming that in a 2019 G20 summit in Japan, Trump “said he didn’t object to the camps.”. And for the 25 million Uyghur Muslims in China that risk being sent to these camps, is Trump really mobilising his power to the best of his ability? This human rights crisis may just be condemned to the prioritisation of a presidential campaign and the daily chore of tweeting out streams of collective will.