In war on terror, Trump plays two roles

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agents. He would wave pa­pers say­ing that he had a list of com­mu­nist agents serv­ing in the State Depart­ment, but never ac­tu­ally showed the list to any­one. He also charged, after the elec­tion, that Ge­orge C. Mar­shall, who served as chief of staff of the U.S. Army dur­ing World War II and then sec­re­tary of de­fense and state, was him­self a com­mu­nist agent. McCarthy had a huge fol­low­ing. The ap­par­ent fail­ure of the United States had to be ex­plained. The Korean War wasn’t go­ing well, ca­su­al­ties mounted and by the time of the elec­tion, it was a stale­mate. Us­ing nu­clear weapons had been re­jected. The Sovi­ets had set up pup­pet regimes in eastern Europe and there were large com­mu­nist par­ties in France and Italy, while com­mu­nist-driven civil wars had been fought in Greece and Turkey. In ad­di­tion, there was a wave of strikes in the United States. In one strike, Tru­man drafted all rail­way men into the Army to keep the trains run­ning – a move that some per­ceived as hav­ing com­mu­nist over­tones. Given the ten­sions, the case that com­mu­nists had in­flu­enced Franklin D. Roo­sevelt when he met with the lead­ers of the U.K. and Soviet Union in Yalta and had weak­ened the United States ev­ery­where was per­sua­sive.

McCarthy’s op­po­nents saw him as a fas­cist and be­lieved he was try­ing to drive lib­er­als out of gov­ern­ment and into pri­son. Some of his op­po­nents also be­lieved that there was no com­mu­nist threat and that it had been man­u­fac­tured by McCarthy’s am­bi­tion to im­pose a reign of terror in the United States. The fact that the Soviet Union was ruled by Josef Stalin did not give them pause. McCarthy made it all up, they as­serted. And McCarthy used the crit­i­cism to demon­strate that his crit­ics were com­mu­nists.

This was the frame­work in which the 1952 elec­tion took place, and lest you believe I am ex­ag­ger­at­ing, the re­al­ity was ten times as in­tense. The United States was be­ing torn apart be­tween the fear that the U.S. had fallen un­der the con­trol of the com­mu­nists and the left’s view that McCarthy was part of a fas­cist plot. Eisen­hower and Steven­son were nom­i­nated at a time when pri­maries didn’t dom­i­nate the land­scape, so the party bosses picked two can­di­dates who were rel­a­tively mod­er­ate. But the coun­try was likely more di­vided then than to­day, kept in check by cen­trist and cred­i­ble can­di­dates.

The coun­try was even more di­vided in 1968. The lead­ing can­di­date of the Demo­cratic Party, Robert Kennedy, was as­sas­si­nated on the night he won the Cal­i­for­nia pri­mary. This hap­pened two months after Martin Luther King Jr. was shot. The ten­sions over the Viet­nam War had reached a boil­ing point. The Demo­cratic con­ven­tion was held in Chicago with 10,000 demon­stra­tors as well as po­lice and na­tional guards in the streets. There were over a thou­sand in­juries, and po­lice raided the of­fices of Eugene McCarthy, a can­di­date for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion, and ar­rested his staff.

The anti-war move­ment was pow­er­ful, but it went beyond be­ing an anti-war move­ment. A large part of it mor­phed into a move­ment ar­gu­ing that the Viet­nam War was not only an im­pe­ri­al­ist war but a war fought to gen­er­ate cash and sup­port the econ­omy. Oth­ers went fur­ther, claim­ing that the United States was ut­terly cor­rupt and a rev­o­lu­tion was needed to re­deem it. Had this been sim­ply an anti-war move­ment, it might have won over the pub­lic. But it be­came an at­tack on Amer­i­can life – or else ap­peared to be.

Richard Nixon cast him­self as the spokesman for the silent ma­jor­ity, as he put it. The demon­stra­tors did not rep­re­sent Amer­ica, he claimed. Rather than de­fend the war, he cast the demon­stra­tors as op­posed to all things Amer­i­can – and the ex­tremes of the move­ment played into his hands. He made the elec­tion about Amer­i­can val­ues.

In the war on ter­ror­ism, Don­ald Trump plays two roles. He ar­gues it was a mis­take to go into Iraq and wants to leave. He si­mul­ta­ne­ously ar­gues that we are los­ing the real war on Is­lamist ter­ror­ism, and blames Barack Obama and Clin­ton for the U.S.’ weak­ness. It is not al­to­gether clear what role Clin­ton plays at this point, but the en­tire war has not yet sorted it­self out as the oth­ers did.

There are al­ways other is­sues, such as the econ­omy in 1952 and 2016, or op­po­si­tion to the “Great So­ci­ety” pro­grammes in­tro­duced by John­son. None of these are sim­ple. But the fact is that the United States has had elec­tions that were seen at the time as a to­tal break­down of a co­her­ent or­der. All are dif­fer­ent. But they have two things in com­mon: they are all seen as un­prece­dented (and in a sense they are) and all three came at a point where ev­ery­one was frus­trated by a war that couldn’t be won.

What is note­wor­thy about both 1952 and 1968 was that the more ex­treme el­e­ments were de­feated. McCarthy was crushed, and Eisen­hower gov­erned for those who were nei­ther McCarthyites nor in­sen­si­tive to the com­mu­nist threat. The anti-war move­ment was also crushed. In 1972, when pro-war Nixon faced anti-war Ge­orge McGovern, Nixon dev­as­tated the anti-war move­ment. Those who re­call the anti-war move­ment as forc­ing an end to the Viet­nam War tend to for­get the elec­tion. Later, Nixon was de­stroyed by Water­gate. Ger­ald Ford formed a gov­ern­ment that nei­ther sided with the coun­ter­cul­ture, as it was called, nor tol­er­ated Nixon-style gov­ern­ment.

Healthy so­ci­eties have a ten­dency to re­set them­selves after im­bal­ances ap­pear. Dur­ing tur­bu­lent times, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine the coun­try find­ing its bal­ance again. How­ever, it is re­mark­able how quickly after McCarthy was crushed and the anti-war move­ment scat­tered, the third force – those en­raged at the other two fac­tions – re­asserted it­self. From 1953, when Eisen­hower was sworn in, un­til the mid­dle of John­son’s cam­paign, there was a pe­riod of rel­a­tive sta­bil­ity. From 1974, when Nixon re­signed, un­til now, there was an­other pe­riod in which there was enough con­sen­sus that the elec­tion of ei­ther can­di­date did not arouse fears of dis­as­ter.

Amer­i­can pol­i­tics are rough, but the sense that the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion is un­prece­dented comes from Amer­i­cans’ fail­ure to re­mem­ber their own his­tory. To this point, the 2016 elec­tion has not bro­ken any records. It is in­ter­est­ing to look at the af­ter­math of 1952 and 1968 to get a sense of where the United States goes from here.

I might add that the for­eign­ers, who re­ally don’t be­gin to un­der­stand the United States, would also be well served to re­mem­ber what fol­lowed the self-de­struc­tive phases the U.S. puts it­self through. As it re­cov­ered from each, it re­asserted it­self and for­got what came be­fore. Hav­ing no sense of his­tory some­times is ben­e­fi­cial.

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