Commentary Magazine


McCarthyism: The Last Refuge of the Left

In the 1950′s Senator Joseph R. McCarthy made a career of finding Reds under every bed. Today, the culture which so despises him finds traces of McCarthy himself under every bed. Thus a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute attacks the “McCarthyism” of anti-smoking activists, while a Playboy editor condemns the Meese commission on pornography for its “sexual McCarthyism.” The author of a recent book on AIDS says that the disease has created “the public-health version of McCarthyism,” and the editor of the Journal of American Medicine claims that urine tests are “chemical McCarthyism.” And in a twist that must have the late Senator from Wisconsin turning in his grave, a university professor in California has even charged that complaints about the easy access the Soviet propagandist Vladimir Posner has to American television are “part of the lingering slime of McCarthyism.”

In short, thirty years after McCarthy’s death, “McCarthyism” has become an omnibus synonym for sinister authority and political repression, a word to describe the hate that dare not speak its name. Individuals and parties compete to brand each other with the Scarlet M, using the term as a moral trump. Liberals, for example, charged Patrick J. Buchanan with McCarthyism when, during his tenure as Ronald Reagan’s director of communications, he drew the plausible—if arguable—conclusion that a vote against aid for the contras was a vote for the Sandinistas; and more recently, conservatives who otherwise might harbor a secret fondness for McCarthy charged the Iran-contra committee with McCarthyism during its grilling of Oliver North.

In some sense, then, the term is just another weapon in the language of combat. But it also has a more specific function in our political culture, as a pair of recent events suggests.

The first concerns the furor surrounding a leaked memo about Senator Howard Metzenbaum’s youthful connection in the 40′s with organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild and the Ohio School of Social Sciences (a Marxist training center of which he had been a trustee). Although not writing for publication, the authors of the memo had a bad case of the jitters, discussing Metzenbaum’s involvement in these organizations with timorous circumlocution. (“. . . Opponents should cautiously use the material to expose the fact that Metzenbaum’s background shows evidence of significant concern for issues of interest to Communist organizations.”) They warned Ohio Republicans that if the material got into unfriendly hands, they might be attacked as “McCarthyistic,” which is of course exactly what happened when it was leaked to the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

A similar event, but with an opposite outcome, had occurred a few months earlier when George Crockett, a Democratic Congressman from Detroit, was named the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. Going public with their qualms, a coalition of conservative groups held a press conference in Washington to express alarm over Crockett’s enthusiasm for the Sandinistas and his support for American radical groups sending aid to Marxist guerrillas throughout Central America. But the conservatives were even more concerned about Crockett’s past record stretching back for forty years. In 1949 Crockett served as one of the lawyers for the Communist party’s eleven top leaders, who had been indicted under the Smith Act for conspiracy to advocate the overthrow of the government by force. Eventually he got a four-month jail sentence for attempting, in concert with the rest of the defense team, to disrupt the proceedings. Since then he has regularly endorsed Soviet front organizations like the World Peace Council.

Nor, in contrast to the case of Metzenbaum, were these merely youthful indiscretions, later outgrown. While the report on Metzenbaum wrongly suggested that his early associations were still reflected in his record as a U.S. Senator, the pattern of forty years earlier was indeed still visible in Crockett’s record in Congress. In 1983, when the Soviets shot down KAL 007 and the House voted 416-0 to condemn this act of murder, Crockett alone abstained; in 1985, when the Soviets shot U.S. Major Arthur Nicholson in East Germany and denied him medical aid for forty-five minutes while he bled to death, Crockett voted against a House resolution of condemnation.

When the conservative spokesman, Michael Waller of the Center for Inter-American Security, concluded his summary of Crockett’s record, there was a moment of uncomfortable silence, and then a reporter from Newsweek spoke up with a question that had obviously crossed the minds of other journalists in the room: “Isn’t this sort of McCarthyism?” The invocation of this term in effect ended the press conference.

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It appears, then, that even though we are nowadays closer to the naiveté of the 30′s that saw Communism as “20th-century Americanism” than to the 50′s view of it as absolute evil, there is still a taboo against mentioning the distant sympathies of someone like Senator Metzenbaum or questioning the more profound ties of someone like Congressman Crockett. (This reflex is so pervasive that it has been reified in the nation’s political code: the Communist party is uniquely exempted from election-law requirements that campaign donors be identified, on the assumption that in this case they might be subjected to “McCarthyite” harassment.) Subversion and divided loyalties are now forbidden subjects in America’s political culture. “Communist” and “fellow-traveler” are epithets that seem antique, almost comically grotesque. Nevertheless, the term McCarthyism retains the power of a political curse.

The apprehensions aroused by charges of McCarthyism are based on the assumption that there is a powerful and destructive impulse lurking just under the surface of our political life: a native fascism easily ignited and ready to rage dangerously out of control. It is an assumption not often questioned, although the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. Arthur Miller’s efforts in The Crucible notwithstanding, the history of McCarthy shows the alien nature of the witch-hunt mentality to the American spirit and its superficial hold on the American psyche. Appearing in the extraordinary circumstances of the postwar period, McCarthyism was actually brief in its moment, limited in its consequences, and complete in its purgation from the body politic. The Wisconsin Senator’s strut on the stage ended after only a few years in a crushing repudiation by his colleagues in the Senate and an enduring obloquy in the rogue’s gallery of American history, a position close to that of Benedict Arnold and a handful of other villains. His enemies have survived to be rehabilitated as martyrs and heroes of an American political nightmare, while he himself is the only figure from that haunted era to suffer irreparable damnation.

Why then do we hear so much about McCarthyism in the contemporary political debate? Is there a real basis for the fear that we will return to that brief moment in the 1950′s when this bizarre figure dominated our politics? Is there a legitimate worry that we will once again be victimized by a pathology which Harry Truman defined when he went on television to defend himself against the charge that he had protected Harry Dexter White (an official in his administration who had committed suicide after being named as a Soviet agent): the big lie and the reckless smear, the indiscriminate use of guilt by association, the disregard for due process?

If so, the danger exists less on the Right than on the Left which has integrated many of these technniques into its political repertory. In his column in the Nation, for example, Alexander Cockburn regularly accuses Robert Leiken, Ronald Radosh, and other experts on Central America who deny that the Sandinistas are building a Utopia in Nicaragua of being contra hirelings or CIA agents. For his dissent on affirmative-action programs, the black economist Thomas Sowell has been labeled “an enemy of his people” by Roger Wilkins in the same radical journal. There was also the reaction on the liberal Left to the appointment of John H. Koehler as White House communications director earlier this year. Once it was discovered that Koehler, as a child of ten in his native Germany, had belonged briefly to a Nazi youth group, there was such a tremendous outcry that the White House was forced to withdraw his nomination, even though the head of the Anti-Defamation League observed that it was “ludicrous to judge a fifty-six-year-old person by his associations as a ten-year-old.” Clearly, the famous question of the McCarthy period—“Are you now or have you ever been. . .?”—is out of bounds in the political debate only if what you are or were or might have been is a Communist.

In short, it is not the political methods of McCarthyism that arouse the indignation of those who invoke its specter today, but the political ideas with which McCarthy was associated, specifically his anti-Communism. This is admitted with disarming frankness by Ellen Schrecker in No Ivory Tower, her book about the effects of McCarthyism on the university: “After all, what made McCarthy a McCarthyite was not his bluster but his anti-Communist mission. . . .”

To dismiss McCarthy’s malevolence as “bluster” seems fatuous, but there is a reason. What Professor Schrecker and others on the Left who have made McCarthy into a perverse version of a patron saint are saying is that the problem was not his demagogic lack of scruples or the psychological demons that sent him careening out of control, but the target of his crusade. For them, just as much as for the tiny band of zealots who gather every year at his grave on the anniversary of his death, Joseph McCarthy is a representative American. In life McCarthy was part of the Right. In death he has been possessed by the body-snatchers of the Left. His ghost is now summoned up not to underscore the importance of civil liberties in a democracy, but as part of a partisan morality play about the dangers of anti-Communism in general. To accuse someone of being a McCarthyite, therefore, has become a way of embargoing ideas that the Left dislikes and invoking cloture on debates—as, for instance, about the commitments of people like George Crockett—that it does not wish to have.

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From this leftist perspective, McCarthy-ism preexisted McCarthy—it was the monstrous offspring of the Truman Doctrine. Because of internal-security measures and congressional investigations into subversion begun during his presidency, Truman was, in effect, a premature McCarthyite. Thus the leftist fable: once upon a time, American liberals embraced a cold-war philosophy and an anti-Communist strategy. The result was an indigenous strain of American fascism—McCarthyism. It is the fear of a repetition of this experience that animates the present liberal generation, and directs its vigilance away from the pregnant silences surrounding a George Crockett, and toward those who are suspicious of what these silences conceal.

Anti-Communism begets fascism: it is a logic that was developed by the Communist party itself. As soon as anti-Communism became the policy of the Truman administration, the Communists marched out of the Democratic party, where they had camped after the breakup of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and into the new Progressive party. Appealing to their former liberal allies, they warned that Truman’s anti-Communist policies would lead inexorably to war abroad and fascism at home. One Communist party publication of the period was entitled “The Deadly Parallel.” Disseminated in 1949, it juxtaposed two sets of photographs—one of Nazis rounding up first Communists and then Jews and shipping them to Auschwitz, the other of U.S. marshals escorting American Communists to their Smith Act trial and of a detention facility which was identified as a newly built “concentration camp.” The message was simple and clear: the cold war that Truman had launched to oppose the global advance of Communism had put America on the road to Nazism. Communists first and then everyone else would fall under the iron boot.

It was one occasion when the Communists believed their own propaganda. When the Smith Act trial resulted in a guilty verdict, the party interpreted it as the beginnning of America’s long totalitarian night and sent its leadership into the “underground” so that it would be ready to direct the struggle against the new Nazi order. The rank and file stayed put, denouncing Truman’s initiation of security programs as the “internal” cold war required by his cold war abroad.

The sudden prominence of McCarthy following his famous speech of June 1950 in Wheeling, West Virginia (the one in which he claimed that he had a long list of Communists working in the State Department) seemed to confirm the theory of a connection between McCarthy and the anti-Communist liberalism of the Truman Democrats. This theory enabled later revisionist historians and writers like Lillian Hellman to tar them all with the brush of McCarthyism. It was, said Hellman, a “scoundrel time,” a time of witch hunts in search of subversives and security risks who simply did not exist and of liberals who remained silent out of cowardice or secret approval.

The historical record shows just the opposite. The testimony of former Communists and KGB intelligence defectors, together with evidence revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the American Communist party throughout the entire period was indeed financed and directed by Moscow, and that it was devious in its political agendas, duplicitous in its public face, and conspiratorial in its organizational form. Members of the party like Judith Coplon and Julius Rosenberg did indeed spy for their Kremlin masters. Party loyalists like Alger Hiss did indeed attain positions of influence in areas of policy crucial to the Soviets’ interest, while sympathizers like Owen Lattimore—later canonized as innocent victims of the witch hunt—used their positions to aid the Communists they secretly admired. The Communist witnesses who eventually invoked the Fifth Amendment before congressional committees, claiming to be progressives concerned about democracy and the Bill of Rights, were in fact members of an international conspiracy whose goal was to exploit the institutions of American democracy to serve the Soviet Union.

As a result of the security programs, many of these people lost their jobs in institutions considered vital to the nation’s defense—in government, in the media, and in education. But with few exceptions they were not fired for holding “unpopular ideas,” as the mythology that has grown up around McCarthy holds. They were fired for being members of (or for refusing to cooperate with inquiries into their membership in) an organization which was subservient to a hostile foreign power and whose purposes were inimical to American democracy and to the institutions they had infiltrated. Thus Columbia University justified its policy of excluding Communists from its faculty in the following statement: “Membership in Communist organizations almost certainly implies a submission to an intellectual control which is entirely at variance with the principles of academic competence as we understand them.”

This is not to say that McCarthy’s response was not destructive. In his hands, the struggle against this Communist fifth column was perverted into a weapon against the Democrats which eventually became a scattergun aimed at his own party, at America, and ultimately at himself. His reckless demagoguery did damage to innocent people and the atmosphere created by his success cast a pall over the political arena, imperiling the democratic process while also destroying the credibility of anti-Communism itself. Robert Lamphere, the head of the FBI counterintelligence team that caught the Rosenbergs, has since written: “Senator McCarthy’s crusade . . . was always anathema to me. McCarthy’s approach and tactics hurt the anti-Communist cause and turned many liberals against legitimate efforts to curtail Communist activities in the United States. . . .” So too Whittaker Chambers: “. . . All of us, to one degree or another, have come to question his judgment and to fear acutely that his flair for the sensational, his inaccuracies and distortions . . . will lead him and us into trouble. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say that we live in terror that Senator McCarthy will one day make some blunder which will play directly into the hands of our common enemy and discredit the whole anti-Communist effort for a long while to come.”

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Yet what is missing from the leftist mythology about the postwar era is the active role of the Communists themselves in creating the disastrous drama in which Joseph McCarthy starred. Why was the most notorious question of the era—“Are you now or have you ever been. . .?—asked in the first place? Because the Communists concealed who and what they were; because they presented themselves as “progressives” and patriots, even as their covert actions were revealing wholly different values and intentions. In this sense Max Eastman, former Trotskyist, was right when he said that “we are not dealing with fanatics of a new idea, willing to give testimony for their faith straightforwardly regardless of cost. We are dealing with conspirators who try to sneak in their Moscow-inspired propaganda by stealth and double-talk. . . .” And as William Phillips, the editor of Partisan Review, has noted (with considerable understatement), “some” of those pursued by McCarthy “were Communists and what one was being asked to do was to defend their right to lie about it.”

In other words, the worst and most damaging aspects of McCarthyism—the poisonous effect on the democratic process resulting from blurred distinctions between liberals and Communists—was a problem that had been created in the first place by the Communists themselves. It was they who hid their anti-democratic and anti-American agendas and commitments behind “liberal” fronts and façades. If there was an interest in ferreting Communists out of liberal institutions, it was not because the fascist genie had escaped from the unstoppered bottle of American paranoia, but because Communists had infiltrated these institutions in the first place. If the difference between liberalism and Communism was sometimes difficult to detect, it was because the Communists had cynically used liberalism as protective coloration for the better part of a decade. If Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and other Communist agents had acknowledged their commitments, could there have been a McCarthy?

The experience of the radical 60′s suggests that the answer is no. Rarely during this period was there any concern on the Left over a resurgence of McCarthyism. This cannot, however, be ascribed to any lack of “subversive” activity, which in the 60′s may well have exceeded anything in the past. Nor can it be attributed to the absence of an anti-Communist Right, which was in fact gathering momentum through the Goldwater wing of the Republican party. The reason lies, rather, in the temporarily changed nature of the Left itself.

By a coincidence of fate, in 1957, the same year that McCarthy died in disgrace, the Old Left disintegrated under the pressure of Khrushchev’s revelations concerning the crimes of Stalin and the Soviets’ brutal invasion of Hungary. A New Left, impressed by the debacle and anxious not to be involved in a repetition, soon appeared. This New Left had many faults, but lack of candor was not one of them. Where Old Leftists had pretended to be progressives and liberals, New Leftists insisted on being recognized as Marxists and revolutionaries, pro-Castro and pro-Vietcong, up against the wall and tear the mother down. They would not have dreamed of concealing their radical agendas in the clothing of liberalism; indeed, to them the worst of all fates was to be mistaken for liberals.

The New Left did not want to infiltrate institutions in the American mainstream with whose purposes it was openly at war and whose ends it intended to subvert; the New Left wanted to create its own institutions and to make “a revolution in the streets.” It was redundant, as government agencies soon discovered, to interrogate New Left radicals about who they were because they made no bones about it. Whereas Old Leftists had donned the cloak of the liberal martyr who is ruefully silent before his inquisitors out of shame for the offense they commit against liberty itself, New Leftists yanked those who threatened to investigate them into their own Theater of the Absurd. Hence Jerry Rubin’s appearance in knee breeches and tricornered hat—American Revolutionary drag—before the decrepit and obsolete House Un-American Activities Committee. When asked about his subversive agenda he said he was a revolutionary and proud of it. And that was that. When the witch admits to being a witch, there is no hunt. The McCarthyism of the 50′s ended in the 60′s not as tragedy but as farce.

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This was not, however, the final chapter of the story; there was another twist that was yet to come.

When the revolution in the streets for which the New Left yearned failed to happen, most of its members disappeared—into health foods, jogging, business school, entrepreneurship, and yuppiedom. But the hard core that remained was suddenly overcome by an irresistible nostalgia for the Old Left they had once scorned as politically devious and ideologically ossified. Their own movement had burned itself out in mythomania and histrionics, and in narcissistic fantasies of violence. The Communists of the 30′s, on the other hand, now seemed admirable for exactly the quality that had once seemed so despicable—their obstinate and ruthless loyalty—because they had managed to stay the leftist course, because of the durability of their commitments. Whereas during the 60′s they had been scorned as hacks always trying to infiltrate New Left organizations and then trying to moderate the violent spontaneity of their younger successors, the Communists were now seen in a new light—as determined foot-soldiers of progressivism who had fought the good fight, who had experienced defeat, disappointment, and even betrayal, but who had also learned how to survive and who thus might be good models for what was left of the Left.

One pathetic image which crystallizes this change came in 1971 when the leaders of the violent Weatherman faction of the SDS, isolated and disheartened by their early experience in the underground, sat at the knees of a Communist party leader, Annie Stein, mother of one of them, and got a short course in Marx according to the authorized version of Joseph Stalin.

By themselves, a small and already defeated group of radicals trying to engineer a new attitude toward Communists would not have rippled the national consensus. But large numbers of liberals, mired in a self-lacerating post-Vietnam tristesse, joined in the revisionist mood. Indeed, to many liberals this war had come to seem an extension of the anti-Communist crusade of Harry Truman, and they now began wondering whether the Old Left might not have been right all along about the immorality of that entire policy abroad and the threat it posed to civil liberties at home. If Vietnam had not brought fascism, as Tom Hay-den and other radicals had predicted with glib enthusiasm at the end of the 60′s, it had unveiled, in the Watergate debacle, a crisis which made such possibilities seem less fanciful.

Out of these feelings was born the public rehabilitation of the discredited old Stalinists—a feat accomplished in books of the 70′s and early 80′s like Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism and Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, mainstream films like The Front and The Way We Were, and documentaries like The Good Fight and Seeing Red. Here all the old agitprop moralities were again on display as part of a “reassessment” of the cold-war era. The Communists were presented as they had once presented themselves—as persecuted defenders of American democracy, hapless victims of American fascism. The villains in this melodrama were not only, or even primarily, the troglodytes of the Right; they also included the liberals who had tried to protect their organizations from Communist infiltration. These anti-Communist liberals, already on the verge of extinction as a result of the takeover of the Democratic party by the McGovern movement in 1972, were now subjected to a furious attack for their alleged collusion with or cowardly acquiescence in McCarthyism.

The bible of this new morality was Lillian Hellman’s memoir Scoundrel Time (1976). Hell-man portrayed herself, and was canonized, as a martyr, one who had stood up and said no in thunder during the dark days ruled by McCarthy. “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions”: the sentence would be much quoted by sycophantic reviewers who ignored the fact that Hellman had for many years cut her conscience to fit Stalin’s fashions. She postured as an innocent and naïf, someone who might have been in Moscow during the worst moments of Stalin’s purge trials of the 30′s but knew nothing about them. Yet this had not stopped her, in fact, from signing an ad defending the trials or, shortly before the alliance between Hitler and Stalin was concluded, from joining a group of American intellectuals who denounced the “fantastic falsehood” that the USSR was no different from other totalitarian states.

Again, as with Soviet agents like Hiss and the Rosenbergs, if self-styled “progressives” like Hell-man had not earlier apologized for Stalinism or maintained a disgraceful silence about its homicidal nature, there would not have been a field on which a McCarthy could have played.

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But in conjuring up the specter of McCarthyism, Hellman and others were doing more than seeking vindication and turning a past defeat into a present triumph. The exhumation of McCarthy was also a way of putting the political culture under discipline so that it would be helpless against the renaissance of “progressive” politics that was looming on the horizon, and so that it would be incapable of confronting the Communists and other elements of the hardcore Left who were once again parading as liberals.

It was strange timing. The American reality of the late 70′s was as far from a “new McCarthyism” as one could imagine. The lessons of Vietnam and Watergate held that America had no real enemies in the world out there but was threatened only by phantasms created by its cold-war paranoia. Thus the FBI was now barred from putting under surveillance even those political groups whose agendas indicated an intention to engage in illegal and violent acts—like Weatherman before it went underground. As a result, this group of fanatics was able to carry out a string of successful armed robberies to finance its revolution and to murder three innocent people in an abortive attempt on a Brinks armored car in upstate New York.

Even with the inauguration of Ronald Reagan, no anti-Communist vigilantes were visible in the political landscape, no retribution was demanded for a war that had been lost at home far more than on the battlefield. The reality was rather that of a nation overwhelmed to the point of paralysis by feelings of futility and guilt; a nation disarmed by self-doubt and vulnerable to strange creeds.

Meanwhile the global offensive that the Communists launched after America’s defeat in Vietnam had swept fourteen nations on three continents into the Soviet orbit, continuing its advance even to the Central American land mass. And just as the popular-front progressives of an earlier period had joined in a “peace” movement to oppose the Truman administration’s efforts to contain Stalin’s expansion in Eastern Europe, so in the 80′s leftists rallied in a popular front to frustrate the Reagan administration’s resistance to Communist expansion in the Americas. In 1980 officials of the American Communist party working with Communist agents from Nicaragua and El Salvador established a “solidarity network” across the United States to support the Communists in Central America. With the help of a patchwork of “human-rights” groups, a powerful lobby was created which was able to exert enough influence on Congress to cut off aid to the contras for a crucial period, leading eventually to the Iran-contra crisis. One of the groups, the Pledge of Resistance, mobilized 100,000 signatories across the country who promised to break the law, if necessary, to defend the Communist forces in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

About the time that Buchanan was being roundly condemned in Washington as a McCarthyite for his statement on the contra vote, a political rally was held on the West Coast which showed how different the political atmosphere of the 80′s was from that of the 50′s. The occasion for the rally was a Marxist Scholars Conference in Seattle organized by the American Communist party. It was addressed by the dean of American Communist intellectuals, Herbert Aptheker, who for over a half century had proven himself one of the most servile apologists for the Soviet state. Having previously signed the Pledge of Resistance, Aptheker now signed it again publicly, urging the assembled professors to do likewise, to return to their campuses and become involved in “imaginative action . . . interfering with the armed forces, interfering with maneuvers, doing everything possible” to oppose the efforts of their own government to stop the Communist advance. Yet so effective had the fear of McCarthyism become that this speech, which once would have been taken as a blatant incitement to sedition, passed unnoticed and uncriticized.

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The term “McCarthyism” as it is used today is thus not a reality recalled, but a political blunt instrument, an aggressive symbol forcibly deforming our view of the world. McCarthyism no longer means character assassination and reckless disregard for due process. It is now equated with anti-Communism itself and is invoked to interdict discussion.

Thus has a spell been cast on American political discourse. Under this spell we censor ourselves and become incapable of speaking openly and honestly about a crucial aspect of our political culture. Under this spell we are led to believe that the only real enemy our country has is its own malignant self—which is, of course, exactly what those on the Left who have resurrected McCarthy believe and what they are working, with considerable success, to get the rest of us to believe as well.

There is a way to break this spell. It is necessary only to consider the contrast between today and the era when McCarthy’s exaggerations of the security problem permanently removed it from the national agenda. Then the problem of Communist expansion was confined to Eastern Europe and Asia; now it has spread to the American land mass itself. Then the United States was far more powerful than the Soviet Union; now the Soviets are on the point of achieving—if indeed they have not already achieved—military superiority. Then the “progressives” who apologized for the Soviet Union were isolated in a rump outside the two-party system; now apologists for Communist dictatorships are inside the Democratic party and at the center of the system itself. Then McCarthy was an enemy of Communism; now McCarthy is Communism’s best friend.

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