McCarthyism was on bold display last week as President Donald Trump’s right-wing media posse went on the attack against Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who testified in the House impeachment inquiry. But the stench of McCarthyism was in the air long before that.
The term “McCarthyism,” by way of background, originated in a March 29, 1950, Washington Post editorial cartoon by Herbert Block — better known as Herblock — that showed four Republicans tugging and pushing a frightened GOP elephant toward a shaky stack of buckets of tar, topped by a bursting tar barrel labeled “McCarthyism.” Asked the elephant: “You mean I’m supposed to stand on that?”
Another backgrounder: McCarthyism is associated with Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wisconsin, who rose to prominence in the 1950s on his false claims that a “deep state” of communists had clandestinely infiltrated the State Department. McCarthy’s slimy tactic of tarring government employees with accusations of disloyalty and subversion didn’t die with him in 1957.
That became evident last week when Trump’s right-leaning allies learned that Vindman, a White House national security official and decorated veteran, would deliver damaging testimony in the House impeachment inquiry. They, in homage to McCarthy, used Vindman’s birthplace to question his patriotism — a contrivance as absurd as it was offensive.
The facts: Vindman came to this country in 1979 at age 3, in flight with his father, two brothers and his grandmother from the then-Soviet republic of Ukraine. (His mother died before the trip.) They arrived with little, but Vindman made a lot out of it: ROTC and a college degree, a Harvard graduate degree in Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian studies, military service in South Korea, Germany and Iraq — where he earned a Purple Heart, courtesy of a roadside bomb. He served stints as foreign area officer in Russia and Kyiv, was the Russian expert for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Which caused John Yoo, a former George W. Bush administration official, to say on a Fox News program how “astounding” it was for Vindman to have reportedly been talking with Ukrainian officials seeking advice on dealing with the Trump administration’s confusing two-headed policy toward them. Stated Yoo, darkly, “Some people might call that espionage.”
Yoo was responding to Trump-follower Laura Ingraham, the show’s host, who was musing about Vindman’s military background, language skills and job duties: “Here we have a U.S. national security official who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently against the president’s interest.” “Isn’t that,” she added, “kind of an interesting angle on the story?” “Interesting”? Not as much as her slurring of Vindman’s allegiance.
Sean Duffy, former Wisconsin congressman newly hired by CNN to vocalize White House talking points, was blatant in his McCarthy imitation.
“Vindman,” Duffy declared, had an “affinity for the Ukraine” over the United States because that’s where he was born. Not stopping there, Duffy was at a loss as to whose interests Vindman was serving. “It seems very clear that he is incredibly concerned about Ukrainian defense. I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy.” Asked whether he believes Vindman is looking out for America first, a smiling Duffy said, “I don’t know.”
This much, however, is clear: McCarthyism fits Yoo, Ingraham and Duffy like a glove.
Not to be left out, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani jumped in with a tweet asserting Vindman was “advising two gov’s,” an allusion to dual loyalties — and a damnable lie.
Trump, for his part, tried to discredit Vindman’s deeply damaging testimony, charging that Vindman is a “Never Trumper witness,” which has no basis in fact.
As disgusting as this episode is, it would be delusional to treat the smearing of Vindman’s patriotism as something unique.
Branding political opponents as disloyal and un-American is a Trump staple.
He declared that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi “hates the United States of America” because of her impeachment inquiry against him.
He has accused Pelosi and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, of “treason.”
He called Democrats who didn’t applaud him at his 2018 State of the Union “treasonous” and “un-American.”
Of Trump’s many flaws is his assumption of himself as the nation.
Other countries have gone down that disastrous road. That’s not the way we do it. In America, public officials “swear to support and defend the Constitution” — not Donald Trump.
Americans “pledge allegiance to the Flag … and to the Republic for which it stands,” not allegiance to Donald Trump.
With the mind-set that he, Donald Trump, and the United States of America are one and the same, McCarthyism takes root and flourishes.
This president must learn that our fidelity is to the nation — not to him.
Congress can and should remind him of that.
Colbert I. King is a Washington Post columnist.