The Nunes memo is nothing more or less than a technique of McCarthyism. We’ve seen politicians wave around pieces of paper containing lies before in American history. Even when successful, the results of the gambit are usually short-lived, although, like the McCarthyism of the early 1950s, can nonetheless hurt a lot of people. In the case of the Nunes memo, it will thankfully likely recoil in short order on the person the memo is meant to protect—Donald Trump.
Like McCarthy’s famous list of communists, the delusion of the Nunes memo starts with a threat to produce a piece of paper that blows the whistle on a whole lot of bad stuff. Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy had in his hand “a list of 205—a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the Communist Party and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department.” That’s the exact quote from the first time McCarthy used the dramatic smear against the State Department that has come to symbolize “McCarthyism.” Nunes’ proposed cancer lurks in the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in particular.
McCarthy’s supposed traitors were trying to bring America to its knees through the spread of communism, while the contemporary traitors are trying to take down a presidency.
Both pieces of paper were part of broader strategies to achieve political ends. McCarthy wanted to be re-elected and the other prosecutors of the Red Scare wanted to turn the country against socialist solutions to national challenges, such as universal healthcare, civil rights legislation or investment in mass transit. Nunes wants to end an investigation that is looking more and more as if it will find that Donald Trump and his close associates colluded with the Russian government to win the 2016 presidential election and then sought to conceal their nefarious and probably traitorous deeds.
McCarthy never read from his list and as far as we know, it had no names on it. But he did have an old FBI report from which he later misquoted, exaggerated and distorted to substantiate his initial accusations. The Nunes memo presents a few facts, his lies consisting of the preponderance of evidence he leaves out and the false conclusions he draws.
What differentiates these two mendacious pieces of paper is that McCarthy’s list reflected perfectly the tenor of the times and was thus widely believed and supported. The entire spectrum of the American ruling elite from the most conservative to the most liberal and the mass media that reflected their interests were shaking in their boots about the possibility of a socialist revolution coming to the United States. But the contemporary ruling elite is divided as to the efficacy of continuing the rule of Donald Trump, including many who approve of and benefit from the policies of the current administration but put the rule of American law above their own selfish self-interest. The mainstream media believed the McCarthy hogwash, but only the cynical and the true believers swallow the Nunes Kool-Aid.
It is unlikely that the Nunes memo will accomplish the long-term objective of ending the Mueller investigation, but it has accomplished one immediate goal: Keeping the mind of the public off the fact that the current administration is defying the law by not enforcing the sanctions against Russia for interfering with the 2016 election that Congress approved by overwhelming margins of 98-2 in the Senate and 419-3 in the House. If there is one thing the current administration is good at it is governing by sleight of hand. The standard trick is for Trump to say or do something obnoxious that the news media focuses on, while the administration or Congress does something truly horrifying that gets less publicity. For example, Trump’s latest Twitter argument with a prominent minority floods the news, cannibalizing potential coverage of a new plan to dismantle environmental regulations. This time, Nunes is carrying the water.
Consider these numbers. A search of Google News produces 74,200 hits after imputing “Nunes memo” over the past week and a mere 8,380 hits for “Russian sanctions.” All the mainstream television news shows and National Public Radio have opened with the Nunes memo and have given far more time to it than they have to the administration’s refusal to enforce the sanctions. The rightwing media such as Fox News is shrieking stridently that the Nunes memo shows that the Mueller investigation must end while completely ignoring Trump’s failure to implement the sanctions.
American history is full of politicians accusing various branches of government of nefarious behavior that didn’t exist. The post office has long been a bête noir of Republican privatizers. The GOP constantly accused the Obama administration of overreach. Trump and other Republicans accused the national security apparatus of failing in its handling of immigrants during the election. Then there was McCarthy. So the Nunes accusations represent nothing new or even rare in American politics.
But I can’t recall another example of a president so completely ignoring the will of Congress since Andrew Johnson instigated his own impeachment by firing the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton after Congress had passed a special law to prevent him from doing so. What did Stanton do to make Johnson defy Congress? He was aggressively implementing the program called Reconstruction meant to bring civil rights to all citizens of the states that had recently tried to secede from the union. Johnson, a former slave owner, was against sending troops to the south to protect the rights and lives of the recently freed or their southern supporters.
Trump’s position is equally obnoxious and anti-American, and perhaps treasonous. He doesn’t want Russia to suffer for interfering in our elections, certainly because it helped to elect him, and seems to welcome its help in 2018. That more Republicans seem interested in ending the Mueller investigation than forcing Trump to obey a law that achieved rare bipartisan support demonstrates that the GOP has become a stinking, putrefying corpse of corruption. Rotten to the core, with the foul stench starting from the head, as it always does.