“Have you no sense of decency, sir?”—the famous rejoinder that cratered the career of dogged anticommunist Senator Joseph McCarthy. Exploiting the nation’s fear of Communist interlopers that marked the early Cold War years, Mr. McCarthy had turned the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations into his own personal Inquisition, berating hundreds of witnesses for their alleged Communist associations. As one lawyer put it, he was the “judge, jury, prosecutor, castigator, and press agent, all in one,” for supposed Communists. But by exploiting fear for personal gain and scapegoating his political opponents as traitors, Mr. McCarthy destroyed his credibility. In June of 1954, during a controversial public investigation of the U.S. Army, the senator alleged that one of the attorneys defending the Army was connected to a Communist organization, prompting the response that would destroy his reputation overnight.
In the aftermath of the 2016 election, the red-baiting of the McCarthy era has returned. This time, it comes from Democrats desperate to destroy the Republican president-elect, facts and reason be damned.
“Mr. Trump is the Siberian candidate, installed with the help of a hostile foreign power.”
— Paul Krugman
On December 9th, The Washington Post reported that the C.I.A. “has concluded in a secret assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the U.S. electoral system.” The Post cited unnamed “senior U.S. officials” who, offering no evidence, explained that it is “quite clear” that Russia sanctioned cyberattacks “to boost Trump”—despite the fact that no specific intelligence connects the Russian government with the individuals who hacked the Democratic National Committee and supplied thousands of private emails to WikiLeaks. Democrats have been happy to trumpet this hearsay as fact, seeing it as a way to disempower and delegitimize Mr. Trump before he takes office. “[N]othing that happened on Election Day or is happening now is normal,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman explained. “Democratic norms have been and continue to be violated, and anyone who refuses to acknowledge this reality is, in effect, complicit in the degradation of our republic… Mr. Trump is, by all indications, the Siberian candidate, installed with the help of … a hostile foreign power.”
But in view of the facts, contending that 2016 was the year of “The Tainted Election”—as Mr. Krugman titled his Monday column—might be more dangerous than thousands of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee could ever be. Levying this accusation at Russia without the proper evidence in place could spark an international crisis, perhaps nudging Vladimir Putin to retaliate against us or our allies, and could diminish America’s credibility on the world stage. And as of now, the U.S. has failed to present any evidence that is not merely coincidental or circumstantial. Reviewing the public evidence, The Intercept’s Sam Biddle found that “no one has ever truly proven the claim … that Russia itself ordered” the D.N.C. hacks. Indeed, “all we can truly conclude is that some email accounts … appear to have been broken into by someone, and perhaps they speak Russian.” As Mr. Biddle puts it, “[i]f you care about the country enough to be angry at the prospect of election-meddling, you should be terrified of the prospect of military tensions with Russia based on hidden”—or non-existent—“evidence.”
But even if Vladimir Putin himself had ordered agents of the Kremlin to hack thousands of internal D.N.C. communications and release them to the public—as President Obama suggested last week—we must question the extent to which this action actually swayed the election. First, the D.N.C. leaks were not particularly damaging to the party’s nominee in the early stages of the campaign. According to Timothy Lee of Vox, a left-leaning news site, the first emails released by WikiLeaks “contain[ed] some embarrassing revelations but no bombshells.” In fact, “none of the[m] … seem[ed] likely to do lasting damage to Clinton’s candidacy … [or] to help Trump get elected.”
Hillary Clinton, not some Russian bogeyman, bears the ultimate responsibility for her defeat.
Second, though the leaked emails may have affirmed anxieties about Mrs. Clinton, they did not produce them; she did. During Mrs. Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, she discussed sensitive government business in communications stored on an unauthorized, unsecured private email server. This boneheaded decision prompted investigations by Congress and the F.B.I. and undermined Mrs. Clinton’s reputation as a steady, responsible leader. Similarly, no Russian hacker made Hillary Clinton meet with major donors to her family’s charitable foundation as secretary of state, inspiring allegations of pay-for-play corruption. Mrs. Clinton was a deeply flawed candidate long before the release of the first hacked email chain. To suggest that if not for the emails she would be president diminishes her and her campaign’s responsibility for her ignominious defeat.
The more insidious implication, however, is that Mr. Trump’s election should be considered invalid because of the mere presence of Russian interference. As Masha Gessen explains, to conclude this from what we know so far is unfair—even dangerous:
“Imagine that you are taking an important test and someone has sent you the answers in the mail. The testing authority does not consider whether you asked for these answers, whether you looked at them, and whether they were correct: It invalidates your test results simply because the answers were sent to you. This would, of course, be grossly unfair. What’s worse, it would give anyone the power to prevent you from ever passing a test — all one would have to do is throw an envelope in the mailbox. Similarly, if the American media and a large part of the American public believe that the election was invalid simply because Russians wanted Mr. Trump to win, we are giving Russia outsize influence over American elections, now and in the future.”
Even if we were to accept that Russian influence was the decisive factor in Mr. Trump’s victory, Ms. Gessen continues, this concession alone cannot support the conclusion that the president-elect is illegitimate. “[To say] that Russian interference ‘tainted’ the election … suggests that there can be such a thing as a ‘pure’ election, or even ‘pure’ public opinion, since it is voters’ opinions that Russia is believed to have affected,” she writes. “Implying that American public opinion can be ‘tainted’ by exposure to foreign influence contains disturbing—and distinctly archaic—undertones of a call to national purity.”
By tying Mr. Trump to a Russian bogeyman, the left seeks to diminish him before he takes office or to frighten Electoral College members into casting their votes for Hillary Clinton on Monday. But, thanks to their melodramatic caterwauling, leftist politicians and activists may lose their credibility just as Joseph McCarthy did in 1954. Dismissing Mr. Trump as a Manchurian candidate and his supporters as Russian hatchet men without evidence will almost certainly backfire, further eroding Americans’ trust in the mainstream media and permitting Republicans to savage Democrats for stooping so low in the name of partisan politics. Indeed, should the casual allegations of traitorous collusion with Russia continue to flow forth from Mrs. Clinton’s surrogates and supporters, Democrats may soon confront the very question that destroyed the red-baiting McCarthy six decades ago: “Have you no sense of decency?”
Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr. Color altered.