Barney Frank, the co-author of the Dodd-Frank Act, doesn't much like Bernie Sanders. In a recent interview with Slate, the candid former Congressman directed a barrage of criticisms toward the democratic-socialist candidate, ultimately labeling Sanders "outrageously McCarthyite" on the issue of Clinton's Wall Street speeches.
When pressed on the comparison, Frank continued:
Yes, I saw one commercial that said the big companies weren’t punished. Why? Well, maybe it’s because Hillary is getting speaking fees. So the secretary of state should have been indicting people? I mean, yes, McCarthyite in the sense that it’s guilt by association. He complains about what she did with regards to all this money stuff. Where’s the beef of that?
Regardless of whom you support in the 2016 race, evoking Joseph McCarthy to describe Bernie Sanders seems like a not great comparison. One of the most reviled names in the American political lexicon, Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist crusade — along with his personal racism, antisemitism, and homophobia — ruined the lives and careers of thousands. If he were alive today, McCarthy would no doubt despise everything the Vermont Senator stands for.
Furthermore, the fact that Sanders is willing to suggest his opponent's positions on Wall Street could be affected by the close, absurdly lucrative relationship she's fostered with the banking and securities industry does not make him a tyrant, an extremist, or a McCarthyite. (Let's not forget that there is a pretty straightforward way for Clinton to end this line of thinking altogether.)
But in Barney Frank's defense, he's hardly the first to make a baseless comparison to the enduring Cold War figure. When reaching for a loathsome American political likeness, Joseph McCarthy might just be the left's lowest-hanging fruit. He is the concept by which people of a certain age measure their frustration with a politician — the Michael Jordan of demagogy, the Kanye West of rogue firebrands.
And thanks to Frank's accusation, we've now officially reached the point in the election where every single viable candidate has been labeled a McCarthyite. It's the third Red Scare, but somehow backward. Here's a look at some of the more notable instances in which candidates have received (earned?) comparisons to Joseph McCarthy:
Back in a October, David Brock's pro-Clinton Super PAC mistakenly raised over a million dollars for Bernie Sanders by comparing him to U.K. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. After Brock failed to clarify what he meant by the analogy, Bloomberg Politics Editor Mark Halperin accused the Clinton campaign of engaging in "McCarthyite tactics, where the campaign isn’t willing to stand up and say – or the super PAC – this is what we’re saying."
More recently, the Guardian got a hold of an anti-Sanders dossier alleging he had "sympathized with the USSR during the Cold War" by traveling to a small Russian city in 1987 — an attack the newspaper suggested might factor into Clinton's message. SPIN Media-owned Death and Taxes magazine responded with the headline, "Clinton goes full McCarthyism, brands Sanders a Communist sympathizer." It's worth noting that the dossier came from an anonymous source identified only as a "Democrat" and that Clinton has not yet made any mention of Sanders' 1987 trip to Russia.
For all the talk of Donald Trump being a new kind of candidate, the GOP-frontrunner sure seems to have a lot of analogues. Thus far, Trump has drawn comparisons to figures such as Mussolini, Voldemort, Biff from Back to the Future, and, of course, Hitler — this one he says he's not bothered by.
The first real Trump-McCarthy comparison came over the summer, in an article from The Atlantic entitled "The New McCarthyism of Donald Trump." The piece begins by forecasting that Trump's recent criticism of John McCain would "mark the moment when Trump’s candidacy went from boom to bust." Therefore, the writer concludes, "Trump’s political career will have followed the same basic arc as that of another notorious American demagogue, Joseph McCarthy." Nearly nine months later, it's hard to give much weight to an argument premised on the inevitability of Trump's collapse.
The New York Times Editorial Board followed up in November by drawing explicit parallels between the fear-stoking speeches of Trump and McCarthy:
Here’s Donald Trump on Sunday: “When the Syrian refugees are going to start pouring into this country, we don’t know if they’re ISIS, we don’t know if it’s a Trojan horse. And I definitely want a database and other checks and balances. We want to go with watch lists. We want to go with databases. And we have no choice. We have no idea who’s being sent in here. This could be the — it’s probably not, but it could be the great Trojan horse of all time, where they come in.”
Here’s Joseph McCarthy in 1950: “Today we are engaged in a final, all-out battle between communistic atheism and Christianity. The modern champions of communism have selected this as the time, and ladies and gentlemen, the chips are down — they are truly down.”
And in a January article titled "Is Donald Trump the New Joe McCarthy?", Forbes points out that both McCarthy and Trump share a knack for manipulating the media:
Mr. McCarthy was fantastic at feeding great lines to the media – newspapers, radio and TV. He would seek out reporters and say outrageous comments, which were so outrageous that the media felt compelled to report them. And the more outrageous Senator McCarthy was, the more media attention he acquired. And the more attention he had, the more he used false attacks, innuendos and statements that pandered to the FUD [Fears, Uncertainties and Doubts] of many Americans.
In some cases, the comparison may not be entirely without merit.
Like Donald Trump, Ted Cruz has received the McCarthyite label on a routine basis. Back in 2013, when Cruz was just a widely-loathed Senator, Jane Meyer of the New Yorker asked "Is Senator Ted Cruz Our New McCarthy?" The takeaway: Pretty much, yeah.
Meanwhile, MSNBC's Chris Mathews has been downright obsessive in peddling his belief that Ted Cruz is the reincarnation of Joseph McCarthy. In the above reel, the talk show host makes the comparison on thirty-one separate occasions, noting their corresponding policies as well as the fact that they sort of resemble each other.
And then there's Clare Lopez, a national security advisor to the Cruz campaign, who recently said that Joseph McCarthy was "spot-on" in his mission to investigate communists within the federal government. She then implied that a similar effort could be made to ensure the Muslim Brotherhood hasn't already invaded our current government, noting "we have precedent for this where we were not fully aware of the infiltration occurring at the time.” That's right, one of Ted Cruz's top advisors is citing Joseph McCarthy's crusade as a model of good governance.
Good work everyone, we've closed the paranoia loophole!