It may seem a stretch to compare the anti-Communist hysteria of the McCarthy era to the widely held belief among Republican voters today (six in 10 according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll) that the 2020 election was stolen from President Trump. Yet despite their significant differences, both conspiracy theories are based on the same notion: Internal enemies, from ordinary people to the powerful, are at work.
“Part of what fueled the anger and rage in the McCarthy movement, and also the ‘Stop the Steal’ movement, is the conviction that there were internal enemies seeking to undermine American life. The ‘fact’ they are internal enemies makes the danger more serious,” said Gary Gerstle, a major historian of 20th century America, in the latest episode of the History As It Happens podcast, “McCarthyism Redux.”
“There is an enemy, in both cases, in low places. That would be Communists in the early ‘50s. The equivalent is non-White voters today. Groups that the predominantly White majority of Americans are suspicious of,” said Mr. Gerstle, a historian at the University of Cambridge and author of “Liberty and Coercion: The Paradox of American Government from the Founding to the Present.”
The enemies in low places are, according to the conspiracy theories, aided by the powerful. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s paranoia spared noone, not even Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Mr. Trump directed his allegations of an election conspiracy at such influential forces as “radical Democrats” and the “fake news media,” among others.
But as McCarthyism imploded on its purveyors, Mr. Trump’s “Stop the Steal” movement has boomeranged to devastating effect on some of its adherents, such as a Christian family from suburban Atlanta whose 18-year-old son is the youngest person charged in the Jan. 6 riot in the U.S. Capitol.
In the podcast, Washington Times national security reporter Rowan Scarborough describes the journey of the Cua family, once stalwart Trump supporters, to Washington for the “Stop the Steal” rally.
For months, Bruno Cua, 18, had been imbibing Mr. Trump’s “stolen” election claims posted to social media. After the Jan. 6 rally dispersed, he joined his parents on the march down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the Capitol. As hundreds of protesters formed into an angry mob and began pushing through police barricades to enter the building, Bruno leapt at the chance to “stop the steal.”
The teenager now faces multiple felony charges after being caught on video fighting a Capitol police officer. “We see now that it was all lies,” said Joseph and Alise Cua in the aftermath of their son’s arrest.
Why are conspiracy theories about internal enemies and stolen elections so potent? Find out by listening to this episode of “History As It Happens.”