Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl.), fighting a scandal over multiple alleged sex crimes, recently interrogated America's top military brass over the idea that it has somehow become too "woke." It's "offensive" to conclude soldiers are "quote, 'woke' or something else, because we're studying some theories that are out there," responded Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mark Milley. "I've read Mao Zedong. I've read, I've read Karl Marx. I've read Lenin. That doesn't make me a communist."
On Fox News, Tucker Carlson then attacked Milley as "not just a pig, but stupid." Laura Ingraham accused Milley of spreading "far-left Marxist racist ideology" and suggested that the military should be defunded.
All this makes a marked parallel to the tail end of the Second Red Scare, when Sen. Joe McCarthy (R-Wis.) tanked his career by accusing the U.S. Army of being infested with communists. But whether Gaetz will end up in disgrace as McCarthy did remains to be seen.
To begin it's important to be clear about what McCarthyism was about. My colleague Damon Linker argued last week that while McCarthy was a demagogue, he had a point about liberals "dismissing concerns about communism as a phantom threat." But as historian Landon R.Y. Storrs argues in her book The Second Red Scare and the Unmaking of the New Deal Left, by the late 1940s anti-communism was utterly hegemonic across the political spectrum. After all, it was Democrat Harry Truman who leveraged anti-red paranoia to sell a package of military aid to conservative forces in Greece and Turkey.
No, the Second Red Scare, in which McCarthy was the central figure, was a campaign of illiberal political repression with two goals. First, smear the Democratic Party as being soft on communism, and second, purge anyone with lefty opinions on race, gender, homosexuality, foreign policy, or economic equality from public life — especially women. Government bureaucrats were the focus of particular attention. The Red Scare exploited "Americans' fear of Soviet espionage to ensnare left-leaning officials in investigations that either marginalized them or forced them toward the political center," Storrs writes. The FBI collaborated with conservative politicians and media by routinely leaking embarrassing details resulting from the investigations of leftist figures. In keeping with these base motivations, McCarthy's attack on the Army was an attempt to boost his flagging popularity by levying even more shocking accusations, to further root out any even faintly lefty tendencies in the armed forces, and to deflect counter-allegations from the Army brass that his subordinate Roy Cohn had attempted to bully the military into granting favorable treatment to an associate.
As writer John Ganz notes, the architects of the anti-woke frenzy are completely open about trying to create a Red Scare-style frenzy of authoritarian repression. Christopher Rufo, the central figure in the ongoing anti-woke hysteria, told The New Yorker's Ben Wallace-Wells he wants "to politicize the bureaucracy … take some of these essentially corrupted state agencies and then contest them, and then create rival power centers within them." Here is the preposterously long list of wrongthink he is trying to stuff into the category of of "critical race theory:"
Just like his forebear McCarthy, Rufo is attempting to politically stomp down liberals and leftists, particularly when it comes to anti-racism. Witness the growing list of conservative states that have passed anti-woke legislation that tacitly forbids the teaching of accurate history, or any kind of anti-racist instruction. A recent Florida law appears intended to create a loyalty test (to conservatism) for the state's university professors and students.
So that brings me back to Gaetz and the military. As writer Jeet Heer notes, recent reporting has detailed how Milley repeatedly refused requests from President Trump to sic American troops on peaceful protesters in the summer of 2020, and other military officers did not go along with Trump's attempted putsch on January 6. Respecting democracy and the Constitution even slightly is now devious leftism in the Republican mind. "The current right-wing campaign is clearly designed to cow the military and make it more obedient, with one eye on the next Republican president," Heer writes.
In the early '50s, McCarthy's attack on the military was the beginning of the end of the Red Scare and his own career. The ensuing hearings got wide media coverage, and made it clear to most that McCarthy was an unhinged demagogue. It turned out the Army allegations about Cohn's associate were true, exposing McCarthy's self-dealing operation. The Republican Party leadership decided that he had become a liability, and threw him overboard. McCarthy was censured by the Senate in a bipartisan vote and drank himself to death only a few years later.
It is pretty hard to imagine anything similar happening to Gaetz, Carlson, or Ingraham today. They are squarely in the GOP mainstream, unlike McCarthy who was always fringey even at his height. There was little right-wing media back then, and former widely-respected norms like "it is wrong to try to overthrow the government by force" have been abandoned by conservatives. The fact that for the last two decades Republicans have made maudlin, performative worship of The Troops central to their brand isn't going to do anything either — shameless hypocrisy is basically mandatory for participating in conservative politics these days.
That said, attacking the military leadership just a few weeks after the moral panic begins (instead of three years later, when McCarthy did) does not speak to good tactical sense. The military remains one of the most-trusted institutions in the country, and attacking it on such transparently ridiculous grounds could backfire.
I suspect what ends up happening with this current McCarthyite campaign will depend on Democrats and liberals. If they contest the culture war space, and leverage Republicans' unhinged attacks on free speech, free inquiry, and even the troops to mobilize a coalition behind basic democratic freedoms, they might make conservatives pay a political price for this madcap crusade. But if they curl up into a ball and hope that ignoring this right-wing hysteria will make it go away, it will only continue to metastasize.