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Tuesday, July 9, 2024


2. The Profits of Paranoia

For a nation that emerged from history’s most destructive war with an unconditional victory over fascism and a rapidly growing economy, the America of the early fifties was strangely demoralized and apprehensive. Having brushed aside fear itself to overcome the Depression and the Axis, Americans were unable to resist the panic over communism that enabled the rise of McCarthy and his cynical henchman Cohn. The McCarthyites hyped the Red Menace for their own political and personal advancement, encouraging a wave of hysteria that long outlasted the Wisconsin Republican’s meteoric career. Every day, Americans were warned that rising communism threatened their way of life, not only overseas but everywhere, from the schools and universities to the churches, the military, and even the movies.

Looking back, it’s not easy to determine how much of this political offensive was spurred by genuine concern over the Kremlin’s attempts to subvert democracies. Very often, it was advanced by far-right forces aiming to discredit liberals, labor unions, minority groups, intellectuals, and anyone identified with the Democratic Party—and never mind that those liberals were far more effective in opposing communism, both at home and abroad, than their right-wing critics. When McCarthy publicly slandered General George C. Marshall—whose aid and reconstruction program had played a critical role in brushing back Europe’s Stalinist parties—as an instrument of the “communist conspiracy,” the petty partisan motive was plain. McCarthy was trying to smear not just Marshall himself but his boss, President Harry S. Truman—a zealous anti-communist whose “loyalty” programs were an assault on First Amendment freedoms.

Many of the prominent Far Rightists who promoted mythical plots in the postwar years were the same figures whose isolationism and hatred of the New Deal had aligned them with pro-Axis seditionists before the war. McCarthyism’s authoritarian bullying damaged America’s reputation, while providing a convenient propaganda topic for the Kremlin. Such strategic considerations never troubled the Right when there was money to be made.

Confrontations between East and West played out on the global stage, but by the time McCarthy gave his Wheeling, West Virginia, speech warning of Red conspirators in government, the communist movement in the United States was moribund if not dead. By 1950, the tiny cadre of Russian spies in Washington were apprehended and facing prosecution. The Communist Party (CPUSA) had been decimated by federal prosecution of its leaders during the late forties, in a spasm of legal repression that sent dozens to prison and menaced hundreds more with potential prosecution under the Smith Act. And as the monumental crimes of Stalinism emerged, an intense disillusionment gripped party members and sympathizers. The remnant of a few thousand diehards posed no threat to anybody but themselves.

Yet once launched, conspiracy theories tend to fester and spread, without respect to reality, as we have seen in recent years—especially when their cultivation still sustains a profitable enterprise. Decades before social media turned conspiracy-mongering into an online industry, the impresarios of the Far Right found many ways to monetize the “communist conspiracy,” as they exaggerated its dimensions beyond absurdity.

These “professional anti-communists” pioneered the exploitation of “fake news” and disparaged traditional news sources, spreading stories that overstrained credulity. They found the niche audiences that not only believed their far-fetched warnings of imminent doom but would spend good money to hear the bad news. For well over a decade, nearly any speaker who inspired dread of the Red Dawn would draw a paying crowd, no matter how implausible the tale.

In 1962, for instance, rumors quickly spread that Operation Water Moccasin, a military training operation run by the US Army in rural Georgia, was secretly a rehearsal for a United Nations plot to seize power in the US, spearheaded by “barefoot” African guerrillas. (The appeals to racial anxiety were never subtle.) The same nefarious scheme was also said to involve a huge contingent of Chinese Communist troops over the border in Mexico, where they eagerly awaited the signal to invade. Incredibly, the hysteria over this entirely fabricated scenario reached a crescendo across the South that forced the Pentagon to cancel the exercise entirely. A CBS News special investigation later found that panic over a UN takeover had begun when a radio evangelist started the rumor, which gained velocity after a far-right congressman from California, the aptly named James B. Utt, picked it up. By then, of course, the phony story had achieved its principal purpose: to intensify fear and alienation among the targeted audiences.

As a vocation, anti-communism had provided a substantial living and a measure of fame (or infamy) to a host of government informants, industrial consultants, writers, and public lecturers for many years, dating back to the first Red Scare that followed the Russian Revolution. But as the CPUSA declined, so did the prosecutions, congressional hearings, and other platforms that had sustained “experts” on communism, principally former party members who snitched on their ex-comrades. Opportunities in that once-flourishing field were evaporating by the early fifties. But a cohort of bold grifters with a fresh angle—“anti-communist education,” pitched to the suburban masses—was about to show up…

Conason, Joe. The Longest Con: How Grifters, Swindlers, and Frauds Hijacked American Conservatism (pp. 25-27). St. Martin's Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Among other things, goes to the topic of this book (cited here):

Also, how might Joe Conasson's work tie into our friends at "Project 2025?" Another huge grift?
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