Taking a cue from the 1950s, Antifa is the McCarthyism Redux

Dave Nagaji, For the Review

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Those of us who identify ourselves as politically progressive have always been vocal in our criticisms of conservative positions, politicians, and movements. While we may agree that it is important to do this, we cannot forget to be critical of ourselves, both as a movement and as individuals. With that in mind, we should take some time to think about Antifa and the potential effects that this group may have on the American political landscape.

The name Antifa is short for “anti-fascist.” They have been in the news a lot lately because they have begun physically attacking neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and white supremacists. Acts like this on the part of Antifa have led some commentators, like Marc Thiessen of The Washington Post, to argue that Antifa and the neo-Nazis they oppose “are morally indistinguishable.” Instead of taking a side in that argument, I would like to suggest that it is the wrong approach to understanding Antifa. Rather than comparing Antifa to Nazism, we should be comparing Antifa to McCarthyism.

In the mid-20th century, people were afraid of an active Communist Party in America and the rise of American communists to positions of cultural influence. Today, we see race-based hate groups mobilizing around the country and figures who lead or support these groups receiving significant media attention. In the mid-20th century, critics called the New Deal politicians communists in disguise. Today, many of us are calling Trump and his allies fascists in disguise.

Americans living in the middle of the mid-20th century were concerned by communism, which led many of them to support or tolerate individuals like Joseph McCarthy. Today, we are concerned by the overlapping forces of extreme racism, ultra nationalism, and fascism. This has led many people to give legitimacy to Antifa.

There is obviously some difference between McCarthy and Antifa. McCarthy was a United States Senator who attacked opponents with congressional hearings, while Antifa is operating outside the law and without any apparent leader. This is clearly not a perfect analogy, but the analogy between Joseph McCarthy and Antifa is close enough that it should be a major cause for concern.

Even those who did not explicitly align themselves behind McCarthy were likely to be affected by his culture of paranoia. This “McCarthyist culture” was so strong that it persists to this day. Similarly, Antifa threatens to have this sort of a cultural effect on a lot of people who are not personally members of Antifa.

We saw this left-wing version of “McCathyist culture” on display at Evergreen State College last year. A professor who refused to participate in or endorse a “day of absence,” in which white people would be expected to leave campus for the day, faced significant backlash. Students have called him a racist, accused him of enabling Nazis, and demanded that he be fired. At one point, he felt the need to teach off campus out of concern for his safety. This looks especially bad when we consider that this professor is politically progressive and Jewish.

There was another example of “McCarthyist culture” at Middlebury College. The occasion was a visit to the school by controversial Conservative figure Charles Murray. There is a strong case to be made that Murray is extreme, racist, and factually incorrect. But those things did not justify the man and his interviewer being chased by an angry mob and being forced to take shelter in a car. His interviewer, a liberal professor at the college, sustained a neck injury during this incident. Either the angry mob did not take the time to distinguish the interviewer’s ideology from Murray’s or they knew she was a liberal and attacked her anyway. Either way, those people saw her as guilty by association and were willing to treat her just as violently as their main target.

We are living in a climate of fear, mostly caused by the surge in organized racism and some executive orders, which have been coming out of the Trump White House. Because of this fear, many progressives are coming to see Antifa as a legitimate group and beginning to see Antifa’s actions as acceptable. Worse, the Antifa worldview of radical, vigilante justice is beginning to trickle into mainstream progressive culture, particularly on college campuses.          

If we do not want Antifa’s version of “McCarthyist culture” to infect and stay within the modern progressive movement, we need to do two things. The first is to distinguish between the Antifa thugs who show up to rallies with baseball bats from the peaceful protestors who show up to wave signs. The second thing is to be very conscious of our own fears and stay focused on constructive activity, instead of falling into the culture of paranoia and vigilantism, which is becoming increasingly popular.

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1 Comment

One Response to “Taking a cue from the 1950s, Antifa is the McCarthyism Redux”

  1. Dave Nagaji on October 3rd, 2017 12:11 pm

    Thank you to Editor-In-Chief Kaelia Neal for guiding me through the process of submitting this article. As author of the above article, I will be lurking on this page for a while to answer any questions.


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Taking a cue from the 1950s, Antifa is the McCarthyism Redux