“These people want a communist revolution to happen in this country,” Kyle Chapman said, looking at the left-wing protesters ahead of him. “They want to destroy Western civilization and on its ashes build a communist dystopia.”
Chapman, a notorious brawler and far-right celebrity known as “Based Stick Man,” was marching away from a rally to kick off Milo Yiannopoulos’ ill-fated “Free Speech Week” in Berkeley, California, on Sunday. After an anti-racist counter-protest spilled out into the streets, Chapman and other pro-Trump conservatives followed them, chanting, “Commies go home!”
Chapman’s been on a nationwide tour warning about the left — what he describes as a communist, Marxist threat. In May, he warned a crowd in Boston that anti-fascists were only the foot soldiers of the Communist Party — which he said was just another name for the Democrats.
“The Red Scare is used as a bad term, but [Joseph] McCarthy was right,” Chapman said. “There should be statues built thanking McCarthy for what he’s done.”
Chapman’s not the only one trying to demonize the left with loaded and overstated historical labels. Nearly every far-right rally so far in 2017 has featured an impassioned speaker who warned of an impending Communist takeover of the country. The National Rifle Association leadership claimed that communists are currently plotting with the entirety of the far-left machine, ready to undo the very fabric of American society. At both a “Free Speech” rally in Boston and the infamous “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, one of the favorite chants was “Commie faggots!”
The Third Red Scare is here. Its propaganda is hyperbolic and hardly stands up to scrutiny. But the movement has effectively armed the American right with the talking points they need to combat socialism’s rising popularity.
For some far-right rallies, anti-Communism is becoming the central ideology. A recent, violent rally in Berkeley was called the “No to Marxism in America” Rally. An upcoming march in Charlotte, North Carolina — in jeopardy now that white nationalist leader Richard Spencer dropped out of appearing in public — is called the “March Against Communism.” Anticom, a white nationalist group whose flags have appeared at “Unite the Right” and the “Mother of All Rallies” in Washington, D.C., asked attendees to bring guns in case of a showdown with protesters.
Red-baiting creates a useful false equivalency for the right. Evoking a specter of a violent communistic threat to democracy gives white nationalists something noble to fight against when faced with anti-fascist protesters. This framing echoes the classic brand of softer Holocaust denial that trivializes Nazism by comparing the scale of the genocide: Sure, Hitler was bad, obviously. But what about the communist Russian gulags?
But this phenomenon isn’t relegated to the fringes of right-wing activism. Dinesh D’Souza, one of the most influential conservative filmmakers and authors, is currently developing a film based his latest book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left, which argues that fascism is a leftist political force and a “sister ideology to communism.” His talking points are already becoming conservative dogma, echoed in oft-repeated Orwellian statements about how anti-fascists are the actual fascists.
This new strain of bombastic anti-communist rhetoric is built on flimsier footholds than the fantastical threat of Soviet Union communism in the 1950s. But the right does face another, legitimate threat: the rising global tide of socialist politics.
Amid rising income inequality, Democrats are proposing plans for free college tuition and lining up to co-sponsor a Medicare for All bill. Socialist groups in America are seeing the largest spikes in membership since World War II, and the British Labour Party made historic gains in parliament with a manifesto calling for free college tuition, heavier taxes on the rich and an expansion of affordable housing.
Conditions like these inspired the Red Scare of old. After the Great Depression, the rising interest in socialist ideas eventually led to the New Deal. We built up our public infrastructure and electrical grid, enacted jobs programs and created social security. We strengthened workers’ rights and put the unemployed to work building parks, bridges, schools and highways.
New Deal politics were an existential threat to capitalism. So, while the House Un-American Activities Committee teamed up with the FBI to weed out communist spies, they also took the opportunity to crack down on anyone advancing a progressive agenda. They targeted strikers, government workers, trade unions, civil rights advocates and mainstream Democrats who wanted to expand childcare programs and labor rights.
The Second Red Scare of the 1940s and 50s was a broadside attack on all aspects of societal progress. J. Edgar Hoover, who cut his teeth rounding up undocumented immigrants for alleged political subversion, eventually turned his eyes on civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., whom he pursued as secret communists.
And as women became a larger part of the postwar economy, women in Democratic leadership became avatars of an ever-expanding welfare state. They were called “fellow travelers of the communist party.” Some of the first targets of the Second Red Scare were groups like the League of Women Shoppers, a left-feminist group that led boycotts in support of anti-racist, pro-union labor disputes.
Feminism, black liberation politics, the labor movement, student radicalism and the earliest emergence of the gay rights movement were all considered communist, subversive and un-American at some point.
Red-baiting didn’t disappear after the ’60s. Conservative commentator Glenn Beck spent years drumming up fear of the Obama administration’s alleged socialist takeover of America. Republican donors like the Kochs have donated countless foundation dollars to manufacturing a crisis of “cultural Marxism” on our college campuses, replete with the looming threat of “safe spaces” and culturally appropriated lunch menus.
But socialism just isn’t a dirty enough word anymore. Millennials have more favorable views of socialism than capitalism; more voted for Bernie Sanders in the primaries than for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump combined.
Renewing the language of the Red Scare equips the right with the talking points they need to delegitimize the rising tide of left-wing populism. The rhetoric is antiquated, but its purpose remains the same: to portray protest as subversion, to undercut the struggle for civil rights and to prevent the left from expanding the boundaries of what’s possible in America by policing the boundaries of what it means to be an American.