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America's Red Scare is Back. And It's Racially Tinged

Throughout American history, attacks on so-called radicals have fit hand-in-glove with racist and anti-immigrant politics.

Rashida Tlaib, part of ‘the Squad’ of progressive Democrats.,Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

The Republican party has come out swinging against socialism – a strategy sure to be a mainstay of its 2020 campaigns. “Our opposition to our socialist colleagues,” the Wyoming senator Liz Cheney claimed, referring to the congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Ayanna Pressley, “has absolutely nothing to do with their gender, with their religion, or with their race. It has to do with the content of their policies. They are wrong when they attempt to impose the fraud of socialism on the American people. They are wrong when they pursue policies that would steal power from the American people and give that power to the government.”

It’s a bold line coming from the daughter of a man, the former vice-president Dick Cheney, who did more to centralize power in the executive branch than perhaps any other public official in living memory. It’s also a bald-faced lie. Cheney’s diatribe against socialism – like Trump’s racist railing against the same group of progressive freshman congresswomen to “go back” to where they “originally came from” – has a long legacy in American history: it’s called red baiting.

And this round is no less xenophobic than those before it. When New York legislators voted to suspend five socialist state assembly members in 1920, they did so on the grounds that they were “enemy aliens” who had been “elected on a platform that is absolutely inimical to the best interests of the state of New York and the United States”.

The first red scare – well before the more well-known McCarthyism of the 1950s and 1960s – saw hundreds of real and suspected leftists deported under the Immigration Act of 1918. It also fueled the revived popularity of the antisemitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, with one well-circulated version replacing “Jews” with “bolsheviki”. Unsurprisingly, many of the most prolific anti-communists were also committed segregationists who violently fought black-led labor and civil rights organizing in the south, accusing members of groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of being dupes for the Comintern. Nearly two decades before brutally suppressing Martin Luther King’s campaign to integrate Birmingham’s business district, the commissioner of public safety, Bull Connor, cut his teeth by waging war on communists in the same city.

Throughout American history, attacks on so-called radicals have fit hand-in-glove with racist and anti-immigrant politics. The message – whether to Jewish anarchists, CIO unionists or (hardly socialist) Barack Obama – has never been subtle: you don’t belong here.

The idea behind red-baiting has always been that there’s something inherently foreign to the US about the left – that despite the longtime presence of socialism in America it’s some toxic import, whether from the Soviet Union or elsewhere. And the CIA and FBI have spared no expense in violently suppressing socialists at home and abroad, from the killing of the Black Panther party’s Fred Hampton in Chicago to the overthrow of the democratically elected leftwing government of Chile’s Salvador Allende.

Given all their appeals to patriotism, what ironically seems so dangerous to red-baiting elites about socialism here is the threat that too many Americans will come together – across race, religion, immigration status, gender and more – and recognize their shared interest in taking power back from the 1%. For similar reasons – as the historian Robin DG Kelly has noted – steel executives stoked racism among white workers, to keep them from joining together with black co-workers to fight for higher wages and better working conditions. Consciously or not, Trump and the Republicans’ fear of socialism and “the Squad” is also their fear of a multiracial democracy that would end theirs and their rich friends’ stranglehold over politics.

“In our diverse society,” as Ian Haney López and Heather McGhee have written, “racism has been the plutocrats’ scythe, cutting down social solidarity to harvest obscene wealth and power.” Whether in busting unionsor gutting welfare programs, elites in both parties have maintained and expanded their control through a strategy of divide-and-conquer – of pitting the 99% against itself. The Squad are now a few of the many Americans calling bullshit, and the 1% is terrified.

Whatever lies the GOP throws out to try to cloud that fact, the kind of democratic socialism being voiced by politicians like Ocasio-Cortez and Tlaib isn’t any closer to the Soviet Union than our republic is to ancient Rome’s. The goal is straightforward: orient society around protecting human and planetary wellbeing, not the endless accumulation of corporate profits.

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Tens of millions of people remain uninsured while insurance and pharmaceutical executives rake in record profits, all as fossil fuel CEOs continue to get trillions of dollars’ worth of state subsidies to extract and sell resources that could soon make the earth uninhabitable. You don’t need to have read all three volumes of Marx’s Capital to understand that this economy’s priorities are out of whack. You don’t need to be a registered Democrat, either: 52% of Republicans support Medicare for All, and 64%support a Green New Deal, compared with 81% of voters overall. From there, recognizing that an undocumented immigrant has more in common with an out-of-work coalminer than either of them do with Donald Trump isn’t too far a jump.

If the GOP wants to stake its electoral chances on red-baiting politicians’ seedy plots to give people free healthcare and a livable planet, so be it: there are more of us than there are of them.

Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times. She covers elections and the politics of climate change.