Donald Trump has dismissed concern about undue Russian influence on his campaign and presidency as “fake news”—a fiction created by Democrats to explain away their defeat. Much of the news isn’t fake; it includes, among other things, a very real U.S. intelligence assessment that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election in part to help Trump, and the very real dismissal of Trump’s campaign chairman and national-security adviser amid scrutiny of their connections to the Kremlin. But Trump is right that the issue has become partisan, scrambling American politics. The Democrats have largely replaced the Republicans as antagonists of Russia and champions of the U.S. intelligence community.
“It is now the Republican Party, which at the height of the Cold War tarred its liberal opponents as Kremlin cronies, that must defend its president from charges of dual loyalty,” Joshua Zeitz recently observed in Politico. Noah Millman of The American Conservative has gone further, arguing that Trump’s opponents, in using “increasingly extreme and irresponsible rhetoric” to suggest that there’s a “Manchurian Candidate” in the White House, are perpetrating a “new Red Scare.”
As speculation swirled about the ties between Trump aides and Russian officials, and Russian infiltration of the U.S. political system more broadly, I spoke with several historians of the last Red Scare—that period from the late 1940s through the 1950s made infamous by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s ruthless and mostly baseless campaign to stop communists and Soviet spies from subverting American government and society. The scholars generally agreed on three lessons that could be applied to the present moment.