Donald Trump has pushed the country to a dark precipice of hysteria and fear. The national mood is unparalleled since the 17th century Salem witch trials and the Red Scare of the 1950s, two of the darkest periods in U.S. history.
Motivated by greed and political gain of the monied few, his administration and Republicans in Congress are engaged in an unprecedented assault on institutions that safeguard the civil rights and liberties of all citizens.
Trump’s first State of the Union address should give us pause. Amid the calls for bipartisanship and unity, his cynical, divisive agenda was clearly evident, pitched to his base of far-right conservatives, plutocrats and white supremacists.
Trump’s demonization of immigrants by race and religion for political gain is tantamount to Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.
He’s ginning up hysteria by exaggerating the threat posed by crime and terrorist attacks. In speeches, he’s blamed immigrants for drugs, rapes and murders. He points to gangs like MS-13 to stoke fear.
In the same breath, he claims immigrants of color, legal and illegal, are all potential terrorists. He even blames immigrants for low wages and job losses.
Of course, there is a kernel of truth in each of these assertions. Some immigrants commit crimes. A small handful have committed acts of terror. And, organized crime has been a continuing problem for decades, whether it’s MS-13, or the Italian, Irish or Russians mobs.
But on closer examination, Trump’s claims just don’t hold up to statistical evidence, reason or logic.
So far, other credible sources, such as the news media and our judicial system, have provided the checks and balances on government that the Founding Fathers hoped they would.
But Trump is actively undermining them, as well.
He repeatedly cries of “fake news,” demands loyalty from government officials who are supposed to be independent and has attempted to pack the courts with unqualified judges, simply because they support his point of view.
For historic parallels, look no further than the Salem witch trials, or the Red Scare.
The Salem witch trials actually began as a land dispute between neighbors. A largely Puritan British colony, made deeply paranoid by Indian attacks and rampant petty, as well as major crimes, provided the backdrop for the hysteria that followed.
Most of the accused lived to the south of Salem and were generally better off financially than most of the accusers. In a number of cases, the accusing families stood to gain property from the convictions of accused witches.
The hysteria gained credibility when one of the accused confessed to being a witch and flying on a broom. Others confessed as well, thinking it would save them from the gallows. It didn’t.
After that, dozens of people were arrested and convicted without evidence. More than two-dozen were hanged before the hysteria ended.
The Red Scare unfolded in the 1950s following World War II. The Soviet Union had obtained the atom bomb. Many believed the nation was bent worldwide Communist domination.
Sen. Joe McCarthy capitalized on the fear and hysteria, charging that Communists were secretly infiltrating government institutions and industries like Hollywood to lay the groundwork for a political coup.
Like the Salem witch trials, McCarthy provided little or no evidence to back up his claims. The charges were widely repeated without question in the media. The Cold War and threat of thermonuclear annihilation provided the necessary backdrop.
McCarthy initially claimed Communists had infiltrated the State Department. But after Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were arrested in 1950 for providing atom bomb secrets to the Russians, McCarthy’s claims grew even bolder.
The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) then chaired by future President Richard Nixon was charged with investigating alleged disloyalty and subversive activities by private citizens.
The Red Scare was in full swing. Hundreds of innocent people were called before the committee or ruined because of past associations. Still more were denounced by someone else, largely to save their own skin or to grind an ax.
McCarthy grew more emboldened and finally accused the U.S. Army of being rife with Communists. The famed Army-McCarthy hearings in Congress finally unmasked McCarthy as a fraud and put an end to the Red Scare.
He died an alcoholic a few years later.
In a footnote, McCarthy’s chief counsel, Roy Cohn, went on to become a notorious New York lawyer who counted Donald Trump among his clients.
The good news is, we’re at an intersection in history, and we have yet to progress down the road leading to mass civil rights violations and a truly dark period.
But the ultimate check and balance against government abuse is “We the People.”
Citizens need to get engaged, demand facts and evidence to back up claims, hold politicians accountable and vote. Otherwise, the darkness is just around the corner.