With every passing week, President Donald Trump has furnished Democrats and a growing number of establishment Republicans with reason to worry that there is more to the president’s relationship with Russia than meets the eye. There is his ingratiating posture toward Vladimir Putin. His campaign’s machinations to change the Republican Party plank on Ukraine. Ominous threats to undermine NATO. The mysterious opposition research dossier suggesting that Moscow may possess “kompromat” of both a personal and business nature on Trump, though Moscow denies it. And now, a Fox interview in which the president drew moral equivalency between the Russian government, which imprisons and assassinates both dissidents and journalists, and the government in Washington.
The president has his defenders, too. “Donald Trump’s opponents have been warning for months that his victory poses a threat to the integrity of American democracy,” Noah Millman, a senior editor at the American Conservative, observed critically last month. “But the increasingly extreme and irresponsible rhetoric around the question of possible Russian attempts to influence the recent election demonstrate that his opponents do too.” Millman dismissed suggestions that Trump was a “Manchurian candidate”—either knowingly or unwittingly in the pocket of Putin—as a “new red scare.” Glenn Greenwald similarly warned that Democrats are engaging in a “Cold War McCarthyite kind of rhetoric.”
Rhetoric aside, the controversy portends a sharp and ironic reversal of fortune. 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.
For Democrats, Trump’s unusual affinity for Russian strongman Putin may seem an easy target. Just as the GOP successfully animated the anti-communist passions of American voters in the 1940s and 1950s, some liberals today see an opportunity to build their opposition on the back of Trump’s curious affinity for Moscow.
But it probably won’t work. Sixty and 70 years ago, conservatives successfully fomented anti-communist and anti-Russian sentiment to meld otherwise distinct blocs of voters—urban Catholics, Midwestern Protestants, Southern whites—into a winning political coalition. Today’s electorate is less conducive to such realignment along foreign policy grounds. There is good political and policy cause for Democrats to continue shining a spotlight on Trump’s ties to Moscow, but the history of the Cold War offers them no easy roadmap to build an opposition based on opposition to the Kremlin.
In 1946, a GOP congressman from the Midwest observed that whereas most Republican candidates two years earlier had declined to use the national party’s suggested messaging materials—which painted Democrats as communist stooges and enemies of the state—“this year we used them and we think they are having effect.”
This was an understatement. Throughout the 1946 cycle—the first in which Republicans aggressively accused their Democratic opponents of aiding and abetting Moscow—GOP congressional candidates, including many well-respected incumbents, engaged in vicious and often reckless red baiting. Congressman Carroll Reece of Tennessee cast the election as a struggle “basically between communism and republicanism.” Joe Martin, the House Republican leader, warned of a “boring from within by subversionists high up in government.” In California, first-time candidate Richard Nixon famously (and falsely) tarred his opponent as a tool of a “Communist-dominated PAC,” while the chairman of the national party asserted that “spies, emissaries, agents and members of the Communist Party … infest the government of the United states.”
In some part, this rhetoric—which Republicans would use consistently for the better part of the next 10 years—reflected the GOP’s sheer desperation. Between 1932 and 1952 Republicans lost five consecutive presidential races and controlled Congress for only two years. They were willing to stoop very low, indeed, if doing so would win votes. And while it didn’t work in every cycle, in the main, for Republicans and their Dixiecrat allies, anticommunist politics proved effective because it appealed to three critical blocs of voters: Midwestern Protestants, urban Catholics and Southern whites.
For many Midwestern Protestants, anticommunism provided an effective line of attack against eastern elites—the rough equivalent of today’s “coastal” elites—whose cultural and economic influence they had long resented. Thus, when Senator Joseph McCarthy derided Dean Acheson—Harry Truman’s secretary of state and the very embodiment of the eastern establishment (Yale undergrad, Harvard Law, Supreme Court clerk, white-shoe lawyer)—as “Red Dean,” a “pompous diplomat with his striped pants and phony English accent,” the imagery resonated among many rock-ribbed Midwest conservatives.
Establishment Democrats, the argument went, had “lost” China to communist revolutionaries and entered into a “conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any such previous venture in the history of man.” Acheson and his cronies, McCarthy claimed, had “bent to the whispered pleas from the lips of traitors.” For Midwestern traditionalists, this indictment of the hated Boston-New York-Washington establishment had been a long time in coming.
For urban Catholics, the language of anticommunism carried its own meaning. Many American Catholics were first and second-generation immigrants from Eastern European countries that had been swallowed whole or otherwise brutally subjugated by the Soviet Union—countries like Poland, Latvia, Ukraine, Romania, Hungary. To many of these white ethnic Catholics, communism was a dangerous ideology, and Russia, a bitter enemy. It was a conviction born of very real and direct experience.
For many Irish American Catholics, the Cold War provided a long-awaited opportunity to turn the tables on members of the Protestant “establishment” who, for good measure, tended to be Anglophiles. Establishment figures in the highest echelons of government and academia suddenly found themselves obliged to explain to an unbelieving public how the Soviet Union developed its atomic bomb; why China fell to the communists; how so many state secrets found their way to Moscow.
Equally powerful was the intense religious fervor of many American Catholics who genuinely viewed communism as both godless and an existential threat to the church—a belief they ingrained into their teachings. For this reason, Catholic anti-communist credentials were unimpeachable and had been for many years. Prominent Jewish and Protestant liberals, on the other hand, seemed deeply compromised. As future Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas—whose law firm defended many accused communists—explained at the time, “in the thirties and part of the forties, thousands of fine, thoroughly non-Communist people contributed to Spanish relief organizations, attended anti-Fascist meetings, participated in rallies against Hitler, joined in organizations to promote friendship with the Soviet Union when it was our wartime ally.” Now, such past associations brought them under deep suspicion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan—a product of New York’s Irish community—would later observe that “the Irish achieved a temporary advantage from the McCarthy period. … In the era of security clearances, to be a Catholic became prima facie evidence of loyalty. Harvard men were to be checked: Fordham men would do the checking.”
The marriage of Catholicism and anti-communism was particularly evident in the popular cult that developed around Our Lady of Fatima. Many Catholics believed that in 1917 the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared before three children in the Portuguese town of Fatima and said: “I come to ask the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart. … If [Catholics] listen to my request, Russia will be converted, and there will be peace. If not, she will scatter her error through the world, provoking wars and persecution of the Church.” The Blessed Mother’s anti-communist prescription required that Catholics say the rosary prayer each day for the conversion of Russia and that on five successive, first Saturdays of the month they take communion.
In the late 1940s Pope Pius XII encouraged popular devotions and pilgrimages to Fatima. Fulton Sheen, an American bishop and host of a popular television show in the 1950s, was so convinced of the story that he made 10 trips to Fatima, and 30 to Lourdes, a French town that was the site of the first modern-day Marian visitation in 1858. In 1950 a farmer’s wife in Wisconsin reported seeing the Virgin Mary, who demanded that she pray for Russia. Over 100,000 people from across the country trekked to her farm to await a second apparition. Scapular magazine, a popular Catholic periodical, enrolled a million American Catholics in its “Blue Army of Fatima.” Members pledged to pray for the Soviet Union and keep “First Saturdays.” Catholic intellectuals were no less touched than the rank-and-file. “Our Lady herself has told us at Fatima that ‘we must pray the Rosary,’” explained clergymen at Notre Dame to their students. “She promised the conversion of Russia if we said the Rosary. Will any student belittle the Russian threat?”
This was an era in which America’s Catholic subculture was at its strongest. Many urban Catholics lived in insular neighborhoods, sent their children to parochial schools, worked in ethnically segregated trades and socialized at church-sponsored events. “We didn’t live in New York City or, or even the Bronx,” recalled John Grimes, the editor and publisher of the Irish Echo from 1957 until his death in 1987. “We lived in Visitation [Parish]. That geographical definition lingered on for years.” At Catholic Youth dances each Friday at Good Shepherd—another parish—Grimes would approach girls with the opening line, “‘Where do you live?’ which was invariably answered by, ‘in St. Brendan’s,’ or ‘in St. Philip Neri’s,’ or the like.”
Tight-knit in their daily lives and ardent in their religious and ethnic disdain of Communist Russia, Catholics proved a strong pillar of the anticommunist alliance.
Finally, anticommunism also appealed to many Southern white conservatives, who increasingly came to view civil rights—and, more broadly, liberalism of the New Deal and Fair Deal variety—as a homegrown form of Soviet-style statism. Running as the presidential candidate of the States Rights Democratic Party (or Dixiecrats) in 1948, South Carolina Governor Strom Thurmond struck precisely this note when he warned that “centralized control” would invariably “serve the aims of Communists who are invading our government offices today. And the Communists are working through the racial minority machine to get the kind of centralized power they must have if they are to be successful.” It became common for Southern opponents of civil rights to paint liberals with a broad brush (and always in red paint), as when a judge decried “foreign Communistic anthropologists” like the Swedish researcher Gunnar Myrdal, whose path-breaking study, An American Dilemma, formed a bedrock of the intellectual case against Jim Crow.
The complicated and fractured nature of mid-century American politics meant that no one party benefited from anticommunism—but conservatives as a group certainly did. In the South, it proved a potent weapon (used by Republicans and Southern Democrats alike) against organized labor, civil rights groups and liberal reformers. In the North, Republicans used it to good effect to win statewide and congressional elections and to make many Democratic aspirations—including national health care and federal aid to education—political non-starters.
Anti-communism and anti-Russian rhetoric was the the common thread that at critical moments brought together constituencies that otherwise shared few common experiences or cultural touchpoints. It appealed to their ethnic, economic and regional resentments; to their religious sensibilities; and to their fear of state encroachment on local affairs (particularly when those affairs included the maintenance of Jim Crow). Of course, this was all against the backdrop of the Cold War, which lent anticommunist rhetoric special power.
But that was a specific moment in time. Today, not only is the Cold War over, but Democrats stand little chance of swaying the same key voting blocs that Republicans once did. It’s hard to see how left can gain support from Midwestern white Protestants—particularly, the much-ballyhooed “white working-class”—with anti-establishment appeals wrapped in broad warnings about Trump’s suspect allegiances. It is Trump, after all, who masterfully tapped into this group’s broad, anti-establishment antipathies. His white supporters in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana were broadly familiar with his admiration for the Kremlin when they pulled the GOP lever. To disenthrall this group from the president, Democrats will require a different strategy—one that speaks to the material harm that the new president and his congressional allies may visit upon struggling white communities.
The same is probably true of Southern white voters who have been defecting for decades from the Democratic camp. There is no easy way to reverse this trend merely by raising alarms about Soviet-style “kompromat.” Communism in the 1940s and 1950s served as a powerful proxy for civil and labor rights. Today, the specter of Russian influence poses no easy substitution for the economic and social concerns that motivated white Trump voters.
Finally, and most critically, white Catholics no longer live primarily in small urban neighborhoods bounded by set streets and centered around the local parish. They are far more likely to live in suburbs and send their children to public schools. The insular world of urban Catholicism—with its unbroken approach to worship and politics—has given way to geographic dispersion and rich ideological and religious diversity. While Hillary Clinton performed unusually poorly among white Catholics, there is little reason to believe that anti-Russian rhetoric will tilt the scales in the opposite direction. Most white ethnic Catholics today are generations removed from the same eastern European nations whose sovereignty Russia once again threatens, and the religious thrust of Catholic conservatism was always oppositional to communism, not Russia.
That isn’t to say that Democrats shouldn’t continue to press the point. They have a patriotic responsibility to demand disclosure, particular given the unwillingness of many GOP stalwarts to challenge the president. There is common ground to be forged with principled conservatives who continue to view a united Europe as America’s strongest ally, NATO as a national security imperative and Moscow as a lawless state actor.
But Democrats won’t have much success in using foreign policy—namely, Russia—as a stand-in for domestic politics. To win back Trump voters, they will need to focus on the same material concerns and status anxieties that the president rode to the White House. If they can make the case that the president’s policies are hurting his supporters, they won’t need Russia to unseat him.