American believers in Soviet-led communism faced a wrenching crisis when Stalin made his pact with Hitler at the beginning of World War II. The American communists were now asked (told?) to abandon their firm anti-fascist faith overnight. Many could or would not do that and left the party. Others altered their faith with tortured rationalizations that took their own psychic toll. Such a crisis of faith should be inevitable when people are truly committed to ideas and principles and find that their leaders precipitately announce new principles or take actions radically at odds with the principles. My devout Catholic friends confronted this personal turmoil with the reports of widespread priest pedophilia and the coverups by the church hierarchy. They had a crisis of faith of what it meant to be a Catholic. They resolved those personal crises in different ways, but all those who truly had faith had a crisis.
Many American conservatives, however, seem able to bend and break their ideas and principles at will without such any intellectual crises. Many on the right parrot what Trump preaches without hesitation even when Trump radically changes his message. There have been many examples, but we can see it happening with the present pandemic.
At first, Trump dismissed the importance of the coronavirus emergence; that it was like the flu, but not as serious; and he suggested that Democrats were overstating coronavirus concerns in order to undermine him. Now he says, “It’s not the flu. It’s vicious.” He tells us that there are “hard days that lie ahead.” He blatantly alters history and states that early on he knew that it was going to be a devastating pandemic.
Many of the Trump acolytes and apostles have simply followed his path without any apparent qualms. When Trump saw an “overblown” crisis devised somehow to get him, so did right-wingers. Now that Trump sees a crisis so do they, applauding him, as he does himself, for all the actions he has taken to mitigate the Covid-19 harm that a short while ago was downplayed. They tell us time and again how lucky we were that the president imposed a travel ban on China even though this travel ban was late in coming allowing more than 400,000 people from China to come to the US after the outbreak there. By the time of the travel ban, the coronavirus had already arrived in the United States and was spreading without any presidential action to hinder the disease’s onslaught. Even so, these events seem to have caused no re-evaluations by the Trumpistas of their devotion to the president. (Many other examples could be cited during this presidency. For example, I remember when free trade was a core, embedded conservative principle. I have seen little conservative agonizing with Trump’s radical transformation of that article of faith.)
Reading about the Red Scare in A Good American Family: The Red Scare and My Family by David Maraniss reminds me of the present day in another way. At the core of the 1950s hysteria was the belief that communists were in positions of power in the government and media and were secretly operating to undermine this country’s democratic values and the American way of life. This was most famously illustrated by Joe McCarthy’s speech in which he said that he held in his very hand a list of communists in the State Department, but it was also evident in the debates over who “lost” China and in the congressional investigations of Hollywood and the newspapers, which ensnared Elliott Maraniss.
Today we have something similar: the Deep State. The Red Scare, however, was based on the notion of un-Americanness and the general subversion of America. The Deep State has much more of a specific focus—the president. Primarily, the cries of a functioning Deep State are explanations for times when Trump does not get what he wants or when facts, data, or opinions displease or criticize him or sometimes just fail to praise him. The Deep State claims are consistent with a cult of personality most often found in autocratic states, and the cult of personality helps explain why conservatives do not seem anguished when the president shifts courses, re-writes history, and breaks conservative tenets. Those conservatives are not committed to principles but to the man. The notion of a principled conservative may not be a complete oxymoron, but these days one is hard to find.