Anti-Communism was a serious thing despite McCarthy’s excesses. Conservatives (and liberals) were justified in seeing it as a worthwhile struggle against a threat. But it now seems that a large number of conservatives have convinced themselves that we are in a similar struggle with evil forces today — and that Trump is the weapon holding those forces at bay. That’s the point of all the elaborate theological arguments that cast the less-than-pious Trump as a King David figure, anointed to protect us from the godless atheism of American libs.
When anti-Communism took on a paranoid conspiratorial hue, responsible conservatives drew lines. After the John Birch Society accused President Dwight Eisenhower of being a Communist plant, historian Russell Kirk famously scoffed, “Ike’s not a Communist, he’s a golfer.”
The difference today is that the gatekeepers no longer have the authority they once had. Social media may have democratized commentary, but it has also handed a megaphone not just to the forces of populism generally, but to fringe conspiracy mongers who never could have been heard without it. Worse, many of the most prominent figures on the right have no interest in being gatekeepers anymore; they want to be transmission belts, hoovering up mass delusions and repeating them to their audiences. It’s telling that the bulk of Trump’s legal strategy amounts to crowdsourcing hearsay and rumor from the Internet and handing the printouts to scandalized judges.