During the so-called McCarthy era, a single question cut across all partisan and philosophical lines: Were you on Sen. Joe McCarthy's side or not? McCarthy's conspiratorial, bullying, blunderbuss anti-communism and "red-baiting" was either defensible or it wasn't.
Remarkably, for many on the right, the question of whether you were "with" McCarthy almost completely crowded out the question of whether or not you were right wing or left wing, Democrat or Republican, or even where you stood on the question of communism itself. The pressing issue was whether McCarthy went too far in his accusations of vast communist conspiracies within the government and other insinuations of treason on a mass scale.
The Trump era is very different than the McCarthy era in many important ways. Chief among them: In the 1950s, communism was on the march -- across borders in Europe and through the institutions of government and academia here at home. Say what you will about communism (starting with its murderous barbarity) it was a large cause, worthy of the passion it invited.
In the Trump era, the passions are large, but the cause seems terribly small by comparison. Faith in conspiracies and the people who peddle them are once again a major dividing line, but the conspiracies themselves lend themselves to the conclusion that history is repeating itself as farce.
We are told that the Deep State is yet another vast conspiracy lurking like a fifth column within the highest reaches of the government, dedicated to ... something. Not to a foreign power. Not to some large cause. But to itself. The president insists the Deep State unleashed "spies" to infiltrate his campaign in order to ... fill-in-the-blank. If the answer is to derail the Trump campaign, the Deep State failed abysmally, causing far more damage to the president's opponent.
The "spy" in question was a man who had a couple conversations with men -- Carter Page and George Papadopoulos -- who expressed an eagerness to work with a foreign power, Russia. A year ago, the Trump administration insisted, quite persuasively, that these would-be Russian stooges were little better than coffee boys and hangers-on. Now, to advance the narrative of Deep State penetration they amount to the heart of the Trump campaign.
It is entirely plausible that the FBI cut too many corners in its investigations into Page, Papadopoulos and others in Trump's orbit. But that concession is not enough for the president and his partisans. One must subscribe to the idea that there is a vast and pernicious Hydra-like entity lurking within the government to tear down the president.
Like the ugly American who thinks if he just shouts louder the foreigner will understand English, they insist the threat is unprecedented in American history. One of the president's most loyal idolaters, Sebastian Gorka, insists that the possibly inappropriate use of a FISA warrant to investigate Page and Papadopoulos is "100 times worse" than the crimes of the British crown that warranted the American Revolution.
The McCarthy era had similar exaggerations, but they were built on a far more solid foundation. There were indeed figurative witch hunts back then, but there were also witches -- witches who gave the Soviet Union nuclear secrets and warlocks who swore allegiance to a foreign power and the cause of overthrowing the U.S. government. Today the larger cause is simply Donald Trump, a victim-saint-martyr in need of a large cause arrayed against him to justify his excesses. Thus the Deep State is like the pig's head-Beelzebub in "The Lord of the Flies," a demon conjured to justify opposition to it. It's like the McCarthy era in a timeline where there was no communist threat to support it.
For his supporters, to question McCarthy's claims of vast conspiracies was an expression of disloyalty to the cause of anti-communism and tantamount to a confession of treason. To question Trump's theories of the Deep State is simply a form of disloyalty to Trump and, for some, that snuffs out all other meaningful distinctions. So now according to many Trump water-carriers, Rep. Trey Gowdy -- an impeccable conservative -- is not just a Democrat in Republican mufti but an accomplice of the Deep State, all because he defended the FBI's investigation of Page and Papadopoulos.
The "McCarthy era" was pretty short for an era, lasting four years, if that. But that's the thing about eras -- they don't have a precise definition. We use the term to describe periods of time that feel at odds with what came before them and, one hopes, what comes after.