President Donald Trump speaks about border security in the Oval...

President Donald Trump speaks about border security in the Oval Office of the White House on Friday in Washington. Credit: AP/Evan Vucci

President Donald Trump actually almost got something right the other day. Americans should be worried about a return of “McCarthyism,” the kind of list-waving, name-calling, career-destroying mass hysteria that was pioneered in the 1950s by then-Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, over his invented claims that the U.S. government was overrun with “card-carrying Communists.” But needless to say, the 45th president is looking for his “witch hunt” in all the wrong places.

No, the place where I’m getting the “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” crazed vibe of the old House Un-American Affairs Committee is not from the Bob Mueller probe but by watching our elite (and elitist) Beltway pundits on cable TV or in the editorial pages, determined to rid the 2020 presidential campaign of any scourge of alleged “socialism” that might ruin the utopia that is modern American capitalism.

It all came to a head recently when one of the 347 announced Democratic presidential candidates — a guy named John Hickenlooper claiming to be the governor of Colorado — turned up for an interview on the Electronic Daily Diary of the American Dream, MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” Hickenlooper is beyond a long shot for the White House, but the 10-minute slot on national TV was a great chance to ask him where he stands, or why he was such a fossil-fuel zealot that he once drank fracking fluid.

But America got none of this. Instead, there was a kind of Spanish Inquisition to ruthlessly pressure Hickenlooper (who got his start in life as a brew-pub owner, with beer striking most people as something very good about capitalism) to look into the camera and declare, “I am a capitalist.”

Weirdly, host Joe Scarborough refused to talk about any issues until the former Denver beer entrepreneur stated not only that he’s a capitalist but “a proud capitalist.” Hickenlooper said he rejected “labels” and then tried to do something sensible and switch the conversation to topics that affect voters. Scarborough and band of Spanish-style inquisitors would have none of it.

“Right,” said the Joe of “Morning Joe.” “Let me ask you just … I’ll break it down even more. Do you consider yourself a capitalist?” Hickenlooper stuck to his “no labels” mantra, eventually — after the question was literally pressed a half-dozen different ways — stating that there are good ideas to be found in both capitalism and socialism. That tame response caused “Morning Joe” pundit Donny Deutsch — who got rich by selling his daddy’s marketing firm and later unloaded his house in the Hamptons for a cool $30 million in 2010 — said he was “frightened” by Hickenlooper’s answers.

Deutsch then declared he’d vote for Trump (whose followers the multi-millionaire once compared to Nazis) over a socialist, before the other pundits said maybe that was a tad too extreme. Another “Morning Joe” bloviator (Joe-viator?), Willie Geist, said that Hickenlooper’s refusal to take and pass their capitalism loyalty test meant only one thing: “The Democratic Party is in trouble.”

Unfortunately, there was no one in the room to over and over again press these overpaid and overly self-satisfied talking heads to admit the truth: That in fact it’s capitalism — or at least the corrupt, rigged, oligarch-enriching system that we like to call “capitalism” in 2019 — that is the thing that’s in trouble. The team over at “Morning Joe” must never actually pick up a morning newspaper, because if they did they’d be asking each other just why would anyone call himself “a proud capitalist”? There’s little to be proud of.

Is it still possible to call yourself “a proud capitalist” after the reading the recent Daily Beast expose on the 189 phone calls to 911 from Amazon’s massive warehouses — slammed frequently as brutally and physically punishing work in overheated, soulless, windowless boxes — about employees threatening to kill themselves. Or when reading how one former Amazon worker told Vox: “You spend 10 hours on foot, there’s no windows in the place, and you’re not allowed to talk to people — there’s no interactions allowed … I got a sense in no time at all that they work people to death, or until they get too tired to keep working.”

And can you be “a proud capitalist” knowing that — riding the top of this pyramid of demoralized and occasionally suicidal workers — Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos has become the richest man in the history of the planet, at $160 billion and counting, with dreams of escaping into outer space. And yet despite that, poverty-stricken cities that struggle to deliver good schools and basic services to everyday citizens promised billions in tax breaks and other financial aid to attract his highly profitable firm’s second headquarters.

Can capitalism itself be proud of its track record here in the world’s richest democracy — where death rates are now rising from middle-class, middle-aged folks getting hooked on the escape of opioids or turning to booze or killing themselves in despair, where wages for all but the top sliver of corporate executives and hedge-funders have been flat for decades, where older people are one sickness away from bankruptcy and young people are drowning in college debt for the education that still didn’t help them get a good job,

And while it’s the middle class that’s drowning, the moral rot of what passes for modern American capitalism is spreading to affect almost everyone in the Other 99 Percent, in some fashion. It’s no wonder there’s so much anger — and fascination — with the college-admissions cheating scandal that broke wide open this week, from Hollywood to Yale. As the New York Times noted a couple of months ago, “the relentlessness of modern-day parenting has a powerful motivation: economic anxiety.” The idea that capitalism will eat your beloved child alive if he or she doesn’t get into one of a handful of elite universities has made cheaters and mail-fraud-suspects out of the worst of us, and financially tapped-out nervous wrecks of the best of us.

Politically, the disease of capitalist corruption has hopelessly tainted 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and its crooked backroom at Mar-a-Lago, where the founder of massage parlors linked to prostitution and possibly human traffickers was literally selling access to the president and his family to the highest bidders back in China, and where being Donald Trump’s golf buddy can get $20 million for your pet cause buried in the back of the federal budget.

And now, instead of badgering each 2020 presidential hopeful on their plans on whether we can even fix this mess and how, the defenders of the American way — on the TV show most watched by our D.C. elites — are demanding a mindless loyalty oath to the system that enriched people like them at the expense of the masses. At the risk of sounding like Donny Deutsch, now I’m the one who’s “frightened.”

I’m frightened that America’s 1 Percent, their GOP allies who are desperate to find a work-around for Trump’s majority unpopularity, and brazen enablers like the third-party vanity (or maybe to help Trump and his pro-billionaire policies) campaign of ex-Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz are so determined to make the 2020 election about name-calling and not about ideas to improve America.

That is the new McCarthyism — using the bogeyman shouts of “Socialism!” to target baby boomers raised in an era when “socialism” was a shocking taboo, and to slime candidates without having to discuss equitable things like universal health care or college affordability. Their cries — and their related claim that any policy that might help the middle class will turn American into a collapsed “Venezuela!!!” and not into successful social democracies like in Scandinavia — barely mask their desperation to change the topic. It threatens to taint to the 2020 race so badly that 2016’s ugly contest will soon be recalled as an exercise in civility, in comparison.

I don’t exactly agree with John Hickenlooper on a lot of things but he’s 100 percent right about this: The Establishment’s insistence on branding each candidate with a label of either “socialist” or “capitalist” is both silly and counterproductive.

There are two things that will mark American politics for the next 20 months, First, the vast consensus among regular voters who want an America that’s less corrupt and more fair and more equitable, with equal justice regardless of wealth and with things like health care and higher education finally seen as basic human rights. That’s a system anyone could be proud of. And no one cares what you call it.

But second, a tiny sliver of 1 Percenters who prosper under the current, morally indefensible system will lie and cheat and say or ask whatever it takes to retain the status quo. Because as one bizarre episode of Morning Joe helped to reveal — in the words of Joe McCarthy’s famed inquisitor — at long last those threatened elites have no sense of decency.

Will Bunch wrote this piece for The Philadelphia Inquirer.


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