Freedom of Assembly and Speech in the Age of Trump: From McCarthyism in the 1950s to Trumpism today

Part 1 of 2


When President Donald Trump falsely accused former President Barack Obama of wiretapping his office during the 2016 election campaign, he called it “McCarthyism.” This was in reference to Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wisconsin) who led the Cold War witch hunt for real or imagined Communist spies, agents, sympathizers and subversives while serving in the U.S. Senate from 1947 to 1957.

The Trump analogy of “Obamaism” to “McCarthyism” is a false one, of course, but conversely it does raise the intriguing question of what might be the future implications of “Trumpism” on the constitutional rights of Americans: peaceably to assemble; to seek redress of grievances; and to exercise freedom of speech.

Already, Trump has decried the free press as the “enemy of the American people.” How about public assemblies and other forms of communication critical of the new administration?

We have a home-grown reason to ask this question. For the last 17 years, a number of particularly dedicated citizens of our Northwest Corner Connecticut towns have been peaceably assembling every Saturday in Salisbury at the site of the Civil War Monument on the Green in front of The White Hart inn, to demonstrate for peace and social justice.

This is also a focal point for other related demonstrations for citizens’ movements such as Occupy Wall Street, Indivisible, the Women’s March, Democracy Awakens, Democracy First and others, as well as for social issues such as continued affordable health care, family planning, public education, science, climate change, environmental protection, jobs, infrastructure, fair taxation and defense of civil rights, including restoration of everyone’s constitutional right to vote.

Some of these citizen assemblies, vigils and protests inevitably express criticism of some of the undemocratic policies, plans and actions of the supposedly conservative new Trump administration in Washington. Predictably, in response to such criticism, there are security minded officials in the White House (or Mar-a-Lago), in the U.S. Congress and in some red-state capitols, who appear bent on taking executive and legislative action to undermine such events and dampen down public criticism.

In Arizona, for example, the state Legislature is considering amending an existing bill to use RICO racketeering laws to include “conspiracy to commit riot” or “to disturb the peace” (actual text). 

They intend to extend and merge application of these laws to existing state “civil asset forfeiture” laws to criminalize protesting citizens’ assemblies, and to allow law enforcement authorities not only to arrest but also to seize money and property of “suspected conspirators” — even when such “suspects” are subsequently proven not to have been personally involved in, or facilitated, any act of violence.

These developments currently taking place in some red states are sounding more and more like the widespread, irrational fear of labeled Communists, Socialists, Liberals, Appeasers and even Pacifists,”during the Red Scare of the 1950s. (Note the current reversal in the meaning and use of the term “Red” between then and now.) 

During the Cold War of the 1950s, freedom of thought was all too often censored, and “disloyal” free thinkers were harried, their reputations sullied, whether in business, entertainment, academe or the media, and some were hounded for the rest of their lives.

Here’s a small personal example: My older brother Mike was called up for the Military Selective Service draft in 1956. Now, not everyone wanted to be drafted and most young persons did not have the means that the likes of Dick Cheney or Donald Trump had to “defer” and thus “avoid” (or “evade”) the draft. 

Still, my brother signed up. In those days you had to fill out an official induction form, on the reverse side of which was a checklist of “subversive” organizations, such as the Lincoln Brigade (which had fought fascism in the Spanish Civil War) and the Weavers (a singing group led by Pete Seeger you may recall for songs like, “We Shall Overcome,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone” and “If I Had a Hammer”).

Mike wrote down on the military induction form that he had “taken guitar lessons from Pete Seeger.” Another recruit wrote that he “enjoyed reading Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.” The recruiting officer in charge wrote down: “I don’t know what this means, but it can’t be good.” 

Both candidates were rejected from military service, but it didn’t end there for Mike. He went into banking as head of the installment loan department of a community bank in Virginia. The “spooks” visited the president of the bank and told him the bank had employed a “subversive” person. Mike tried the insurance business. Same thing happened. 

For this and other reasons Mike “ran away” and joined the Ringling Barnum and Bailey Circus in Florida, where he eventually became ringmaster and played the guitar in a “Mike Piel Show.”

They, quoting Shakespeare, of course, say that “All’s well that ends well.” But it doesn’t always end well. A far worse fallout of McCarthyism and sad outcome adversely affected other members of the Piel family together with renowned physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his daughter Toni. I’ll say more about this in Part 2 of this Insight column.


Part 2 next time.


Sharon resident Anthony Piel is a former director and general legal counsel of the World Health Organization.