The Third Red Scare: Neoliberal’s Effective Framing of 21st Century Populist and Progressive Movements

“[He provided] Russians with Austrian military secrets. He also doctored or destroyed the intelligence reports which his own agents were sending in from Russia with the result that the Austrians, at the outbreak of the war, were completely misinformed as to Russia’s mobilization intentions.”

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) spoke these words in the 1950s in the midst of the second Red Scare. He would go on to assert that there were somewhere between 50 and over 200 known communists in the State Department despite offering no evidence. McCarthyism, as it would come to be known, would stifle much of the gains made by the working class since the Great Depression.

Just like the first Red Scare, which occurred three decades earlier in response to domestic labor activism and the Bolshevik Revolution abroad, McCarthy was utilizing the fear of communism, which he referred to as a well-placed fear, to combat democratic populism illustrated in the labor and civil rights movements. A half century later, the mass mobilization of individuals in Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Yellow Vests, #MeToo, Eco-Justice, Democracy Spring, and more, coupled with the populist rejection of neoliberalism expressed in the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns, helped foster a Third Red Scare. Although the playbook is the same, this Red Scare differed in that it treated Russia, not communism itself, as the boogeyman. Trump’s populist campaign, which co-opted economic anxiety for electoral victory, followed by his unexpected presidency, primed the American liberal class for a Third Red Scare.

Starting in 2016, the corporate media published false stories about how the Russians had obtained compromising content on Trump, altered the 2016 election with social media ads, made Trump into a Manchurian candidate, hacked a Vermont power-grid, and more. The Russia hysteria continued through his presidency with the press inflating the number of intelligence agencies investigating Trump from 4 to 17; The New York Times falsely reporting that Maria Butina was a Russian spy who traded sex for favorable policy; the Wall Street Journal making the baseless claim that international intelligence services were withholding intelligence from the U.S. because Trump had been compromised; and CNN fabricating the notion that Trump was in “constant contact” with “Russians known to U.S. intelligence.” Buzzfeed went further, printing the origin of much of these unsubstantiated stories, an opposition research dossier paid for by Republicans and the Hillary Clinton campaign, the Steele Dossier, from British Intelligence Office Christopher Steele. The speculative reporting continued with minimal retractions and suspensions. In fact, many of the discredited articles are still online. In addition to the press, the Third Red Scare was perpetuated by members of the intelligence community and Democratic Party such as United States Navy senior chief petty officer and media commentator Malcolm Nance, NSA employee John Schindler, former U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY), and House of Representatives minority leader Adam Schiff (D-CA). These crest of the speculative red scare wave broke when the Mueller Report revealed that much of the Russia hysteria was baseless. Nonetheless, the Democratic Party, assuming that the Third Red Scare was responsible for their electoral victories in 2018, shrouded their impeachment of Trump in Russian hysteria.

In 2020, Democrats have viewed Bernie Sanders and his supporters as the only thing standing in their way from electorally removing Trump and reestablishing their neoliberal hegemony. However, it would be challenging to completely discredit Sanders considering that he was the most popular candidate in 2016 and 2020, was polling best among voters of color, and captivated the coveted youth vote with a message of replacing the current system with democratic socialism. Therefore, a comprehensive, multifaceted attack was implemented by Democratic leadership and their corporate media enablers. In addition to a months-long blackout of his campaign and repeated manipulation of graphics and math regarding his support, the media and party establishment turned the Third Red Scare on Sanders and his supporters. For example, two days before Sanders’ landslide victory in the Nevada caucus, The New York Times ran an article titled “Lawmakers are Warned That Russia is Meddling to Re-elect Trump.” A day later they ran an article titled “Russia is said to be Interfering to Aid Sanders in Democratic Primaries.” On the same day, the Washington Post ran an article, with a headline, “Bernie Sanders Briefed by U.S. officials that Russia is Trying to Help his Presidential Campaign,” which obfuscated the not insignificant/crucial detail that the briefing offered no evidence. On the day of the Nevada primary, The New York Times published an op-ed titled, “Same Goal, Different Playbook: Why Russia Would Support Trump and Sanders.” The 24-hour news networks echoed the newspapers’ Russian hysteria with a guest on CNN’s State of the Union claiming that the real winner in Nevada was Russian president Vladimir Putin. As it turned out, the article’s content was based on anonymous sources making baseless claims.

However, despite the lack of evidence, red-baiting against Sanders persisted. In addition to newspapers such as USA Today, and The New York Times doing it, Dan Pfeiffer on NBC’s Meet the Press and Rahm Emmanuel on ABC’s This Week claimed that Putin was aiding Sanders in the primary to ensure a Trump victory in the general election; The Daily Beast opined that Russia was helping Sanders because Biden was “the Kremlin’s most feared candidate;” CNN Host Michael Smerconish compared Sanders’ candidacy to the spread of the coronavirus; now disgraced MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews likened Sanders’ win in Nevada to the Nazi’s invasion of France and suggested that if ‘the Reds’ had won the Cold War, Sanders might have been found cheering on hypothetical executions in Central Park; NBC news anchor Chuck Todd cited a comparison of Sanders supporters to a “digital brownshirt brigade;” and not to be outdone, former adviser to the Clinton campaigns, and MSNBC contributor James Carville claimed that Sanders was a “communist” aided by Putin. Just as the Red Scare helped prevent the electoral success of Eugene Debs and Henry Wallace, it is safe to assume it stifled Sanders’ campaign.

In addition, the Third Red Scare has been instrumental in protecting Joe Biden’s neoliberal candidacy from legitimate critiques. For example, in 2020, after hearing stories from other accusers, Tara Reade, a former staffer to Biden, accused the former vice-president of sexually assaulting her in the 1990s. In response, the very same Democratic Party that rightly rallied around Dr. Christine Blasey Ford had little interest in Reade’s story. Furthermore, not only did Time’s Up, the non-profit representing victims of sexual harassment after the 2018 public campaign against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, refuse to represent Reade because she was accusing Biden, it turns out that the managing director of Time’s Up’s public relations firm is Anita Dunn, who is also the top adviser to Biden’s presidential campaign. Worse, party leadership and loyalists in the media dismissed her story because they argued that, wait for it– that it was a Russian conspiracy.

The Third Red Scare has served to marginalize legitimate critiques of the neoliberal establishment and hamstring the agenda of progressives. The reality is that Sanders’ agenda is not even radical. In fact, it is in line with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Second Bill of Rights proposal (constitutional right to employment, food, clothing, leisure, fair income, freedom from unfair competition and monopolies for farmers, housing, medical care, social security, and education). So, like FDR, Sanders is more of a New Deal Democrat, not a socialist or communist, simply as a matter of historical fact. Furthermore, the U.S. is unique in its derision for socialism. Most of the rest of the world has socialist policies and parties. Nonetheless, the seemingly endless propagation of the Russian interference and Red Scare narratives continue to inflict damage upon and hamper democratic populist politicians and movements. The time has come to discard this canard, putting it where it belongs once and for all– into the dustbin of history.

Dr. Nolan Higdon is an author and lecturer of history and media studies at California State University, East Bay. Higdon sits on the boards of the Action Coalition for Media Education and Northwest Alliance For Alternative Media And Education. His most recent publication is United States of Distraction with Mickey Huff. He is co-host of the Along the Line podcast, and a longtime contributor to Project Censored’s annual book, Censored. In addition, he has been a guest commentator for The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and numerous television news outlets.

Mickey Huff is director of Project Censored, president of the Media Freedom Foundation, coeditor of the annual Censored book series from Seven Stories Press (since 2009), co-author of United States of Distraction (City Lights, 2019), and professor of social science and history at Diablo Valley College where he co-chairs the history area, and lectures in communications at California State University, East Bay. He is also the executive producer and co-host of the weekly syndicated Pacifica Radio program, The Project Censored Show, founded in 2010.

Emil Marmol is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto/Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). As an interdisciplinary scholar with experience in professional film and radio production, he has published on critical media literacy, censorship, Cuban society, the impact of neoliberalism on higher education, repression of Latinx in education, standardized testing, labor struggles, and film. He is currently writing his doctoral thesis as an autoethnography/testimonio about growing up as the son of Latino immigrants in Orange County, California. His most recent publication is in Censored 2020: Though the Looking Glass, chapter 8, “Fake News: The Trojan Horse for Silencing Alternative News and Reestablishing Corporate News Dominance.”

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